Rescue Warriors

The U.S. Coast Guard, America's Forgotten Heroes

David Helvarg

Thomas Dunne Books

Chapter One

New Orleans Saints

Friday, August 26, 2005 

The crew of the fishing boat Mary Lynn pitched and rolled in raging forty-foot seas, eighty-five miles west of Key West. With their controls gone and their vessel threatening to break up, they activated an EPIRB (emergency position-indicating radio beacon) buoy and hoped someone would hear its signal. They tried to launch a life raft, but the storm winds capsized it and dragged it away. All they could do now was hang on and pray for help.

At Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater, 210 miles away, their signal was received and an HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter launched in forty-knot winds around 10:00 p.m. Soon the big chopper was flying along the leading edge of the storm, blinded by heavy rains, clouds, and darkness, its crew unable to see the ocean rising and falling below them. It would take three hours of manhandling their aircraft through buffeting winds and ballistic rain before they finally arrived on scene. A big four-engine C-130 Hercules from Clearwater was already circling overhead.

Unfortunately, the rough trek had depleted the helicopter’s fuel supply, leaving them only fifteen minutes on scene. Below they could see the Mary Lynn being tossed around in the rolling seas as the crew clung to the stern. Rather than try to rush things and risk someone being swept away, they decided to head to Key West to refuel. Battling 75 mph headwinds, the trip, which should have taken forty-five minutes, took two hours. They landed at 3:00 a.m., refueled, and were back over the Mary Lynn at daybreak. If anything, the storm had worsened in their absence. Pilot Craig Massello told Rescue Swimmer Kenyon Bolton that he was not to come off the rescue cable for any reason. This meant the boat crew would have to get in the water to meet him.

"The first hoist wasn’t pretty,"flight mechanic and hoist operator Robert Cain noted dryly. First they swung Bolton into the stern of the fishing boat, and then, as he came free, dangling like bait on a line, he was hit head-on by a monster wave. Still he managed to get in the water and swim to crewmember Anita Miller. He got a quick strop harness around her, but then the cable jerked them, dropping the strop’s V-rings and jamming his hook open. He replaced the rings and made sure he had a tight grip on her, then got them lifted back aboard the helicopter and determined that his cable hook, though damaged, was still operable. He went back down for his second hoist. This time a lifeline from the foundering boat to the second crewmember in the water got entangled with the hoist cable. This was even less pretty. Were the boat to sink at this point, it could drag the survivor, the rescue swimmer, even the helicopter down with it. While Bolton and the fisherman remaining on the Mary Lynn worked to free the line, a shark two or three feet long swam through Bolton’s legs. "I was surprised it was so close to the surface....It made me think twice about what was out of sight,"he later told Coast Guard magazine.

With the lines cleared, he was able to make the second hoist. The third hoist went without a hitch (or much of a functioning hook). The entire rescue took around thirty minutes. Rather than fight the winds to Key West, they headed toward Clearwater. With cyclonic tailwinds, they made around two hundred knots ground speed, "ridiculous for a helicopter,"grinned copilot Dave Sheppard who, like the rest of the crew, was now riding an adrenaline high.

The storm, which had already battered Florida, leaving six dead, would continue to pick up strength as it crossed the unusually warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The survivors of the Mary Lynn—Mark Gutek, Anita Miller, and Charles White—would be the first three of over thirty-three thousand people to be rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard in the coming days as Hurricane Katrina continued on toward the Mississippi Gulf Coast, New Orleans, and the history books.

More than two years earlier, on February 25, 2003, the Coast Guard had transferred from the Department of Transportation to the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS), as part of the Bush administration’s post-9/11 "War on Terror."The administration had initially opposed the creation of what would quickly grow into a 22-agency, $40 billion, 180,000-employee color-coding bureaucracy. It was only when (then) Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut introduced a bill for its creation that the White House, fearing it was being politically outflanked on national security, did an about-face and came up with an improvised plan for the new department.

When it was announced that the Coast Guard would be a part of DHS, its friends in Congress, including Senators Ted Stevens of Alaska and Olympia Snowe of Maine, got a provision attached to the Homeland Security Act, section 888, preventing the new department from interfering with the Coast Guard’s maritime missions. Admiral Allen, who would take over Hurricane Katrina response before becoming head of the service, jokingly told Washington Post reporter Michael Grunwald that the Coast Guard’s leadership had "888"tattooed on their arms.

