Tech and Harvey

As Beach Patrol Supervisor Austin Kirwin navigated his jet ski to the side of the highway to drop off another group of rescued people, his partner helped them dismount the rescue sled attached to the ski and walked them to shore. Meanwhile, Austin pulled out his phone in its waterproof case and squinted through the rain and wind as he checked his messages. He had several new addresses that had been sent to him by someone who was combing social media platforms looking for people stranded in the Dickinson area. He chose one and directed the other three Beach Patrol rescue crews to other addresses.

It’s amazing what a role technology played during Harvey in comparison to just a few years earlier with Katrina, Rita, Sandy, and Ike. In Austin’s case, while power was down in many of the areas where people were stranded, they still had cell service and a charge on their phone. While waiting for rescue on roofs, in attics, or in the second stories of houses, many people were actively communicating via social media, text, and by making calls. While our emergency management structures were getting a handle on the immense scope of the problem, some of our more tech savvy responders were getting information through other methods. Later, when we were getting addresses directly though emergency management the process was much more efficient. But during the early stages, new technology was pretty useful.

There’s a web based program that emergency management centers use to coordinate aid and requests for aid now. If you are leading a city, county, or emergency response group you can request what you need via this program. It will be assessed and compared to other groups offering all kinds of aid. There was also an app created during Harvey to coordinate first responders in Houston. And there are several apps you can go to for requesting everything from donations of clothing or household items to volunteers who are willing to come help you rip the sheetrock out of your walls.

My crew used cell phones more than their radios to keep track of each other by sending maps with pins in them to indicate an address they need to evacuate people from to showing each other what their location is.  I was pretty impressed with my team. Most are young and tech savvy and did an amazing job of combining their grasp of newer technology with a strong base of rescue skills. But even as this played out a little voice in my head was saying not to become dependent on this. One thing those who have gone through a few disasters learns is that each crisis is very different and you can’t count on anything. Just because cell phones worked during Harvey doesn’t mean that we can count on that for the next one.

Modern responders are using new tools and technology to the best advantage, but should remain flexible and build redundant systems into any preparation or response.

Galveston Marine Response Group Assists with Harvey Rescues

Michelle Gomez slid off of the rescue sled and into the water. She half swam, half waded to the door of the house. Calling out to let anyone who might be in there, she entered the dark cavern of the downstairs. She thought about how glad she was that she was wearing her full wetsuit as she brushed a couple of spiders off of her arm. Carefully making her way past a floating couch cushion and the debris floating everywhere, she climbed a staircase to find a family with their dog huddled upstairs. She led them out to the waiting Beach Patrol jet ski and the Galveston Police Department’s boat.

Almost a decade ago, Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas asked us to come up with a plan to better respond to major disasters. The result was the Galveston Marine Response group, which was activated during Harvey. Rescue teams made up of lifeguards, police, and firefighters were staged at fire stations, having a combined skill set to respond to any type of emergency and act independently if communication was cut off. Separate Beach Patrol jet ski rescue crews were staged, lifeguards were assigned to augment firefighter crews that couldn’t make it into work, help was summoned from the state, and teams were sent out all over the county during times the demand wasn’t so great on the island. Beach Patrol alone sent 4 teams all over the county and made over 127 rescues and even saved over 20 pets. All told, teams from the Galveston Police, Fire, and Beach Patrol along with Jamaica Beach Fire Rescue and the Sheriff Office responded to hundreds of requests and made over 300 high water rescues like the one Michelle and her team performed. And that doesn’t include all the welfare checks made by boat, vehicle, or on foot. But they didn’t do it alone.

Since 9/11 the United States has seen a real change in how we respond to big events. Most of the responders in the agencies mentioned have had some level of training from the National Incident Management System (NIMS). They know how to fall into the command structure that is housed under our city, county, state, and national Emergency Management System. City, State, and County Emergency Operation Centers (EOC) work with the National Weather Service and coordinate aid in a way that is more efficient and strategic than ever before. Of course, something as all encompassing as Harvey starts as complete bedlam, but after a while the structure starts to bring order to chaos.

Because so many selfless people jumped in their boats and vehicles and helped each other, countless lives were saved. The human capacity to reach out to others during times of true crisis, when all but the essential human qualities are stripped away, is utterly breathtaking. We are capable of such magnificence. But the structure that brought order to the initial chaos got the evacuees sheltered, fed, clothed, and will eventually get them back to a point where they can once again be self sufficient.


