Amateur Drones Over Houston Endangering Rescue Choppers, Officials Say

The Texas Military Department is warning drone pilots they’re getting in the way of rescuers, while the FAA says ‘unauthorized’ operators face ‘significant fines.’

REUTERS/Nick Oxford

Texas military officials are begging Texan drone pilots to get their gadgets out of the sky, because they’re interfering with rescues.

“#ALERT: We are seeing civilian drones that pose EXTREME risks to our rescue pilots and crews in high need areas,” the Texas Military Department tweeted from an account that links to the official site, which represents the Texas Army National Guard, the Texas Air National Guard, and the Texas State Guard.

The Federal Aviation Administration does not ban the flight of drones during a hurricane but in a specific notice relating to Hurricane Harvey warns “unauthorized drone operators” that they may face “significant fines” if they interfere with emergency response operations.

“Allow first responders to save lives and property without interference,” said the notice, released ahead of the hurricane.

“We are currently operating more than 20 rotary wing assets over the Gulf Coast with that number projected to increase as additional National Guard and DOD (Defense Department) assets are sent to aid in rescue operations,” a spokesperson from the Texas Military Department public affairs office emailed Tuesday. “The presence of drones can hinder flight operations and result in unsafe flying conditions.”

“Drones pose a potential danger to low-flying helicopters and their crews and can hinder the efforts of those who are trying to save lives,” a spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency added in an email to The Daily Beast, speaking anonymously because the official was not authorized to be quoted by name.

The U.S. Coast Guard and local authorities had conducted an estimated 2,000 rescues already, and the need for more rescue missions is continuing, said Susan Phalen, a FEMA spokeswoman who toured affected areas with FEMA Director Brock Long on Monday.

More than 8,500 federal staff have been deployed to the area, including 1,100 FEMA urban search and rescue personnel combing the waterlogged houses and streets, she said. They’re working alongside the U.S. Coast Guard and roughly 12,000 troops from the Texas National Guard, which Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called to duty in full force Monday.

“FEMA is anticipating this to be the largest housing mission in the history of the state of Texas, and possibly the United States,” Phalen said of the crisis, which is still unfolding with continuing flooding spilling into downtown Houston. “We just don’t know how big.”

The Pentagon’s Northern Command has deployed further military assets throughout Texas, a Pentagon spokesman told reporters Monday. Those assets are just waiting to be called into action by Abbott, but so far, he’s only deployed the Texas National Guard in addition to the FEMA-led intergovernmental teams.

City officials tell the AP that the flooding was has equaled or surpassed Tropical Storm Allison from 2001, with no major highway spared some overflow. The National Weather Service has predicted that the hurricane, which is now over water, may turn inland again, and up to 20 more inches of rain could fall before the storm loses strength mid-week.