Unfortunately, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had no such immunity. It was demoted within the new department and had billions of dollars of preparedness funding stripped away, along with a national disaster response plan. At the same time, a system of political cronyism had grown within the demoralized agency, with five of its top eight managers, including director Michael Brown (a former commissioner with the International Arabian Horse Association), having no previous disaster response experience.

The Coast Guard, by contrast, spends every day saving people in trouble in the water. As both a law enforcement and military organization tasked to do search and rescue, environmental response, and maritime commerce support, it didn’t have to wait for an official disaster decree or federal letter of permit to do its job.

Nor, unlike President George W. Bush and Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, did any Coast Guard officer claim the failure of New Orleans’s levees could not have been predicted or a disaster of this scale foreseen. The Coast Guard had spent much of 2004 responding to a series of major hurricanes in Florida and along the Gulf and was keenly aware from its oversight of ports and shipping along the lower Mississippi of just how vulnerable the below-sea-level city of New Orleans was. If there were any doubt left, FEMA had staged a major interagency exercise to practice for just this type of disaster, dubbed "Hurricane Pam,"a year before Katrina struck.

On the day of the Mary Lynn rescue, Friday, August 26, 2005, the National Hurricane Center announced Katrina had regained hurricane strength and shifted its track from a predicted landfall on the Florida panhandle to the Mississippi-Louisiana coastline.

That afternoon, Chief Warrant Officer David Lewald got a call at his home in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, from his Coast Guard boss in New Orleans. Rebuilding of navigational buoys damaged by Hurricanes Cindy and Dennis had just been completed, and in 2004 there had been Hurricane Ivan. "I remember after Ivan thinking, ‘Wow! If I lived through that I can do anything,’ not realizing it was just a dress rehearsal,"Lewald recalls.

Lewald was in charge of the cutter Pamlico, a 160-foot construction tender that looks like what you’d get if you crossbred a tugboat, a barge, and the Mississippi Queen riverboat. His boss wanted the Pamlico to escort their smaller boats upriver.

"One of our duties is to play mother duck to all the boats they can’t trailer away. So for Katrina I had eight 41s [41-foot patrol boats], three 55s, and the Clamp."

The Coast Guard Cutter Clamp is a 75-foot construction tender designed to push a 68-foot barge. It was transiting from Alabama to Texas when a generator fire broke out and forced it to divert to New Orleans for repairs in late August. As Katrina approached, the Clamp headed up the Mississippi with the Pamlico.

By end of day Friday, most personnel from Air Station New Orleans, Sector New Orleans, and Coast Guard District 8 had done their usual hurricane evacuations and were hunkered down from Texas to Missouri ready to surge back in as soon as the storm passed over.

New Orleans’s shore command had just stood up its sector on August 14. This was a new approach to integrating Coast Guard activities previously divided between Marine Safety and Operations. It established a single sector commander who could move boats and aircraft, and oversee search and rescue, pollution response, maritime safety, and shipping control without having to book a conference room to do it.

Instead the new commander, Capt. Frank Paskewich, booked a convention center in Alexandria, Louisiana, a small city in the central part of the state with food, power, and hotel rooms for a couple of hundred of his staff, his Incident Command Post, and occasional displaced family members and pets. A year earlier when Hurricane Ivan had threatened New Orleans, he’d been unsatisfied with the location the Coasties had hunkered down in and determined to find a better one, which they now had.

The Louisiana National Guard, by contrast, stayed put at their Jackson Barracks compound in New Orleans, where they would have to deal with six feet of flooding before they could turn their attention elsewhere. In addition, a third of their force, 3,200 members, were deployed in Iraq—along with most of their high-water trucks, fuel tankers, and satellite communications gear.

Coast Guard District 8 is one of the service’s nine regional commands, and one of the largest, covering the entire Mississippi watershed including all or part of twenty-six states, the Gulf of Mexico, and the river itself. As Katrina approached, the command moved upriver from New Orleans to St. Louis, where it would coordinate activities in the coming weeks and months without second-guessing its people closer to the front in Mobile (which became a major air hub), Alexandria, or New Orleans.

All along the Gulf of Mexico, Coast Guard stations and families from Grand Isle, Louisiana, to Dauphin Island, Alabama, were now evacuating ahead of the storm.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Tom Ostebo, the incoming CO at Air Station Cape Cod, was training on Falcon jets at the Coast Guard Aviation Training Center (ATC) in Mobile, Alabama, that Friday when the CO invited him to a hurricane briefing. Reaching New York the next day, Tom decided he should do something to help out and put in a call to his district commander in Boston. Between them they agreed to send a Jayhawk helicopter and a couple of crews from Cape Cod down to Florida.

