We caught the last flight into the region before all commercial air traffic was shut down. Our rally point was the Coast Guard air station in Mobile, Alabama where my team was expected to ride out the storm. We established an information center in the station’s hanger, put out the standard pre-hurricane imagery and news releases, and did a handful of live phone interviews with the networks.
We knew it was projected to hit somewhere between Gulf Shores, Alabama and Houston, a stretch of about 500 miles. We also knew we needed to be as close to the impact as possible before landfall, otherwise it would be too late to do any good. We positioned teams at three locations throughout the Gulf region: Mobile (our current location,) Alexandria in north-central Louisiana, and Galveston, on the Southeastern shore of Texas. It wasn’t exactly science but it was our best guess. If we guessed right, at least one team would still be standing and able to move into the impacted areas after landfall.
By the time Katrina was about 10 hours out, the national hurricane center had narrowed landfall projections to Mississippi/Southeast Louisiana. Public anxiety was rising as all eyes were on New Orleans. At the time, I’d had four or five hurricane deployments under my belt and considered myself a burgeoning veteran. All my previous deployments were two or three-day affairs – a lot of damage but no maritime distress requiring Coast Guard action. I was still confident we’d be returning to home base in North Carolina by mid-week.
In the meantime, all Coast Guard aircraft, cutters (ships 65 feet or longer) and boats within striking distance along the Gulf Coast were moved to “safe haven” to ride out the storm. For each storm we would try to remind the public that no soul should go near or on the water within 12 hours of a landfall and expect the Coast Guard to rescue them. We make our living going out into the worst of weather to pull people out but even we don’t go out in weather like that – we’re not interested in becoming rescue cases ourselves … we know the limitations of man versus nature.
Late on the evening of Aug. 28th we paused operations to take shelter. Our hurricane bunker was the station’s main enlisted quarters and galley. The building had been built to withstand a Category 3 storm and in the early morning hours of Aug. 29th, its architectural limits were tested. With all doors and windows boarded we could only listen to the maelstrom rage outside.
We slept that night on makeshift cots and mattresses, about six of us to a room meant for two. I went to sleep with the wind howling and awoke to complete silence and darkness. The power had gone out sometime after midnight but we could see some light making its way through the cracks in the plywood, enough to know dawn was coming and Katrina had passed.
I headed down to the galley to get coffee. By then we were getting snowy satellite images on the TV. The caption at the bottom of the CNN broadcast proclaimed New Orleans had “dodged a bullet.” I grunted quietly to myself as I thought, another weekend getaway to the Gulf region in the books. As I came out of the Chiefs’ mess with my second coffee in hand I noticed a group had gathered around the same television staring at fuzzy images of water cresting over what I now know was the 17th Street Canal levee. New Orleans, though largely unscathed by wind, was now sinking as the storm surge proved too much. As if on cue, the air station alarm sounded and a voice piped “Now, all duty sections report to the flight line – prepare to receive incoming aircraft.”
Bodies scattered purposefully toward different exits. I followed a group exiting the door closest. The sun hadn’t quite risen yet and the horizon was a crisp crystal blue that faded upward into the retreating night sky. It was just dark enough to lend stark contrast to the flickering lights of incoming aircraft … at first I saw two, maybe three. The lights could be seen for several moments before the wump, wump, wump of rotors slicing the air began to reach my ears. By then, two or three lights became a long line of ten or more as the helicopters and crews who rode the storm out at safer airfields were returning to what was now our only operational airfield between Alabama and the Texas border
The first helo approached then touched lightly on the tarmac as ground crews rushed up with fuel and other supplies. A second helo touched down behind it shortly afterward as another crew scurried up, crouching to stay clear of the main rotor. A lone petty officer stood to the side, surveying the activity. As each ground crew finished their job and sprinted away from the helo, the petty officer gave thumbs up and a salute to the pilot to signal the ground crew was clear. One pilot nodded and the other returned the salute, then they tipped the nose of their aircraft forward and headed west toward the sinking city as the next pair of helicopters touched down and the evolution started all over.
I would later learn that crews from Clearwater, Fla., had launched as Katrina passed them on its way North and followed as close behind it as was reasonably safe, sometimes having to throttle back before they ran full-on into its back side. When it was said and done, aircrews from as far as Honolulu would arrive to backfill local crews who had been flying around the clock during those first few days.
My team was now up and moving. My photographer headed to the flight line to bum a ride into the fray while the rest of us the headed to the information center we had established in the hanger the day before. It was about a quarter-mile from the barracks to the hanger and on the way we began to get a sense for what the day would bring … toppled trees and overturned vehicles marked the path and when we reached the hanger, the offices where our operations center was supposed to be were gone.
Ultimately, we set up a makeshift office in the lobby of the barracks with a single phone line as our only means of communication in or out. Satellite towers were down, cell phone service did not exist and we were working by flashlight, even candlelight at times. We went so far as to sign up for a free six-month trial of AOL so we could send data and imagery to the Internet.