Galveston Beaches and their History


I mentioned in a previous column that when I started working for the Beach Patrol back in the early ’80s I was assigned to the area of 29th street for a couple of years as a tower lifeguard. At the time, it was unofficially an African American beach. Later, I realized that my time there came at the end of a long history of African American beach patronage at that location.  Supervisor Lauren Hollaway has been working on an on-line museum for our website for awhile that focuses on the beginnings of lifesaving in Galveston up to the agency we are today.

I was speaking with my wife about where Lauren and our staff want to go with the museum project next and I mentioned that we thought we might include the two historically black beaches that were unofficially designated African American beaches. My wife, who teaches English at Texas A&M Galveston, suggested that we look at recreational beach use of the various immigrant groups of Galveston. We’re beginning with the history of African American beach use in Galveston.

The two areas that we are aware of so far are 29th Street and the west end of the seawall at 8 Mile Road. We are getting assistance from Peggy Dillard, Special Collections Manager at the Rosenberg Library and Sharon Gillins, a Galveston based genealogist, and Carol Bunch Davis at TAMUG, but we could use your help. If you, or someone you know of has information about the historically African American beaches, we’d love to get in contact with you. We’re looking for:

  • Submissions of old pictures, names and stories of lifeguards who worked on these beaches.
  • Any articles or newspaper clippings from the Galveston Spectator or Galveston’s The Great Idea (both African American newspapers)
  • Anyone interested in being interviewed about these beaches or the businesses associated with them.
  • Information about and pictures of the businesses on the historically African American beaches.
  • Any information about Beach View, the first African American bathhouse that opened in 1922 at 29th Street.

If you are interested in giving an interview or have any submissions, please post in the “Save our Stories Galveston, Tx” Facebook page at, or email is at, or give us a call at (409)763-4769 and ask for Lauren to give you a call back. The long-term plan for this project is to complete an e-museum and then to develop a traveling exhibit. Also all the interviews will be kept for posterity at a central location and edited versions will be able to be put on display on some type of device that could also be included in the traveling shows. Once we complete this first phase, we’ll be reaching out again for other groups’ historical use of the Galveston beaches.

There are plenty of people around who either were actually there during the times the project relates to and we want to make sure and capture those oral histories of people who experienced it first hand or heard about it from the generation before them.

Beach Re-nourishment Project

We’re all about to get a big Christmas present.


The start of the the much talked about beach re-nourishment project has been moved to Christmas day. Four miles of beach, starting from 12th street to 61st, will be extended by 100 to 150 feet. For those of you who were around on the beaches in 1993, you’ll remember when we got the first big project done. The sand extended 3/4 of the way out to the end of the longer groins and you could drive around some of the shorter ones.


The project is a partnership between the Galveston Park Board, the City of Galveston, and the Texas General Land Office and has a price tag of 18 million. Sounds like a lot but we’re actually getting an amazing deal on the sand, which the Corps of Engineers is having dredged from the mouth of the ship channel. We’re basically just paying for the transportation of the sand which would go to some area as spoils otherwise.


There are many benefits. Aside from the obvious protection the seawall and the island receive, a significant short term benefit is that a study done a few years back reported that for every dollar put into the beaches we, as a community, get 4 to 7 dollars in return. So money put towards improvements, cleaning and maintenance, security, lifeguarding, and beach nourishment all brings a lot back.


The plan is to use an offshore pipe in 15 feet of water to run sand to the beach at 12th. From there, a “pipeline dredge” process will gradually work its way west, only blocking a small part of the beach off at a time. Working 24/7, they should be finished by March, so by the time Spring Break rolls around we’ll have a whole new beach. Also, the pipes will be covered by periodic pedestrian sand ramps.


This project will mark the third sand nourishment project to be undertaken in Galveston in recent months. In May 2015, more than a half-mile of beach was added west of the Seawall at Dellanera RV Park. In November 2015, a second project added more than a mile of beach along the Seawall west of 61st Street. When combined, the three projects represent a $44 million investment in the Galveston coastline.


For surfers this will have an effect on the waves that will last a few months. Back in ’93 the nourishment project essentially shortened the groins and a sandbar developed a little farther offshore. The waves broke harder, which was nice. But, we also weren’t able to use the shelter of the jetties much for protection from the lateral current. The Flagship (now Pleasure Pier) got really good on both sides with a nice break just inside the “T”. This will probably happen again, but it should be temporary. There also may be places that, for a time, have more of a beach break, like we had at 63rd after the last project. Ultimately there will be more sand in the system, which means better sandbars and better waves once everything settles.



