Driving a motorboat through neighborhoods submerged in floodwaters can be a surreal experience.
“Neighborhoods are quiet, there’s no people, there’s no cars – it’s just desolate,” said Breaux Burns, a firefighter and paramedic with Durango Fire Protection District. “You almost forget you’re in a disaster zone. ... You don’t hear birds, you don’t hear anything.”
Burns led a rescue effort Aug. 28 through Sept. 4 in the Houston area, where Hurricane Harvey unloaded 40 to 50 inches of rain in four days. He was part of a five-person crew for Team Rubicon, a nonprofit disaster-response team made up largely of military veterans who volunteer their expertise.
Like many Americans, Burns followed the news as Hurricane Harvey made landfall Aug. 25 and battered the Gulf Coast. He knew Team Rubicon would likely call asking for his assistance.
The call came on Aug. 27. The father of two boys, ages 3 and 5, asked his wife, Cathlin, if she’d be OK with him leaving for a week. He then called DFPD Chief Hal Doughty, his boss, to see if he’d be OK with the deployment. The next day, Burns was on a plane for Houston.
“That guy’s been all over the world on deployments that we’ve been able to work with him on,” Doughty said. “It’s a point of pride for us that we’ve got people here in Durango who are so talented that they travel around the world to help other people. That’s a great deal for the citizens of Durango.”
Burns joined Team Rubicon in 2012. He has assisted with nine disasters, including tornadoes in Oklahoma, flooding in Lyons, wildfires in Washington, the earthquake in Nepal, the typhoon in Philippines, and the refugee crisis in Greece, among others.
He has turned down some missions to maintain a healthy balance between family, work and public service.
“I have a family to raise,” he said. “I can’t be gone all the time. I do have to pick and choose.”
Burns also is a swift-water rescue technician, making him an ideal candidate to help flood victims. “I try to pick the ones (missions) that I can make the most difference,” he said.
Burns served in the Marine Corps from 1998 to 2004, including a tour in Iraq.
After leaving the service, he took a job in sales. But he felt a lack of purpose and missed feeling like part of a team. Those feelings intensified in 2005 with Hurricane Katrina.
“I couldn’t figure out a way to go help the victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans,” he said. “I just wanted to figure out an outlet, ‘How can I go help?’”
Burns decided to become a firefighter. He worked in New Mexico before joining the Durango Fire Protection District in 2010.
Team Rubicon was started the same year by two Marines who felt an overwhelming need to render aid to victims of a 7.0-magnitude earthquake that shook Haiti.
“They stumbled upon something great, like, ‘This is kind of a good idea. We’re a bunch of veterans and doctors and public servants who just want to go help. This might be a good model that no one has done before,’” Burns said.
The group now has 55,000 volunteers, of which about 70 percent are veterans. Team Rubicon can act as a bridge for veterans looking for a sense of purpose, camaraderie and adventure after leaving the military, he said.
Burns joined in 2012, a couple of weeks before Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, his first deployment. He has since taken on a leadership role and been featured as a first responder in national publications and television shows, including New York Daily News, “Good Morning America” and “Nightline.”
“This is where we’re comfortable,” he told ABC News while walking in knee-deep water in Houston. “We’re really good at being miserable. We’re really good at being dirty. Here, we’re not getting bullets whizzed by our ears.”
Torrential downpours overwhelmed reservoirs, turned neighborhoods into “huge bodies of water” and caused toilet systems to back up, releasing a toxic stew, he told the Herald.
Residents who braved the storm were reluctant to leave their homes. But as the water level rose – up to 15 feet in some places – they were left with no choice.
In a flat-bottom boat, Team Rubicon went house to house, rooftop to rooftop, looking for those in distress. They knocked on rooftops, and if no one responded, they placed an “X” on the roof to indicate rescuers had visited the home.
Some houses had cats or dogs trapped inside, in which case rescuers broke in to free the animals and take them to safety.
“People didn’t want to leave their houses,” Burns said. “When it was almost too late, that’s when they decided they wanted to leave their houses.”
Just because there was a mandatory evacuation didn’t mean residents had to leave their homes, he said.
“You feel their emotion,” he said. “This is somebody’s comfort zone. We’re trying to help somebody on the worst day of their life. When they accept our help, that’s them giving up on their everything, their comfort, which is their home.”
The Durango Fire Protection District deserves credit for letting him respond to disasters, he said. The agency has never forgotten how many people responded to the 2002 Missionary Ridge Fire, and therefore tries to assist other communities whenever possible, Burns said.
“Durango Fire never gets the credit for things like this,” he said. “I want to highlight them more than me.”