Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Rembering Katrina Part 2

As mentioned in Remembering Katrina Part 1, there were two basic ways we operated while in New Orleans. The boats were used in areas that were flooded, rescue team members walked on "islands" of dry areas or in areas where the water had receded.

Here a group of boats is getting ready to depart. The Coast Guard is operating the boats, U.S. Army is providing team security. I believe that they are waiting on us. They are launching from a highway on/off ramp. The highways were largely elevated in New Orleans, making them available for getting around. The off/on ramps were flooded as were most of the surface streets so boats were needed to search most neighborhoods. The ramps were ideal launch points, just like a boat launch at the lake, only not as crowded.

The "Boat People" as we liked to call them, ran into a few air boats while out conducting search missions. The shallow draft and no propeller in the water made air boats well suited for these conditions, but our team members hated working around them.

This air boat appears to be hauling a cameraman and perhaps a evacuee. Notice the guys in the boat to the rear of the air boat, they are getting prop wash from the air boat and are holding on to their hats. They are also getting water spray from the prop wash. We are not talking about nice, fresh bathing water either. Words may have been exchanged.

One of several flooded fire stations that were spotted by our team. From what I was told, NOFD had been given orders to head to high ground before Katrina hit. As a result, apparatus and personnel survived the disaster more or less O.K. The stations however were heavily damaged.

I was in a station not too far from this one, a few days after the water had receded. The crew's cars had been parked inside the station during the storm and subsequent flooding. You could see where the cars had been floating around the apparatus floor for a little while. The damage to the station was severe.

Humanity street. The signs on this street were pretty widely photographed by a number of our people. I think it struck a chord with some of us, knowing the a large piece of humanity was affected by this disaster.

The absurdity of this disaster was evident not too far from this location. Early on in our assignment to New Orleans, basic functions such as body recovery were not in place. Teams were advised that if they found a body, they were to secure it to a pole or a tree, document it's location and pass it up the food chain.

One of the teams had done that, only there was no method to recover the body, investigate the circumstances surrounding the death or to store a recovered body. After several days, this victim was still there. I saw him as the water had receded to just a foot or so, he was recovered the next day. I hope he was the meanest SOB in New Orleans, maybe then he deserved what he got. If not, it just adds to the tragedy. Regardless, it was absurd.

This is a simple de-con that was set up at each of the launch and jump-off points. Each member had their boots sprayed with a solution and was rinsed to remove as much contamination as possible. The water was awful, it smelled and often had a visible sheen on it.

A few people fell in while we were there. One of our members slipped while disembarking from a boat and fell in to chest deep water. He was quickly de-conned and suffered no ill effect from the event. A couple of law enforcement officers fell in while working with or around us. They got the same treatment, although not as quickly as it didn't happen at the launch point.

Some of our team worked out of LARCs for a few days. I believe that these were operated by the U.S. Coast Guard. They transported our people through the water to an "island" that had not been flooded. These are truly amphibious and were something to see. LARC stands for Land Amphibious Rescue Craft.
By the time we arrived in New Orleans, most of the rescues had already occurred. A few people were still being pulled out of attics, but most of the people that my team ran into had decided to stick it out during and after the hurricane. Several had been contacted previously by other organizations, but still did not want to leave their homes.

I have heard various reasons for this, distrust of the government, distrust of their neighbors, not wanting to leave pets behind to name a few. The people who had prepared by having a lot of water, food and other supplies had a much easier time of it.

Several people we brought out had toughed it out for ten days or more, then ran out of food, water or patience. One gentleman told us that the mosquitoes were starting to come back and were driving him crazy to the point where he couldn't take it anymore.

People were brought to the highway by boat and were then airlifted by helicopter to an evacuation center. This group is getting ready to load into the Blackhawk. People that the "ground pounders" found were taken to a LZ that was established in the area where they were working.

