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PEOPLE AT WORK: DEC ranger helps in Texas after Hurricane Harvey hits

October 6, 2017
By ANTONIO OLIVERO - Staff Writer (aolivero@adirondackdailyenterprise.com) , Lake Placid News

The piles of debris stood 8 to 10 feet high at each house in a ritzy neighborhood in suburban Houston. These were $300,000 homes flanking the piles of moldy, flooded garbage that turned a two-lane street into a one-way passageway, one that resembled something out of a war zone.

Just weeks earlier, none of this was garbage. Rather, the saturated and smelly couches, the bedding infested-by-bugs and the mangled mementos were the life's collection of so many people.

And it was in those moments, as Bruce Lomnitzer looked from one morose side of the street to the other, that he realized something he had never quite felt before in all his years as a forest ranger in the Adirondack Park.

Article Photos

Bruce Lomnitzer
(Photo provided)

"Some of the stuff hits you a little weird," he said.

"Some of the stuff hits you a little weird," like a pile of classic comic books. As he viewed the mold that incubated in the notorious 95-plus degree heat and humidity of southeast Texas, Lomnitzer couldn't help but feel the pain in his gut, that same debilitating and hollow depression of a stranger. It was a sorry sensation he had when he saw a man looking out over a wad of cellophane-wrapped paper.

Looking over, it was clear to Lomnitzer: this clump of soaked and molded paper in brown floodwater at this stranger's curbside was indeed this man's lifelong collection of comic books. And, at that, they were ones that had never been opened, never mind tarnished in the slightest bit.

That was, until Hurricane Harvey's floodwaters came and ruined them.

"Just a wadded mess," Lomnitzer said. "They were gone."

It was sad scene after sad scene like this that greeted Lomnitzer, a forest ranger from Indian Lake, and the four other forest rangers who traveled to Houston and the surrounding area last month with the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the state's incident management team to aid in rescue and recovery efforts in southeastern Texas.

He was part of an incident management team that, in a way, was there to help in any way they could. And whether it be consoling those who lost their life's possessions or using his own personal DJI drone to view and record the flooded-areas responders like him couldn't get to on foot, Lomnitzer and the others did everything they could to improve the situation of these afflicted people.

Lomnitzer has been a forest ranger since 1999, and before that he was an assistant forest ranger for five years. The 54-year-old jokes that he still doesn't think he's grown up after several decades of playing in the woods.

He may have brought with him a technologically advanced DCI drone with him during his more than a week helping in and around the Houston area, as his primary assignment was to provide aerial reconnaissance with a DEC drone. But this was not even close to playing in the woods.

When he and the other rangers first arrived in Houston, they set up an initial command post before Lomnitzer jumped in with an operations crew that split themselves between the city of Houston and Chambers County, about 50 miles east of the metropolitan center.

Once in Chambers County, the first thing Lomnitzer was asked to do was use his drone to record pictures and videos of PODs, or "points of distribution," for water, food and cots.

Lomnitzer and the personnel working alongside him then met with people at a nearby emergency center. It was then that the ranger realized he, as a New Yorker from 1,800 miles away, needed to understand his place, be humble and earn the trust of the local volunteers and emergency responders who had been working there and called this area home.

"The key thing there is we are a bunch of Yankees to them," Lomnitzer said. "And we wanted to just make sure they knew that we are not here to take over the world. If they need anything, we are able to assist - water, cots, blankets - what do they 100 percent need?"

Lomnitzer then went over to Winnie, Texas, a small town of little more than 3,000 people known best for having the tallest structure in Texas, the 2,000-foot tall Winnie Cumulus Broadcasting Tower. It was here where Lomnitzer was able to use his drone to record photos of crop duster airplanes underwater.

Afterward, Lomnitzer went through several neighborhoods where, even more than 10 days removed from the hurricane making landfall, homes retained four feet of water inside. It was here, helping inside the homes where people had used a razor to cut any and all sheetrock underneath the high water line, that Lomnitzer came across the scene of the man and his wrecked treasure of a comic book collection.

"And a lot of these people did not have flood insurance," he said. "Some of them won't get anything."

The next day, Lomnitzer worked in and around Houston, eventually finding his way to the area of NRG Stadium, the 1.9 million square-foot home of the National Football League's Houston Texans franchise that had been converted into a place to house refugees displaced from their homes. Even all that time after the storm hit, 3,000 refugees still inhabited the bleachers and sod football surface as Lomnitzer conducted aerial shots of the NRG complex.

He then headed out to Katy, Texas, and the area of West Houston where the Buffalo Bayou, a slow-moving river formed 18,000 years ago that is the source for the prairie surrounding Katy, was experiencing problems with the structural integrity of its natural dams. Water was being sent out of floodgates as personnel worked to avoid a breach of a 20-to-30 foot earthen dam.

It was here where Lomnitzer said he was able to capture breathtaking footage of the bayou dumping off into half-million dollar homes.

"Filling them up," he said, "everything from houses that are dry to five, six feet of water in houses. I talked to one lady in the neighborhood, and she was the only one she knew who had flood insurance, and that was only because she opted for a sunken living room.

"Lucky her."

Lomnitzer did this kind of work in this area for several days, spending his time in and around Route 6 in northwest and southwest Houston. Thinking back while traveling down to the Outer Banks of North Carolina for a much-deserved vacation, he distinctly remembered one area that nearly two weeks after the storm was still underwater by 5-to-8 feet of water for eight miles of road. It was in these areas, many only accessible by boat, that Lomnitzer and his DEC drone helped most.

As for a search-and-rescue similar to what he does as a ranger here in the Adirondacks, Lomnitzer said the closest thing to that was in the town of Winnie at that small little airport.

He remembers the owner of the airport sitting at its entrance while a group of men attempted to drive their pick-up truck into four-foot deep water. Their destination was a storage unit a half mile away. And as they set off, the airport owner doubted what they were attempting while a local police trooper moaned that he now might have to travel into the unit to either help the people or arrest them for looting the unit.

But Lomnitzer then thought, "hold on a second," as he realized he could send his drone over the flooded street to see where the group was headed to record just what they were doing there.

With the help of the drone, he was able to get the truck's license plate number and also determine that they probably weren't stealing anything. After all, why would a group of people waive and smile at a drone passing-by if they were indeed criminals?

Before the group even showed back up at the hangar, he showed the footage to the airport owner, who soon determined that this was the group's storage hangar and they were attempting to salvage some furniture.

Just an example of a ranger from nearly 2,000 miles away helping to make the recovery effort more efficient and less stressful.

"And the trooper was the one who was really happy," Lomnitzer said, "because he did not have to go wadding all the way out a half-mile."

 
 

 

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