Chattanooga medical teams, volunteers aid Hurricane Harvey relief efforts

James Ballou talks about his family members in the Houston area where unprecedented flooding has displaced thousands of residents as a result of Hurricane Harvey. Ballou is Corporate Privacy and Information Security Officer for Erlanger Health System.

Medical teams and volunteers from Chattanooga have joined disaster relief efforts as Hurricane Harvey's effects crippled Southeast Texas and moved into Louisiana.

On Sunday, responding to a request from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Erlanger Health System deployed one Life Force helicopter, two critical care flight nurses, two paramedics, two pilots and a mechanic to a station in San Antonio, Texas, where they awaited their assignments and for weather conditions to improve.

Hundreds of patients, mostly from hospitals and nursing homes threatened by rising flood waters, require relocation to safer ground, according to Robbie Tester, vice president of operations for Erlanger/Life Force, who spoke during a Monday afternoon press conference at Erlanger's emergency operations center.

"They're wanting the helicopter crews there to provide critical care transport - most of these patients are on ventilators or require a higher level of care," he said. "We can fly in weather that most air medical programs can't fly in, but until the winds subside and the visibility gets better, we're kind of sitting there."

photo Robbie Tester, Vice President of Operations for Erlanger, and Program Administrator for Life Force, speaks about response to a request by FEMA during the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. Deployed to Texas was one of six LIFE FORCE air ambulances, according to a media advisory from Erlanger Health System.

Hurricane Harvey

Tester said the teams expected to begin missions sometime Monday, and it's unknown how long they'll be there, but deployment could last for days or weeks.

"We're committed to assisting as long as we need to," Tester said, adding that critical care needs in Tennessee won't be affected by the absence of one helicopter.

Julia Wright, executive director of the American Red Cross of Southeast Tennessee, said 31 Red Cross volunteers from the state, including two local volunteers who accompanied an emergency response vehicle to Baton Rouge, La., Monday morning, were currently responding to the disaster.

"The disaster is still in those very beginning stages of rescue and life saving, but we know this will be a very long disaster for our response because of the magnitude," Wright said.

The Red Cross chapter in Chattanooga will host a session today to train and mobilize more volunteers.

"This is a catastrophic event, so we know that it will be months of us doing sheltering and feeding and then moving into the recovery phase of this disaster," she said.

Mobile kitchens and officers from the Salvation Army of Chattanooga are also en route to provide assistance.

James Ballou, an Erlanger administrator, recently moved to Chattanooga from Rockport, Texas, a coastal city in Harvey's path where most of his family lives.

"The devastation is just overwhelming," Ballou said. "The Texas coast where I'm from hasn't seen a storm like this since 1970 during Hurricane Celia."

Ballou, who has been communicating with family members, said the "tremendous" wind from the Category 4 hurricane is what sets Harvey apart from many other storms.

"About 40 percent of the residents stayed behind, and they've taken a number of testimonies from people saying they'll never do it again," he said. "It was just absolutely terrifying - horrifying."

Contact staff writer Elizabeth Fite at or 423-757-6673.