September 19 started as a typical Texas summer morning at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH). A storm was predicted for the area; however, it was nearing the end of the prediction window and not much had happened other than the occasional isolated heavy downpour.
Then suddenly, it seemed as if night fell and you were entering a twilight zone that eventually grew into Tropical Storm Imelda, a name known to mean Great Warrior (Who picks these names, anyway?).
The rain started in sheets, falling almost sideways in torrents, surprising many residents and visitors as they scrambled to get out of the elements. Within hours, IAH was isolated as the water formed a moat around the airport with the two main roads in and out submerged under water. Nobody could get to their destinations. Hundreds or more were trapped in their cars and SUVs.
IAH officers, who had worked most or all of their morning shifts, looked longingly at the doors, wishing to leave when the opportunity would allow. However, the call to duty kept them at their posts, resulting in over 138 overtime shifts or more than 600 additional hours of work in less than 18 hours. The Coordination Center handled hundreds of calls, and the lines were overwhelmed as officers were drafted to help staff phones. Accountability calls were repeated in desperation to reach everyone. Is everyone okay? With schools closed and children home, the Coordination Center logged over 140 call-outs.
Officers scheduled for the afternoon shifts were mostly stranded at home, and those were the lucky ones, as news broke of several others trapped in flooded cars or stuck in transit, unable to advance or retreat. The airport was full of passengers seeking sanctuary.
In the world of instant messaging, a video circulated of an officer bailing water entering from the backdoor while her husband did the same from the front. It was useless, and they ended up in a church for days. A proud new homeowner watched in helplessness as floodwaters steadily rose, overcoming the brand new carpet and flooring installed the previous day. The pool and Jacuzzi, usually separated, became one with the floodwaters. Pictures of abandoned G-cars and private vehicles were seen.
Realizing they were sequestered, arrangements were quickly made with the airport authority to secure rest areas for TSA personnel. TSA IAH consolidated the checkpoint and baggage areas to maximize staffing and make sure officers got some rest. All leadership was directed to the floor, engaging officers who were, by this time, over 12 hours into their shifts. A recovery plan was coordinated with the airport stakeholders.
When the sky cleared and the passengers returned, TSA was there. Whether their homes were wet or dry, cars flooded or damp, kids in school or not, the mission remained the same.
Assistant Federal Security Director for Screening Sheyi Ogunleye said it best, “While we sustained some very serious losses of property, PTSD from Harvey, and anxiety from separated families, our spirits are not dampened by the encounter with Tropical Storm Imelda…If anything, we are stronger because of it.”