Saturday, September 5, 2009

Remembering Katrina Part 1

Four years ago tomorrow, I arrived in New Orleans, in support of the Hurricane Katrina rescue effort. I thought I was mentally prepared for the devastation that occurred, but was not. It was a profound experience for me and many of my fellow team members. I learned many things on that deployment, some good, mostly bad. The debate on the federal government's response to the hurricane and the subsequent failure of the levee system is one that cannot be resolved on this blog.

The fact is, it was a freaking disaster, one that any community in the country would have difficulty responding to with any large degree of success. I have heard more than a few Chief Officers say that the events that occurred in New Orleans could not have happened in their communities. They are kidding themselves. They might have handled it better, but the magnitude of the disaster was such that people would have suffered, their response would be questioned and fingers would be pointed.

Many of the problems that presented themselves in New Orleans that summer were present long before the hurricane struck. They still exist and will likely do so for a long time.

The images that are posted on this blog were all taken by people I know, people who responded with me to the disaster. Like an idiot, I forgot my camera. I sorted through 1500 images before coming up with these. They are not the typical photos that were taken and shown by the media. I selected these because they had meaning to me, or they presented a unique perspective of the disaster. I wish I could credit each photo to the person who took it, but I can't remember who took what. I can tell you these were taken by dedicated professional emergency responders who worked tirelessly through uncomfortable conditions in an attempt to make a positive impact on the disaster.

We arrived in New Orleans on Sept. 7, after an arduous journey that included driving halfway across the country, staging in another city 14 hours away and driving all night to arrive at 0700 local time. We were assigned to base ourselves at the New Orleans Saints Training Facility / New Orleans Zephyrs baseball stadium. We eked out our space among a multitude of FEMA, state and local rescue teams as well as law enforcement, fish and game D-MORT and other agencies.
The Saints Administrative offices. This is where we ate, attended briefings and, upon occasion slept. The large building in the rear is an enclosed practice field. Smaller teams slept in there as well as certain National Guard and military assets. The RVs in the foreground were largely occupied by various law enforcement agencies and fish and game personnel. The auto carrier in the photo was there to pick up the cars belonging to the Saints players and staff, who were on a road trip when Katrina struck. This photo was taken while we were on short final approach to the east landing zone. The shadow from our Blackhawk is visible in the lower left of the photo.

This photo shows a typical FEMA USAR (Urban Search and Rescue) team's base of operations (BOO). The various tent like structures include a command tent, a logistics tent, a medical tent, a communications tent and, depending on team configuration, sleeping tents. This pic was taken from Zephyr stadium, then, the AAA affiliate for the Washington Nationals

Facilities such as laundry, chow, showers and vehicle fueling were provided by FEMA after a while. We were fortunate to have these facilities the entire time we were there, the teams that arrived before us did not have them. The food was O.K. for what it was. As my primary function involves a lot of paperwork, I didn't always have time to stand in line, so I often ate MREs. There were pallets of fresh MREs stacked everywhere. I learned quickly, the fresher the better.

Dogs, we got dogs! We responded with five dogs on this trip. Four live victim dogs and one cadaver dog. The photo on the left was taken in a CH-47 Chinook helicopter while en-route to a search mission in the northern part of the city. The one on the right was taken while staged, waiting to respond into New Orleans. The dogs performed very well. The cadaver dog proved useful, it made several hits in homes next to a levee break. There is a joke among the rescue teams, that the dogs are ok, its the dog handlers that are a pain in the neck. While it is a joke, there is an element of truth to it. It is only because handlers spend a tremendous amount of time, effort and money in getting these dogs trained and mission ready. They will stop at nothing to ensure that their dog's needs are met. They usually put the dog's needs before their own. Some of us are not as sensitive to that culture as we should be. They do an awesome job.

Our team is designed to operate 24 hours a day. Due to security and logistical issues, we were unable to operate at night. What we did was to take the night shift and put them in boats, while the day shift was either airlifted or trucked to dry areas of the city, to search for victims. Here, a boat crew determines whether anyone is inside the house. The boats were staffed with an operator (coast guard in this case), security personnel (usually soldiers from 82nd Airborne Division or law enforcement) and two rescue team members. I never worked from a boat, I either flew or rode a truck to our operational area.

Half of the team disembarks at an LZ in New Orleans. I didn't know I would be going on this mission until 90 minutes before we left. I was handed a photo-copied street map section with an area outlined on it, along with our tactical action plan. When we loaded onto the helicopter, the crew chief asked me for the GPS coordinates for our destination. I did not have them, I could only show him my very small map. He conferred with the pilot and they figured out where we were going. Another issue was that no one could tell me for sure when we were going to get picked up or by who. The flight coordinator hadn't got around to that yet! The pilot assured me that he would come and get us himself if he had to, that he would not leave us out there. My first task when we arrived at this LZ was to find a place to hole up overnight if we had to. I found a gymnasium occupied by a National Guard unit who was providing security for a local college. I contacted their commander who agreed to let us stay with them if we had to. Fortunately, the Chinook showed up just like the pilot said it would and we made it back to camp.

Stay tuned, there is just too much to put in one post. Part two will be out in a few days.

Thanks for reading,


  1. This is good insight to what occurred on the front lines. I was working undercover at the time and they placed us all back in uniform and we worked the astrodome relief site. It was amazing, maybe I need to write about what happened once the population got to Houston.

  2. Great piece Capt.! I remember well the planes and helicopters arriving here at Otis Air National Guard Base, Cape Cod, with streaming lines of bedraggled people from NO. All at once our town of 30,000 year rounders, was flooded with hungry, homeless, scared people! (We found out later after some touchy situations, that a great number of these people were the "criminals" that were roaming the streets, looting, killing, etc!) It was a bit frightening but for the most part, the people happily settled down, got housing and even jobs at Walmart! I cannot wait to hear the next edition! It is so different reading it through your eyes and piecing together the tidbits I learned from talking with people who left to come here! So many brave souls those wounded weeks!

  3. Any interactions with the Brothers of CATF5? Great pics Capt, can't wait to read more.

  4. Great post, looking forward to more.

  5. It really is cool to read your perspective Capt. Cant wait for more!

    LOVED the part about the dogs. Hmm, wonder why. =)