The photographer returned exhausted to the information center early the following morning with imagery of the devastation and mammoth efforts underway. He later described a poignant moment when the flight crew got their first glimpse of New Orleans from the air. They had been patrolling the Mississippi Coast most of the afternoon. They had an idea of the mass rescue taking place one state over but their job was to identify people in distress along the Mississippi coastline. They were able to make out the cement slab foundations of beachside hotels and homes blown away by the strongest winds of the storm and the occasional fire spewing from the broken gas lines of damaged buildings but they found no one who needed help. This was likely due in large part to the coastal inhabitants of the state evacuating long before the storm arrived.
They crossed the Mississippi-Louisiana state line around dusk and began to bank south over Lake Borgne as they looped to do another coastline sweep. Looking to the right as the helo banked left, they could see a frenzy of flashing aircraft lights in the distance hovering, swooping and dipping over Chalmette and New Orleans to the West. Just as they were about to put the city to their backs, the radio squawked and the order came to join search and rescue operations in New Orleans.
As the city began to spread out beneath them, the cockpit collision alarm began to drone, “traffic … traffic … traffic …” There were so many aircraft; from Coast Guard and Marine Corps to Air Ambulances and Parrish Sherriff’s, in such a limited airspace. Our pilots would later say it was an incredible feat of aviation and professionalism that there were no mid-air collisions. The flight commander flipped off the alarm and instructed all on board to begin calling out contacts visually around the aircraft. With the sudden flurry of air activity, no one had taken a moment to look down. When they did, they were stunned by thousands of flickering white lights as far as the eye could see. The co-pilot whispered into his headset, “Jesus Christ, what are we looking at?” The rescue swimmer on board had been a veteran of other urban air rescues such as the Midwest floods years earlier and had seen this before, “Those are flashlights, sir,” he replied.
The stranded residents of the city and surrounding neighborhoods had taken to their roofs and were shining flashlights toward the sky in the hopes they would be noticed and rescued. From their perspective on the ground, they likely had little idea so many others were doing the same, nor what it might look like from a thousand feet above. Overwhelmed the co-pilot said, “Fuck me, where do we start?” The flight commander nodded his head directly down and in front of them and said calmly, “We start right there,” as they descended to the closest white light.
That night, the air crew plucked nearly 100 people from their flooded homes and in the days and weeks to follow, Coast Guard helicopters and boats would rescue nearly 35,000 people.
It would be several days before my team could move to a location with power and access to the outside world. We would eventually push in toward New Orleans and Baton Rouge in the coming weeks and would rotate in and out of the region several times as the Coast Guard and EPA responded to what, at the time, was the second largest oil and hazardous chemical release in U.S. history since Exxon Valdez. It seems oil refineries and inland containment tanks don’t stand up so well to hurricane force winds. It would be more than a year before our work was done there.
I have two lasting impressions from those initial days (and interestingly remember very little from the following weeks and months.)
One is how galvanized we were by the sight of the helicopters lining up for refueling then flying off into a gray horizon. We knew where those crews came from, what they were prepared to face and how dogged they would be in accomplishing their task. That image set the tone for the effort that would follow and kept us focused through the long days and nights. I still call on that feeling during mundane days behind a desk at headquarters to remind myself that in the pit of every Coast Guard rescue crew’s belly there’s a fire that drives them without thought of self to help those in danger. No one asked for permission to move into the affected areas that morning and no one waited for a green light to let them know if it was safe to put rescue swimmers onto roofs or into flooded street waters in the middle of the night. They just did it. It’s not really something we can teach. It’s something each man or woman has in them already when they sign up, which is probably why they join in the first place.
Conversely, we witnessed what people become when the fabric of modern civilized life is torn away and basic human needs are threatened. An atmosphere of lawlessness and abandonment permeated the air within those first days. It sounds cliché but it truly felt as though the outside world no longer existed and even those of us in uniform could feel the base survival instincts percolating. In that environment, we were acutely aware as human beings of what we could and could not control, that what was happening was bigger than any of us and that we had no one to rely on but ourselves. The instincts of fight or flight and the mindset that nothing existed beyond that very moment were palpable -no past, no future, just the here and now, a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of water.
The author was a member of the Coast Guard’s National Strike Force, a specialized team designed for the purpose of responding to hazardous material and chemical releases, as well as natural or manmade disasters. The Strike Force consists of three regional Strike Teams; Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf, and a fourth team, the Public Information Assist Team or PIAT that provided public information and media support to first responders. His team was in the disaster zone from Aug. 27, two days before landfall, until Feb. 8th. They were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, the Armed Forces Medal and the Special Joint Operation ribbon as well as individual Achievement and Commendation medals for their efforts during Hurricane Katrina response operations.
The title of this post is a reference to Katrina in the early stages when it was first born over the Bahamas. At the time, the national weather service simply designated it “tropical depression twelve” because it was the 12th such storm of the season. It would rapidly develop into a Category 5 hurricane in less that a week.