[This is the first story in a new series of profiles on Spring Hill City Council members. Watch for more stories about other members of the City Council in future newsletters.]
Shortly after the Aug. 24 City Council meeting, Chris Leaton, council president, got the call.
Less than 24 hours later, he was in Texas — a member of an 80-person task force — ready to assist after the devastating Hurricane Harvey made landfall.
Leaton — a structural and civil engineer by trade — is a civilian member of Urban Search and Rescue Nebraska Task Force One (NE-TF1), a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funded team. The Task Force, which is based out of Lincoln, Nebraska, is comprised of firefighters, doctors, engineers, and logistics and communications specialists among others and is one of 28 in the country.
“My role is to basically make sure, primarily from a structural standpoint, that the firefighters are in a safe, operating condition and environment but to also provide technical support like GPS and routing and evaluation of structures and bridges, if we need to,” Leaton said.
After driving to Lincoln through the middle of the night to get ready to deploy, Leaton and 79 others set off for San Antonio, where they would stage and await further instruction.
Leaton became involved with the team in 2012, after learning of an opening from a colleague, he said. NE-TF1 is one of the closest to Kansas City, the other being in Boone County, Missouri, Leaton said. He also was deployed in 2013, when an EF5 tornado devastated the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore.
Shortly after arriving in San Antonio, the team was assigned to Katy, Texas, about 30 miles west of Houston, to service one of the largest cities in the nation.
“We went from San Antonio to Houston and we were about 50 miles north of the eye at times and we were driving through wind like you wouldn’t believe,” Leaton, who was in the lead vehicle of an 18-vehicle convoy, said. “I told the firefighter who was driving, ‘Hey, you’re going to get some wind coming from the northeast pretty good.’ I had the winds in front of me on my phone… and he said, ‘Oh, I already know. My wheels are pointed already.’”
After arriving, Leaton assisted the Task Force with evaluating structures and making sure they were safe for rescue personnel to enter, he said.
“FEMA task forces are self-sufficient for three days and when we got down there we were on MRE’s [Meal, Ready-to-Eats] because we were located in an isolated location with another Task Force.”
During the following week, he also helped perform search and rescue missions when the Task Force was embedded with the National Guard.
“On Tuesday, it was my most active day,” Leaton said. “Our water rescue was going out and they had a ground support team in there with them. Since I had done recon Sunday, the other structures engineer went on the recon that day to find a way to get the other task forces into where we were. They could not get in so he was tasked to try and find a route.”
“In the meantime, we had a call for an apartment complex. We originally went out as a recon team and they had other needs so they just embedded us with the National Guard and then we operated that day helping evacuate and rescue.
“When you’re in that environment, you just kind of morph into what you need to be because your training allows you to do that.”
Throughout the nearly two-week trip, the area received more than 40 inches of rain destroying hundreds of structures and displacing thousands of families.
“I’ve never seen any rain like this before in my entire life,” Leaton said, describing how they also were under three tornado warnings in a matter of hours. “It was unbelievable. I can’t believe how much rain I saw down there. We sat right in Katy, Texas, and we were probably within five or so miles of the bullseye for the rain.
“We sat there and thought, ‘Is this rain ever going to stop?’”
After demobilizing on Labor Day and returning to Spring Hill Sept. 5, Leaton said he had one objective on his mind throughout the entire deployment.
“We had to get a job done,” he said. “We were sent there to do a job and that’s what we had to do.”