"I was on vacation in New Jersey when I got a call asking if I wanted to fly,"Lt. Jason Dorval recalls. He would end up making 332 rescues in the coming week.

By Saturday morning, Hurricane Katrina had reached Category 3 intensity. Mandatory evacuations were ordered in southern Louisiana’s low-lying parishes. Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans announced a state of emergency and asked for voluntary evacuations. Governor Kathleen Blanco sent a letter to President Bush asking that he declare a major disaster and provide federal aid to the state.

"We left Saturday and spent the night on the river,"David Lewald recalls of his flotilla’s slow progress up the Mississippi out of harm’s way.

Twenty-six-year-old Petty Officer Jessica Guidroz is from the New Orleans area. She’d joined the Coast Guard three years earlier because she loves boats and water and was tired of working construction like her dad. That Saturday she helped trailer three 25-foot boats from Station New Orleans north across the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

On Sunday, fearing north shore flooding, Jessica and her station crew relocated their boats from the Maritime Museum in Madisonville, their usual evacuation point, to their CO’s house closer to Baton Rouge.

Chief Warrant Officer Lewald’s larger boats arrived in Baton Rouge, where they refueled at a commercial dock and set up to ride out the storm in a small cove behind a thick cover of trees.

Sunday afternoon, having kept a handful of aviators on scene for any search and rescue calls that might come in, the air station launched its five Dolphin helicopters and their crews to evacuation points in Lake Charles and Houston.

By Sunday night, August 28, Katrina had grown into a Category 5 monster with 175 mph sustained winds and gusts of over 200 mph. New Orleans ordered a mandatory evacuation and opened up the Superdome as a refuge of last resort; 80 percent of the city’s population had already fled. The National Hurricane Center warned of a catastrophic event about to hit the Gulf Coast.

"Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks . . . At least one half of well-constructed homes will have roof and wall failure...The majority of industrial buildings will become nonfunctional...High-rise offices and apartment buildings will sway dangerously...Persons...pets...and livestock exposed to the winds will face certain death."

My colleague Mark Schleifstein of the New Orleans Times-Picayune had written about the risk of a Category 4 or 5 hurricane striking his city for so many years that his editor began calling his stories "disaster porn."On Sunday night, Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, called Mark at work and asked nervously, "How high is your building and what’s its structural integrity?"

"Are you saying what I think you’re saying?"Mark asked.

He was.

Monday, August 29, 2005

The cyclonic hurricane dropped to a Category 4 just before slamming into the Gulf Coast and southern Louisiana early Monday morning, striking like the fist of God with 145 mph winds and storm surges up to thirty-five feet. It drifted slightly to the east of New Orleans, initially appearing to have spared the city.

"Monday morning when the storm hit, it was blowing good, but we were protected. Our cook was feeding a hundred people, and we had two toilets and two showers onboard. It was like camping,"Lewald says, recalling the scene at his well-protected hurricane hole up in Baton Rouge.

At about the same time, farther south, a thirty-foot wall of water overtopped the sixteen-foot levees in the town of Chalmette in St. Bernard Parish, where thousands of people had failed to evacuate. In fifteen minutes the flood wiped out the town, killing dozens of people and rupturing an oil storage tank that inundated a thousand homes with twenty-five thousand barrels of oil. The storm surge then moved west, breaching the Industrial Canal, and drowning much of the Ninth Ward and East Orleans Parish just as the Seventeenth Street floodwall gave way, putting the Lakeview section of the city under eight to fifteen feet of water.

The scene was equally horrific at Coast Guard Station Gulfport in Mississippi. There they had been down to a skeleton crew of seven Sunday night. As the storm intensified, they got on the radio to warn mariners no one would be monitoring emergency frequency Channel 16. They then took their trucks and headed inland to an Air National Guard base, only hours before their station was torn apart by scythe-like winds and surging ocean waters; by early Monday, Katrina had reduced the main building to a metal frame. Their mascot, Mayday, a mixed-breed mutt who had been left tied up on the top floor, was thought lost to the storm but would be returned unharmed, months later.