For my entire career, I have avoided driving over downed power lines, they present a real hazard for us. In New Orleans, you just drove over them, they were everywhere. You knew that they probably were not energized, but it was still a weird feeling.

A lot of streets were impassable due to the downed trees. I remember one neighborhood, every oak tree was down. It was tough walking down the block, working around the trees. I remember thinking that the street must have been beautiful, with all of the massive oaks providing shade and beauty. Not any more.

All vegetation that had been flooded had this grey cast to it. Grass, bushes tree limbs, it was all the same grey color. I think it was just the silt from the floodwater that had coated the vegetation.

There were a few cemeteries in one of the areas where we searched. A few caskets were washed away from mausoleums and later came to rest a good distance away.

God bless these folks. Two of our members are shown here speaking with an animal rescue group. We saw so many abandoned animals, usually dogs. Typically, there was absolutely nothing that we could do for them. They were usually starving, sick and bewildered. It took a while, but after the water receded animal rescue groups from across the country came into the neighborhoods and rescued many pets.

We did enter a vet's office and removed some bags of damaged dog food, opened the bags and left them on the sidewalk for the abandoned dogs. A year later, I spoke with the vet by phone. He seemed like a good doc, he told me they were just hoping to pay the bills for a few years until business got built back up. I hope he is doing well.

An event which is etched into my mind occurred as I was walking past a doorway in a large educational building. As I walked past, a large Sheppard mix jumped to his feet and started to lunge toward me. He ran out of gas after only a couple of feet and collapsed to the ground. I am sure those were the last steps he ever took. I didn't have the guts to look.

A shot of the damage to the interior of a once flooded house. Not much worth salvaging.

This house was located next to a levee, very close to a breach. Our cadaver dog got a "hit"very close to here. The hit was under a destroyed carport, in or under a car mostly buried under six feet of mud. We documented the hit, then moved on. If I had to guess, I would say someone made an attempt to flee, but waited to long. I'll never know.

A soldier from the 82nd and one of our guys take a break. The heat and humidity were taxing. The heat beat you up all day and kept you from sleeping at night. I gained a lot of respect for the men and women in the military during my stay in New Orleans, particularly the 82nd Airborne Division. Those soldiers were squared away. Most had recently returned from Iraq.

We spoke with them about their experiences in Iraq versus the Katrina disaster. Some felt Iraq was worse because people were shooting at them. Others were more disturbed by Katrina because it was over here. This kind of devastation is not supposed to happen here.

Typical sleeping arrangements for a team like ours. It was stifling in those tents.

I tried to get my work done by ten, hit the showers, be ready for bed by eleven. I had cell service (Verizon Rocks!!) so I would then call home and try to hit the rack by midnight. I had to get up at five, so I could eat and get to the morning briefing by six.

Even though I was uncomfortable every second I was there and hated being there, I still had it better than any resident left in the city. Many still have not recovered four years later.

Next up, a few more thoughts and what I personally learned from the experience.

Thanks for reading,



  1. This is a very interesting read from a schmoe with boots on the grouund. thank you for your service.

  2. Schmoe:

    Thanks for writing. Thanks for your pictures, and the descriptions.

    I live in Houston, and remember the helpless feeling as the plight of our neighbors to the east became known. About a week after the storm, we began to hear about the animals that were left behind. I wanted to help the people, but I wanted to help the animals even more.

    Evenually I helped a displaced family get a house in Houston. I hope that they found their dog.

  3. Another great post Capt. I really love reading your pov.

    And Matt M. hit the nail on the head for me. I remember news stories from down here about all the animals that were delivered here and other places. Broke my heart. I'd have been a blubbering mess had I been there and seen it live.

    My biggest fear down here (in south florida) is losing my boys(dogs) in a storm.

  4. The suffering of creatures of all kinds hit home for me. I never thought about how dependent our pets are on us until Katrina. I would hate to be put into a position where I had to leave my dogs. I would probably send my wife and kids, then try to tough it out with my dogs. They are part of me.