Amphibious hovercraft being used to rescue Harvey victims

“In the hovercraft, we can go right up to their door, get them out and take them up onto dry land,” Battalion Chief Jeff Smith said

By Howard Greninger
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — An amphibious craft built in Terre Haute is helping to rescue flood victims of Hurricane Harvey in parts of Texas.

Mansfield Fire-Rescue, located near Dallas, was deployed Wednesday to Port Arthur, just south of Beaumont, Texas, to use a Neoteric Hovercraft.

“We have made over 40 rescues with the hovercraft in the Mansfield [incorporated area] since we got the hovercraft about four years ago and, since Wednesday, have made 15 to 20 rescues in the Port Arthur area,” said Mansfield Battalion Chief Jeff Smith.

It’s the first statewide deployment for Mansfield Fire-Rescue, located about 316 miles from Port Arthur, Smith said.

The department initially deployed four firefighters on Aug. 24 to serve in ambulance crews to evacuate hospitals and nursing homes in Corpus Christi, about 395 miles away, and in Victoria, about 278 miles from Mansfield, Smith said.

When flooding hammered Port Arthur, three swift-water rescue technicians from the department took the call for aid to Port Arthur.

“I talked to the guys there and they said most of the rescue crews have flat bottom boats with [propellers)]. But when you get into 2 feet of water, most [people being rescued] had to walk 100 to 200 yards to dry land,” Smith said.

“In the hovercraft, we can go right up to their door, get them out and take them up onto dry land,” he said.

“It is the perfect tool for urban flooding, as you can go from grass to mud to water to dry streets without any problem,” Smith said. “Most of the flooding we deal with is street flooding from creeks and rivers. A hovercraft doesn’t make a wake, so it is the perfect tool for this kind of situation. It makes a rescue faster and easier.”

A hovercraft is an amphibious vehicle that is supported by a cushion of slightly pressurized air and is capable of travelling over land, water, mud, ice, and other surfaces. Hovercraft float on a cushion of air that has been forced under the craft by a fan. This causes the craft to rise or lift. The amount of lift can range from 6 inches to 108 inches, according to Neoteric Hovercraft Inc.

Smith said Mansfield Fire-Rescue bought the hovercraft in Terre Haute about four years ago and underwent training at the Terre Haute firm. The driver, or pilot, then undergoes another 10 hours of “flight time” to be certified to operated the hovercraft by the department, Smith said.

Another agency - Somervell County Volunteer Fire Department, in Glen Rose Texas - saw the hovercraft in action and decided to buy a hovercraft, Smith said. Mansfield and Somervell County each manned hovercrafts for rescues from Hurricane Harvey, Smith said.

“Those fire departments have been using our craft for quite a long time,” said Chris Fitzgerald, president of Neoteric Hovercraft Inc., a company that moved its manufacturing and offices to Terre Haute in 1976.

“The real tragedy is there should be thousands of hovercraft for these rescues. They can do so much more than other vehicles and fills the gap in the amphibious transport, as hovercraft can operate in fast flowing water, in water full of debris or in shallow water, places where boats have a problem,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald said he knew the Texas fire departments were gearing up as the departments last week began asking for technical support or spare parts for hovercraft.

“All of those are our craft. It is difficult to get excited as we have been in these situations for many years, even when Katrina hit, we had craft operating and in a mud slide in Oregon a few years ago,” he said. “We are sorry to see these tragedies, but with global warming, we will see a lot more unfortunately.”

Copyright 2017 The Tribune-Star

In addition to rescues, a hovercraft can also be used to collect information, Fitzgerald said, which can be used by emergency command officials. Hovercraft can be used to assess impacted areas, discover what is needed, such as medications, and how many people are affected. The hovercraft can then be used to bring medicines and supplies to areas or transport those in need of evacuation or medical attention, Fitzgerald said.


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