Winter Weather

It’s unbelievable that the water stayed in the 70s until December this year. There have been people swimming in the ocean all fall during times that normally only surfers equipped with proper wetsuits normally venture out. Our year round staff has been busy while patrolling keeping people away from rip currents near the groins and responding to a myriad of beach emergencies. Hopefully the water will stay cold enough to keep the casual beach visitors out for a couple of months so our crew can rebuild lifeguard towers and take care of all the projects we postponed until the two months we don’t usually patrol. Of course we’re still available for emergencies and provide rescue response 24/7.

In the winter getting out on the water requires more foresight and preparation than during warmer months. A quick dip in the water when you’re a couple miles from shore can become a serious thing without proper gear. Kayakers, surfers, kite-boarders, stand-up paddlers, etc. should wear the right wetsuit for the specific activity and conditions. When at all appropriate it’s a really good idea to not just bring a lifejacket, but to wear it. That way, when the unexpected happens, you’ll be able to float and wait for help long after the cold water prevents swimming. Sometimes in the winter, and often in the spring, the conditions are ripe for sea fog. This fog can appear all at once or as a white bank that rolls in.

Our Houston/Galveston National Weather Service office, one of the best in the country, is very tuned in to the aquatic environment and puts out all kinds of relevant marine warnings. When we see cold air and warm water they may put out a fog advisory, but localized fog can happen without warning. Rescue workers from all agencies associated with the “Galveston Marine Response” coalition stay busy during these times when kayakers and boaters get lost in fog in West Bay, San Luis Pass and the Coast Guard typically handles the off shore area.

Aside from proper attire and a Coast Guard approved lifejacket there are a few other things you should do before getting on the water, especially during the winter. First, be sure someone has very specific and accurate information about where you’re going and what times you’ll be out. Having participated in hundreds of searches for people, I can tell you the better starting point a rescuer has, the more likely he/she is to locate the missing person. Make sure your cell phone is charged and in a waterproof case. If you have a smart phone, there are apps that can help you find your way around, but don’t rely on fancy electronics! Be sure you have a back up. A small watch compass has gotten me out of a jam more than once, and I personally never go out on the water without wearing it.

Winter on the beach and water can be incredible, just be sure and take appropriate safety precautions. And have fun!


Beach Labyrinth

It’s always interesting how chance encounters can lead to great things.

At the “2015 Safe Spring Break Event” at Texas A & M Galveston, Mary Beth Trevino met Mary Stewart of the Galveston Island Beach Patrol. Mary Beth is the Coordinator for the Galveston County Community Coalition of the Bay Area Council on Drugs and Alcohol. Her job involves working to reduce public health risk factors and increase protective factors.

Mary Beth invited Mary Stewart to come and speak at their upcoming May 2015 Town Hall; “Connecting to Create Change”. Mary Stewart presented about the dangers of Swimming under the Influence of drugs and alcohol.

On Thursday, June 9, 2016, Mary Beth was at a meeting with me and Sharon Croissant, Associate Professor, Preventive Medicine & Community Health at UTMB. Sharon has been involved in several joint initiatives between the Beach Patrol and UTMB and was instrumental in starting our “environmental alert” program that involves the use of flying an orange triangular flag from stations and towers in the event of air or water quality issues. She also used Beach Patrol guards as a subject pool for a study on the relationship between particular matter in the air and lung capacity. In a post- meeting conversation we talked about the event Mary Stewart presented at. The conversation shifted to keeping beach crowds safer. Mary Beth, Sharon and I discussed the possibility of providing a set of binoculars to each lifeguard tower to enhance public safety. Sharon was able to secure some grant funding to cover the cost and we’re working on getting that in place before the season starts up again in March.

Another serendipitous conversation that had a great outcome happened recently when I bumped into Kay Sandor at a recent event. Kay was trying to figure out how to bring a disabled woman out to the beach for a labyrinth building event and had heard that we’d started a program years back where people could borrow sand wheelchairs with giant tires at the beach parks. Although we did start the program, the Park Board Beach Parks department runs it now. Basically, if you come to the parks during the season you can use a chair free of charge for the day by leaving an ID at the gate. I put her in touch with Chris Saddler, Park Board Parks Superintendent, who helped her out.

This particular event involved building a number of labyrinths on the sand from seaweed and other materials. My mom was very involved with the original labyrinth that was on Holiday Drive but now resides over at Moody Church. I was familiar with the concept but had never been exposed to the building of temporary labyrinths. What a concept and what a success!

