HAMSHIRE, TX, UNITED STATES
Story by Sgt. Ariel Solomon
128th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
Sand, grit and hay billowed into the faces of roughly two dozen Texas and Utah National Guard Soldiers as two Ohio National Guard CH-47 Chinook helicopters touched down in the parking lot of Hamshire-Fannett High School in Jefferson County, Texas, Sept. 7.
As the dust settled, trucks with trailers full of hay moved forward and within moments a flurry of work moved bale after bale of hay into the cargo hold of the transport helicopters. Directing it all, from the middle of the bucket line of haystackers, was Chief Warrant Officer 2 Zach Koehn from the 149th Aviation Regiment Texas National Guard .
After Hurricane Harvey struck the Gulf Coast of Texas, thousands of acres of ranchland was submerged below several feet of water, stranding thousands of cattle on islands of higher ground. Within days of the disaster, the local sheriff's office began using their Huey helicopter to respond to calls from ranchers who were unable to reach their livestock.
“We found a tremendous number of cattle stranded in areas that were inaccessible and wouldn’t be accessible for quite some time in Jefferson and nearby counties,” said Lt. Tony Viator with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department. “We began dropping hay, but we quickly realized we wouldn’t be able to support that mission over such a broad region. So we contacted the Guard and they sent Zach. We couldn’t have done this without his help.”
At the highschool, the helicopters lifted off to take their cargo of 130 hay bales each to cattle throughout the region. The helicopters followed a grid pattern developed by Koehn, which sped up the delivery of feed.
“I first got here, the civilians were finding all the locations for the cattle, but there were 80 grid coordinates and I didn’t know if it was several bunches of cows or individual cows,” said Koehn. “I didn’t want my pilots to enter in all these numbers into their systems and take up so much time, so I simplified it. We split up the counties into a search grid the military and civilian pilots could use to spot cattle, and feed each sector systematically.”
While throwing hay onto a trailer in preparation for another iteration of helicopter-hay-delivery, Koehn explained that the operation was a governor-mandated effort to restore a $25,000,000 rancher industry investment and protect Texan livelihood.
“It’s not just the ranchers, it’s the truckers that carry the cattle and feed, its the veterinarians that take care of the cattle’s medical needs. Nationally this is where a lot of meat comes from and it has the potential to raise the price of beef nationwide,” Koehn said.
Many local ranchers came to pitch in moving bales of hay onto the trailers and into the helicopters.
“These guys aren’t getting paid to be here,” said Koehn. “They’re here because they know it needs doing for their community and we’re thankful for all of their help.”
Above the flooded pastures, the Chinooks hovered just feet above the ground. The crew rationed out enough feed for each group of cattle to last for a few days until the water recedes and ranchers can reach their livestock.
By the end of the 4-day mission, crews flew more than 20 flights, providing food for more than 10,000 cows.