Even as Katrina was savaging the Gulf Coast, crushing and drowning more than a thousand people who’d been unable or unwilling to evacuate, the Coast Guard began responding.

One crew and aircraft went down Sunday, and I came into Cape Cod Monday morning and boarded a Falcon with my crew, and we met up in Jacksonville [Florida] around 11:00 a.m.,"Jason Dorval recalls.

They joined crews that had evacuated from Mobile with another HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter and six HH-65s, the smaller Dolphins. "We walked into the operations center and they looked at us like ‘Where are you guys from?’ They didn’t know we were coming, but it turned out to be a good thing. It [the hurricane] was already ashore, and we were monitoring the weather the best we could, given all the stations along the coast were destroyed.

"We figured the two 60s were larger airframes, so we’d stick our heads out first. We flew across Florida and down the coast, and when we landed in Mobile around sunset we were in winds of fifty to seventy-five knots on the back side of the storm. They had no power, but they had fuel trucks, and the storm crew was there and ready for us. They said, ‘Keep heading west and see what you find.’ "

At 10:00 a.m. Monday, Lt. JG Shay Williams from Air Station New Orleans woke up in Houston, where two of their helicopters and crews had evacuated. With the storm moving over Louisiana, they took to the air, meeting their other three 65s in the sky over Houma, thirty-five miles southwest of New Orleans, bucking sixty-knot headwinds, looking like a scene from Apocalypse Now. They landed at Jack Hammond’s fuel depot, topped off, and waited to relaunch on the back side of the storm. They were able to take off again around two in the afternoon.

"So we fly on, knock our bags out the door [at the air station, where the hangar roof has peeled back and rainwater is now flooding in], and start working the Mississippi River,"he says.

Their first recorded rescue is at 2:51 p.m. in Port Sulphur, south of the city, where one of the helicopter crews battles high winds to hoist a woman, her daughter, and the daughter’s four-month-old baby from an open skiff jammed under a tree. On the third hoist, a wind gust tangles the cable in a fallen tree. The mechanic lets out enough slack for the swimmer to free himself and return to the aircraft.

Shay’s first rescue is of a man who’s cut a hole through the roof of his house to keep himself and his dog from drowning. "That first day we saved twelve lives, plus twenty on this 600-foot tanker that was out on the river without power. It was hard to communicate with the Chinese on board, and I wondered what they thought they were doing on the river,"Shay recalls.

Around 8:00 p.m. Monday, Jason Dorval flew out of Mobile in his Jayhawk. "The first thing that struck us as odd, the coast there is normally well lit up, but west of Mobile it was just a big black hole. I mean there was nothing! We’d see people waving flashlights. Then, about ten to fifteen miles west of the air station, we flew over a neighborhood with maybe two feet of water and twenty-five to thirty people waving flashlights at us. We lowered our rescue swimmer, and in the back of a minivan they had this quadriplegic they’d rescued from his house. So we hoisted him and two family members and brought them back to Mobile, and that was our first rescue.

"Later, over Gulfport-Biloxi, we could see the I-90 bridge torn apart and casino barges [by law, Mississippi casinos had to be "offshore"] pushed up onshore and total devastation, so we started going block by block. Hovering over one hotel, we saw a bunch of flashlights and a group of people rolling another person out to the pool area on a serving cart. These were people who’d tried to ride the storm out, and this fellow had had a heart attack, so we put our swimmer down. We called a 65 [that was flying in after them], and they radioed that just across I-90 there was a hospital. We find it, and it’s all lit up on a generator, and we find a dry area of grass and land and expect hospital staff to come running out. Only no one comes out, so the swimmer runs up and pounds on the door, and after two to three minutes they roll out a hospital bed, and they tell us they can take him but are full beyond capacity and please don’t bring anyone else. That’s when it struck me this was pretty dire!

"Later we see some people walking along the highway, and we land and offer them water. I look up, and there’s a Waffle House sign, so we put the searchlight over toward the beach and there’s an empty foundation. Odd that that plastic sign is perfectly intact but the building is gone. We flew seven hours that night, went back to Mobile, and handed the aircraft off to another crew."

Lt. Lance Kerr, a big, tan former rescue swimmer turned pilot, was stationed in Miami the day Katrina struck. "The Miami ops [operations] officer said, ‘Pick three people who have experience in New Orleans and we’ll send them each with a team,’ "he recalls. "So I picked myself, another swimmer, and Jeff [Lt. Jeff Vajda, an ex-Army pilot who’d transferred from New Orleans two weeks earlier]. Monday night a C-130 picks us up and we go direct to Mobile."

