EAST ELMHURST, N.Y. — Two dozen Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers who live and work in New York City volunteered to serve on a Transportation Security Support Team to deploy to Houston to assist in the reopening of George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston (IAH) in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. They were one of several teams from airports across the country who came to aid in the airport’s post-hurricane recovery.
The TSA officers, who are now back home working at LaGuardia Airport (LGA) in New York, went to assist in the reopening of IAH airport because so many individuals who work for TSA in Houston suffered significant loss or damage to their homes and property due to massive flooding and storm damage, thus they were not able to report for duty. The LaGuardia team worked at the checkpoints and in the checked baggage rooms, screening passengers and their baggage, allowing local TSA officers who typically work in the airport to address their personal situations related to storm damage.
The team first flew to Chicago, each individual limited to two carry-on bags and no checked bags, where they boarded an airline cargo plane eight hours later. The United cargo plane was carrying airline crew members and various supplies for hurricane survivors in Houston. It was a non-revenue trip—no paying passengers on board. “It was surreal to see this huge 777 aircraft get loaded” with nothing but relief supplies, said LaGuardia TSA officer Michael Bastanelli of Manhattan.
After being awake and traveling for nearly 19 hours, the New Yorkers arrived at the IAH airport terminal in time for their 4 a.m. shift to begin, and were welcomed by their Houston counterparts, who shared their stories, videos and photos of the horror they went through during the hurricane.
“They expressed very deep appreciation that we came all the way from New York City to help them out. The unity among officers” was strong, said TSA Officer Vermolene Brooks of Brooklyn, after she returned from the special assignment. “It reminded me of Hurricane Sandy and how that impacted an area just two blocks from my house.”
Karen Edwards, a supervisory TSA officer at LaGuardia and resident of Long Island, recalled that during Hurricane Sandy she was without electricity for 10 days. “I know what it was like due to Sandy—no gasoline, closed stores, long lines, the devastation. In Houston, we heard from TSA officers who lost their cars or their entire houses, and I was thinking, it could have been us.”
Supervisory TSA Officer Alma Rodriguez, a Bronx resident, grew up in Puerto Rico and lived through many hurricanes, often losing electricity. He also was one of the volunteers who deployed to Houston. “I know firsthand what it’s like to lose a house and a car. Some things can’t be replaced such as a photo of a parent who is deceased. It felt good to be able to provide some relief and not only help out at the airport, but support the people who needed to be on leave” from work.
Much of the screening equipment at LaGuardia and Houston airports is the same, so it was a seamless transition for the LaGuardia TSA officers to step right in.
Michael Bastanelli, a TSA officer from Manhattan, was assigned to support checked baggage screening in Houston. He said that several suitcases that he screened were waterlogged and full of smelly mud. He speculated that they belonged to visitors to the city who got caught up in the hurricane and were just trying to get home once the storm passed and flights resumed.
Bastanelli has an aunt who lives in Miami, where Hurricane Irma left a path of devastation. She lost her house to Hurricane Sandy when she lived in New Jersey. He looks back on his Houston experience as an opportunity where he “made a difference and did a good thing.” He met a TSA officer who lost his home three different times living in Houston and “was shocked that he was even at work” in the Houston airport.
“I volunteered to participate because “it was important for me to be there. I think it was the noble thing to do and I think we all felt honored to do it,” Brooks said.