JACKSONVILLE, Fla -- The number of agencies that make up first responders after a disaster like a hurricane are countless. One agency that has a crucial job, but usually flies under the radar is the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Air and Marine Operations, a branch under the Department of Homeland Security, not to be confused with U.S. Border Patrol.
Local agents work out of the National Air Security Operations Center in Jacksonville. Their main job is flying overseas looking for drug traffickers, but last week they were tasked with a new mission.
Aviation agents like Timo Bennett just returned from an eight-day trip to Texas where they took their P3 Airborne Early Warning aircraft to help flood victims and rescue crews. The plane as “unique capability” with a spinning “APS 145 Radar on top that can capture a 360 degree image up to 200 miles away. The radar is usually used for counter-narcotics and counter-smuggling operations but it can also be used to help when disaster strikes, like with Hurricane Harvey.
“It was great helping out instead of chasing the bad guys, helping out with relief efforts,” Bennett said. “The first couple days was basically controlled chaos, all kind of radio frequencies going on, people on roofs, people on boats, a lot of moving parts and pieces.”
With many radio towers down after Harvey they acted as the source of communication for those moving parts. In a broader sense, think of them as a 911 call center, as well as air traffic control operators because 24 hours a day they helped relay emergencies to the correct rescue crews and they monitored the sky to prevent collisions as several organizations had planes at work.
Senior Officer John Dilts was on the first plane responding to Texas. He says they could send transmissions down to crews about which shelters were full and which ones still had room.
“We were essentially an airborne command post,” Dilts said. “We would also give them continual updates once they rescued the people where to take them.”
Pilot Eric Lewis was also on the mission to Houston. He says they helped their sister crews in Corpus Christi so they are hoping for the same favor in return if Irma impact Florida.
“To do work for FEMA is very gratifying, especially when you hear the success stories from the people on the ground,” Lewis said.
They did the same work during Hurricane Katrina and they’re preparing for Irma now, but aircrafts all over Florida are being evacuated until the storm passes to avoid damage so they are evacuating their planes from Jacksonville to Tennessee Thursday afternoon.
If they didn’t evacuate their planes, they could become airborne if winds from Irma reach 120 miles per hour.
But before evacuating their planes on Thursday they are using it to bring some of their troops back to home so they can prepare their own families and then head back out after the storm to wherever they are needed.