"That same night we went out. I thought we’d never get there, that we’d have so many survivors on the way."Jeff takes up the story. "Only there was nothing there. All along the [Mississippi] coast it was just devastation everywhere you looked, things just blown away. So we fly into New Orleans East, and we’re light on fuel and there are flashlights everywhere. This guy had his grill lit up on his roof is what attracted us to him first, and gas lines are exploding, and there was this U-shaped office complex with too many people, dozens of people, on one side of the roof, so we took this gentleman and two ladies off the other side. There were lots of downed wires and trees, so we did a high hoist. You don’t like to, but we did, like a hundred and fifty feet [the standard rescue hoist is from thirty to fifty feet and easier to control]. We did some sixty to seventy hoists down there, all at night wearing [night-vision] goggles."

Looked at through those goggles, the darkest night is transformed into an eerie lime green landscape. Rescue Swimmer Wil Milam, based in Alaska, recalls his first nighttime mission in New Orleans—being lowered into a flooded warehouse district. After his helicopter flew off to let him listen for cries for help, he saw something on the street, lowered his goggles to his eyes, and realized it was a coffin. There were more in the branches of downed trees, on front porches, even on the steps of a church. They had floated out of their crypts in a nearby cemetery.

After the wind and rain began to subside, Petty Officer Jessica Guidroz and her crew from Station New Orleans spent Monday evening driving around downed trees, power lines, and storm debris on the north shore of the lake, searching for a place to launch their 25-foot boats. Eventually they found a cleared boat ramp in the middle of a swamp in Robert, Louisiana. "By now it was

2:00 or 3:00 a.m. We drove back to our CO’s house, and he said, ‘We’re going to be on the water at sunrise.’ "

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

By the time Jason Dorval woke in storm-soaked Mobile Tuesday morning, New Orleans had flooded, filling up like the soup bowl it is. Closer by, a massive oil rig, torn free from its dry dock, had jammed under the Cochrane/Africatown USA suspension bridge, becoming one of the visual signatures of the storm’s awesome power.

At the air station it was decided the 60s, with their greater range, should head toward the Big Easy.

"We took a maximum load of fuel, water, and MREs [meals ready to eat] and flew to the eastern end of New Orleans that night, out by Six Flags. All the houses were flooded and people were waving flashlights off the roofs. We came on this first family of four on top of their house—and it was hot, I mean it was 100 to 103 degrees in the middle of the night with humidity off the charts—and we lowered the swimmer, and the copilot says, ‘Jason, look out in front of you, you won’t believe this.’

"I’m concentrating on holding the aircraft where the mechanic wants me to, because I can’t see back there [where the hoist is taking place]. When I look up it’s like every third house has people standing on top, and they’re all flashing lights at us from everywhere ’cause we’re the first helicopter on scene, and there’s just hundreds, thousands of these light beacons as far as you can see.

"So we start lifting people off roofs till there’s no more room, twelve or fifteen people in back plus the crew. That first night there was no extraction point, so we were just putting people on highway overpasses and discovered the cloverleaf [interchange] where I-10 meets the lake. That was dry, and there were some ambulances there, so we began landing on the highway and off-loading people.

"There was also some desperation that night. People were to the point where we’d be hoisting someone and see someone else trying to light their house afire thinking maybe they’d be a higher priority. We also saw some houses just blow up like bombs where the gas lines broke and erupted.

"We’d move house to house and to apartment complexes with seventy people and more on the roof. The swimmers would enlist the larger individuals to help them, to keep things orderly. Where we couldn’t take everyone at once, soon they saw that when the bare hook came down that meant we were leaving, and sometimes they’d rush the swimmer, and sometimes we’d have the swimmer hop in the [rescue] basket ’cause it was getting a little dangerous."

Later swimmers began working in pairs to maintain crowd control. Their standard gear for rooftop rescues, similar to cliff rescue gear, became a shorty wetsuit, helmet, knee pads, and work boots.

"People were also bringing belongings up with them and we were hoisting people with dogs and cats,"Jason recalls. "We hoisted twelve dogs and four cats. Suddenly this cat, this brownish gray tabby cat, is sitting on the [control] console [between the pilots] with the switches and everything, and my copilot flips out and says, ‘Control this cat or he’s going out the door!’ and the owners got ahold of it."