It’s amazing how much can happen when people collaborate as opposed to just working in separate silos. And it seems that there is so much of this type of thing going on right now in Galveston.


Anniversary of Hurricane Ike

The Anniversary of Hurricane Ike came and went without much fanfare.

I still remember how the water felt as I slogged down 16th street heading into the biting wind. How the grit had gotten in my water shoes and how saturated my skin felt after several hours in and out of the grimy water. The fear in my stomach as a transformer blew close by. Wondering if the electricity could travel through the water to me. Trying to breathe and see through the thick smoke coming off of the huge fire burning at the Yacht Basin.

It seems like yesterday I felt the tiny boy’s hand in mine as I held on to he and his sister while walking chest deep in the grime next to their mom and pulling a rescue board piled with another sibling and a few belongings that they begged to bring along. Bringing them to high ground at Broadway and piling them into a waiting police car that would take them to the emergency shelter at Ball High school. Taking a moment to watch them drive off and grab an energy bar before heading to the next group a few blocks away.

Those of us that went through Hurricane Ike have memories like this etched into us that probably will never leave. Unfortunately, as time slips by, that institutional memory fades. Only two city department heads were in the same role when Ike hit. But it’s encouraging how much better prepared each group is now as a result of lessons learned.  Charlie Kelly, who recently passed, was the Director of the Emergency Operations for Galveston for many years. He once mentioned his fear that all the event memory would be lost as people who went through the storm moved on. Fortunately, proactive planning, if done correctly, can put systems in that compensate for lack of personal experience. And its good to have a system that doesn’t depend on individual personalities or experience. After 9-11 the National Incident Management System was integrated throughout the nation’s emergency services. And locally, each group’s emergency action plan is much more comprehensive than what we had before. We recently revised the Park Board’s Emergency Action Plan and I intentionally tried to think of how it could be improved so that it didn’t rely on any one person’s experience. Last week all the Chiefs of the various public safety agencies met at the Emergency Operations Center to plan a table top exercise for a worst case scenario during biker weekend.

In lifeguard training we talk a lot about eliminating variables that can mess you up during a rescue by practicing them so much your body remembers even if your brain doesn’t. If you practice and internalize all the things you can control in advance, you are better able to handle the inevitable wrinkles that arise. This applies to systems as well as individuals. It works for hurricanes and manmade disasters.  And it works for you and your family as well.

Heat Wave

We are in some weird weather patterns fluctuating between storms and heat waves. Although in Galveston the actual temperature isn’t really that high, the real thing that worries us is the heat index, which is a combination of relative humidity and air temperature. When the relative humidity is over 60% it hampers with sweat evaporation and hinders your body’s ability to cool itself. Since in Galveston the humidity is pretty much always over 60% heat related illnesses are an ever present danger in the summer.

Heat exhaustion is the first stage of heat related illness and is usually accompanied by some type of dehydration. According to Web MD, there are two types of heat exhaustion:

Without proper intervention, heat exhaustion can progress to heat stroke, which can damage the brain and other vital organs, and even cause death.

We see heat exhaustion often on the beach in late summer. Many people spend he whole day in the heat and sun and often aren’t used to those conditions. Sometimes people who are outside regularly forget to hydrate or drink beverages that hasten dehydration. Generally people will be confused, nauseous, dizzy, light headed, tired, have headaches or cramps, have pale or clammy skin, sweat profusely, and/or have a rapid heartbeat.

The first thing we do is try to get them out of the heat and sun. On the beach this can mean an air conditioned vehicle, wiping their skin with a moist cloth and letting the wind blow, or applying cold packs or ice in areas of the body with lots of circulation. We try to get them to drink fluid as well, avoiding caffeine, alcohol, or sugary drinks.

Normally this is enough and we are able to treat at the scene and release them with a warning to take it easy for the next few days. This would be one example of the roughly 1,800 calls we’re able to filter for EMS annually. But if these measures don’t work within a few minutes we call for EMS because heat exhaustion can progress rapidly to heat stroke. Heat stroke is a critical life threatening situation so we want to avoid it if at all possible.

An important, but not well, issue that affects our guards and people that are on the beach all the time is that of cumulative dehydration. New lifeguards often find that on the second week of work they are dizzy when they stand up or have stomach issues. They don’t feel thirsty so there’s no clue that they have become more and more dehydrated. Until they learn that they need to drink close to two gallons of water a day even if they’re not thirsty it will continue.

Living where we do in Galveston County it’s important that we are consciously aware of the effects and dangers of heat and sun and takes steps to mitigate them.




