KFDM Investigates: Harvey 911 calls

KFDM Investigates: We have a better idea of just how dire the situation was for many Southeast Texans as Tropical Storm Harvey hit Southeast Texas. In Angel San Juan's special report, you'll hear the distress in voices of 911 callers begging to be rescued as the water rose inside their homes. Angel San Juan obtained the recordings of some of those desperate calls that overwhelmed Port Arthur's 9-1-1 system.

We're getting a better idea of just how dire the situation was many Southeast Texans as Tropical Storm Harvey hovered over Southeast Texas, causing historic flooding.

In Angel San Juan's investigative report, you'll hear the distress in many of your neighbors' voices as they called 9-1-1 begging to be rescued as the water rose inside their homes.

We've obtained the recordings of some of those desperate calls as pleas for help overwhelmed Port Arthur's 9-1-1 system.

According to Port Arthur's public information officer, the city's dispatch center has six 9-1-1 lines. If a seventh call comes in, that call automatically rolls over to central dispatch in Nederland where there are five 9-1-1 stations.

If there's an overflow there, the next rollover is to the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office.

But when Harvey hit, thousands of 9-1-1 calls were coming in and overloading the system.

In Port Arthur, many of the calls went unanswered as dispatchers faced a flood of 9-1-1 calls as high water from Tropical Storm Harvey invaded Southeast Texas homes.

"The phones were relentless," said dispatch supervisor Kim Moore. "We answered phones all day, continuously. Once you hung up from one call, another one was coming in. They were calling Port Arthur, nobody was answering."

Below are recordings from Jefferson County Sheriff's Office:

Dispatcher: "What city ma'am?

Caller: "Port Arthur, Texas."

Dispatcher: "Ok, uh, you rolled over to Jefferson County."

"They (weren't) getting an answer so all the calls were coming over here," Moore said.

Caller: "We have about two feet of water in our house, and it's steadily rising."

Dispatcher: Call 983-8700.

Caller: "I believe, we already did."

Caller: "Every time we call, they keep hanging up."

Dispatcher: "This is Beaumont, so I have no idea you know, I know they're really busy with the water rescues. All I can ask you to do is continue to try."

Jefferson County dispatch supervisor Kim Collins quickly realized something was wrong with Port Arthur's 9-1-1 system, and the calls from Port Arthur residents and families trapped in their flooded homes were going unanswered.

Caller: "I've been calling since last night."

Dispatcher: "Yes ma'am, and so has everyone else."

"It was sad and very overwhelming you know our hearts went out because we didn't know how we were going to get people to them," Collins said. "We were trying. We were dispatching calls to our officers, and we were out trying to get them."

Dispatcher: "9-1-1, what is the emergency?

Caller: "We're underwater over here at Southwood Crossing Apartments. We've been calling from last night to try to get a water rescue."

Caller: "We had to go upstairs because the water come up to our chest."

Angel San Juan: Social media complicated the situation. Family members would post their concern about loved ones in Port Arthur, and those posts would get shared leading to multiple people calling 9-1-1 on behalf of the same person."

Even 911 operators in Houston were getting the Port Arthur calls, and those dispatchers would end up calling Jefferson County.

Dispatcher: "Hi this is Jackson, I'm with the Harris County Sheriff's Office, I got a 9-1-1 call..."

It clearly became obvious to Collins and her team that if they could not get the frantic callers help, who would?

Caller: "My 91-year-old dad is trapped in his apartment ."

Dispatcher: "9-1-1, what is the emergency?

Caller: "I'm in Port Arthur and we needed to get out of our house."

Caller: "I have my two little grandchildren with me. They're under 5, both of them, and I'm disabled."

Dispatcher: "We'll add your name to the list, and all we can do is ask you that you put a white towel, a white pillowcase, a white bedsheet on a door or window to get the attention of officers that may be in the area."

"My first phone call was from my co-worker Darcel, and her water was rising and her furniture was floating," Collins said.

Collins' co-worker Darcel Wells is a Jefferson County dispatcher.

She was living in Port Arthur when Harvey hit and lost everything.

"First thing you think it can't be happening, and once my husband really tried to keep the water ... he thought it was just some of that was coming in ... but it was just ... I'm sorry," said Wells, as she became emotional, struggling to recount the horrors of Harvey.

Wells and her husband spent eight hours in waist deep water inside their home before they were rescued less than two hours later.

"I just experienced what they were still experiencing, I was fortunate and blessed enough to get out," said Wells. "They were still there trying to be rescued, so you have to put everything on the backburner and just try to get them the help."

A sentiment shared by her boss Jefferson County Sheriff Zena Stephens.

Many have praised the sheriff and her staff for their response at a time when Port Arthur officials are facing public criticism.

"Are there some agencies, I think that functioned better than others, probably, but even the agencies that didn't function very well Angel I don't believe people sat there and said we want people to die, want want people to drown," said Stephens. "It's based on lack of experience, you know lack of resources, and those kinds of things, so I tell people I don't focus on all that. I'm focused on how to prepare for the next bad thing that may happen to us."

As we mentioned, many of Port Arthur calls rolled over to central dispatch in Nederland.

To put it all into perspective, Nederland Police Chief Darrell Bush ran some numbers for us:

One week before harvey, Nederland dispatch answered 99 emergency 9-1-1 calls.

During Harvey, the number of 9-1-1 calls shot up to 3,315 emergency 911 calls.

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