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First Responders Face Dangerous Conditions To Rescue Flood Victims

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to get the view now from the first responders who are dealing with the flooding. Samuel Pena is Houston's fire chief.

Chief Pena, welcome.

SAMUEL PENA: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Full-scale rescue efforts have been underway for several days now. The rain has stopped for a bit in Houston, at least. Have the calls for help started to slow at this point?

PENA: Well, actually, no. I mean, I just - the city of Houston is so vast and it's so large that, you know, certainly, the area of town - and I'm actually out driving some of the streets over by where the Office of Emergency Management is, and the streets seemed clear, which was a complete disconnect in what's going on, or dichotomy from what's going on, in the Kingwood area in northwest parts of town. We have...

MARTIN: So where you're out, the streets - you can drive them? They're not flooded?

PENA: Yes. Where I'm - where the Office of Emergency Management is right now, over by the - in the Shepherd area, the streets are actually clear. There's traffic. There's people, you know, out and about. And it's a totally different view and condition than what, again, what's going on - what our firefighters and first responders are experiencing over in the Kingwood area.

MARTIN: Yeah, we learned yesterday that a Houston police sergeant, Steve Perez, died attempting to get to work so he could help with search and rescue missions.

PENA: Yes, yes, terrible.

MARTIN: Under - the whole thing underlies how incredibly dangerous this work can be, especially for first responders. What kind of precautions are you taking to account for your crew's safety?

PENA: Sure. So first of all, you know, our hearts go out to the Houston Police Department and the sergeant that was lost tragically in the line of duty. But it - you're correct. It underscores the - how dangerous this job is. We - you know, certainly, there's a level of risk that is inherent to the job.

But some of the conditions that our firefighters, and first responders and all police officers are experiencing as a result of Hurricane Harvey are unprecedented in times. And, you know, these guys have been doing heroic and tireless work in really austere conditions - rapid-moving water, you know, in sometimes deep - in areas where - that are very inaccessible and cut off, really, from the supplies and reinforcements that we would normally be able to provide to our first responders. And so - go ahead.

MARTIN: It's dangerous work, yeah. It's dangerous work.

PENA: So - it is dangerous work.

MARTIN: Let me ask you in seconds remaining - what is the priority right now? I mean, is it still just getting people out of their homes and into safety, or are you starting to look towards other projects, when it comes to recovery?

PENA: Well, it's a - the effort is - they're running concurrently. There's some areas of town that - we're looking already into next phase, into - we're moving away from the rescue. We're doing secondary searches, so to speak, in certain parts of the city. But there's still active rescues going on right now the Kingwood area, northwest area. And we're expecting - you know, if the levees overflow - and it's a different situation, so we're really trying to get resources in place.

MARTIN: Best of luck to you. Thanks for all your work.

PENA: Thank you.

MARTIN: Houston Fire Chief Samuel Pena.

(SOUNDBITE OF TERENCE BLANCHARD (FEAT. THE E-COLLECTIVE)'S "MIDNIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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