The two men were paddling a canoe about half a mile off of their dock on sportsman road when they turned over and were thrown in the water. They were not wearing life jackets and the water was cold. Although they could swim they began to tire quickly as their heat and energy were sucked away. Their movements became slower and slower as they struggled to maintain their heads above water.

Fortunately, unbeknownst to them, someone spotted them from the porch of a house with binoculars and called 911. As they gradually lost their battle with the elements, help was on its way in the form of the Galveston Fire Department, Jamaica Beach Fire Rescue, Galveston Police Department, Galveston EMS, and the Beach Patrol. This coordinated rescue team, the Galveston Marine Response (G.M.R.) all worked off a shared radio channel to figure out how best to effect a rescue using the available resources. The fire and police departments arrived and searched the area to locate the victims while others brought boats from the nearest staged locations. EMS staged in the most likely place for the rescuers to return to shore.

From the Beach Patrol perspective, Supervisors Kris Pompa and Lauren Holloway grabbed the jet ski we keep staged at 61st street and headed directly to the nearest launch site from the incident. By the time they arrived at the Sportsman Road boat launch, the other responders had a good visual on the overturned canoe. Kris and Lauren pulled up to find someone they knew pulling up in a boat. To save the time it would take to launch they asked if they could jump in, and the boat went straight to the accident site.

When they approached one of the guys was swimming around, but the other was starting to go under. Kris grabbed his rescue tube and dove off the boat. As Kris brought the victim to the boat after making the rescue, the other guy swam over and they helped him in the boat. Heading back quickly to the dock, EMS checked out the two guys, both suffering from mild hypothermia.

This story had a happy ending because of the same teamwork that these agencies employ all year. Sometimes Jamaica Beach will have the closest boat, other times with will be GFD or GPD. But now that we have a system in place, more people with more qualifications get to these water emergencies more rapidly. And save more lives.

Last weekend the same groups, along with the crews from Ironman, a kayak club, and the Coast Guard Auxiliary all coordinated together to get 1,900 or so triathletes through the mile long swim course. 22 rescues and 208 swim assists were effected, but everyone left in good condition. Later that day some of the same people from the same groups saw each other several more times as we dealt with various beach emergencies. And there will be many more to come.

The busy season is just starting.

Snakes and Social Media

I love spring on the beach. Fog, sun, hot, cold, empty beach, people. It’s a time of transition that doubles back on itself repeatedly. One day it’s cold and empty and foggy and the next it’s warm and there are a couple hundred thousand people swimming around.

One thing that always entertains when the world starts to warm is that lots of people suddenly re-realize that the beach is part of the natural environment. I guess they forget over the winter that it’s not just a big water park, but is instead a thriving ecosystem with fish, birds, crabs, jellyfish, and even snakes. Realistically, the threat of these creatures is extremely minimal when compared to the risks of driving to the beach through traffic or swimming in areas known to have rip currents. But the news is always looking for a new angle. Giving the old “Spring Break” coverage a makeover by adding some footage of a shark being pulled up by a fishermen or the rare sighting of a snake that ventured out of his normal home of a sand dune does the trick nicely.

Of course the best way to avoid any unpleasant encounter is to keep your eyes open, obey warning signs, and to follow safety recommendations. Some of the most important of these would be not to mix drinking with driving or swimming, swimming near a lifeguard, avoiding areas near groins, and shuffling your feet when walking through the water.

Despite some of us realizing the natural environment is… well, natural, Spring Break went really well overall. Somehow the weather worked out to be just about perfect. Lots of foggy or cool mornings followed up by sunny weather in the 80’s. The water cooperated as well with temperature around 70 (cool but bearable), and moderate to mild surf conditions. Many of our guards were back “riding the pine” and they were hard at work. We got by with very few serious incidents but the guards collectively moved over 2,500 people out of dangerous areas with rip currents, submerged debris, or too far from shore. They worked hard and spent a lot of time in the frigid water. Hard to imagine what would have happened if they hadn’t been out there though. The beaches were literally packed with hundreds of thousands of people.

The crowds were well behaved though. We had very few problems along the seawall or at Stewart Beach and East Beach Park (Apffel Park). There were a few issues on the west end but the Galveston Police Department handled them well as usual. Social Media is a real force to reckon with from a law enforcement and safety perspective. Crowds of hundreds of high school kids would seemingly materialize at the San Luis Pass or Sunny Beach. Finally, a couple of proactive officers got one of the revelers to tweet that the party was over and they all pretty much vanished back over the causeway.

And now we’ll do it all over again for Easter!