Itook off from Mobile Tuesday morning and started picking people up and dropping them off at the [New Orleans] lakefront. There were Army Chinooks taking people out of the area, but we were the only ones flying who could hoist people,"Miami pilot Lance Kerr recalls. "We lucked out in that we were working a daytime cycle, so we could see more. We did 133 rescues in four days, which is about what I did in eight and a half years as a swimmer."

I ask him what his most memorable rescue was.

"Just to the west of downtown we saw two gentlemen on a grassy knoll, and they told our swimmer there were fourteen children in this house. So we decide to see how many we can bring up, bringing the kids up two at a time in the basket, and we were pushing the limits. We were pulling 98 percent of power—you don’t want to go over 90 percent—and we got everyone on board. Now we have eleven children and three teenage mothers in the back [of a small orange Dolphin], and I look and there’s nothing but flesh back there, just all these eyes. We’ve got fourteen people plus me, the [other] pilot, the flight mechanic, and the swimmer.

"Every time at the cloverleaf these first days, you’d have no idea where you’d land, and I aimed for the grass and did this steep approach and came up to 100 percent power and I’m still descending [instead of hovering], which is not good! So I’m counting on this air cushion effect when you land. I aimed for the grass but came down on pavement, and the air cushion effect worked anyway, so we landed OK, and I put my hand back and they all gave me high fives!"

Jessica Guidroz and her station crew launched two of their 25-foot boats at dawn Tuesday with ten on board including her CO and a radioman. "Approaching the city, what caught our attention was the loss of visual references. The Dock and Jaeger’s, this bar and a seafood restaurant I’d gone to as a kid, were gone—they were just pilings in the water—and the marina’s sailboat masts, instead of pointing straight up, were pointing in every which direction.

"So we come back to the station and tie up, and we had two of our guys drive our trucks and trailers back down. There were all these people randomly wandering around, and we initially put them on the ground [at gunpoint] ’cause we didn’t know who they were or what was going on. They had been rescued by helicopter and dropped off at the base, but there was no one there, so they’d just taken over our duty rooms and broken into our lockers and taken our clothing and attempted to break into dry stores to find food. Someone also tried to break into the ammunition locker with a sledgehammer, but that’s like a big safe bolted into the concrete, and there was no way they were going to crack it."

She helped corral the crowd of about sixty into the station courtyard. Among them were a pregnant woman, a diabetic, and a schizophrenic man off his meds. They placed a Coastie by the ripped-up security fence to keep other people out and began confiscating drugs and alcohol from the folks on base. "There was a lot of alcohol they’d taken from a bar down the street. There was lots of marijuana, hash brownies, we found prescription pills, knives, a few guns. We had a pretty good stash once we got done,"she says wryly.

"So then we fed everyone, and more Coasties arrived with big F550 stake-bed [cattle] trucks, and we loaded these people onto them and dropped them at this FEMA station by the Causeway exit at Interstate 10."

Jessica then went to the Seventeenth Street canal bridge after someone came by to report an injury. They found a man with a gashed leg who, trapped in his Lakeview attic, swam down through his flooded house, kicked out his living room window underwater, and, after surfacing, swam to the bridge. They took him back to the station and later got him medevaced out.

"We had no sanitation or water on base, and the rooms were trashed. The building was pretty gross,"she recalls. "Some of us had left cars by the seawall, and they’d all been pushed into a pile on the side of the building. I had a ’98 Corolla in the pile and went and got my change out of its ashtray. For the first three or four nights, nine of us slept in this one room that wasn’t too trashed, although that first night I don’t think any of us really got any sleep."

Tuesday afternoon, Chief Warrant Officer David Lewald and his flotilla motored back into the drowned city. On the way downriver they saw thirty- and forty-foot trees snapped like twigs and ships and barges tossed on top of levees. Entering the Big Easy, his crew was impressed by the blown-out windows on the downtown high-rises and the people waving towels from the windows of hotels where they’d waited out the storm and were now trapped by the water. Smoky fires were also beginning to smudge the skyline. Lewald got through to Sector Command in Alexandria and was telling them about the levees being breached and the city flooded and was being told they didn’t have any reports to that effect when his radio and cell phone went dead.

In response to a local marine radio request, his boats carried out their first evacuation of a hundred people from the Navy station on the west bank of the Mississippi over to the Naval Support Activity on the east side, where it was dry.

They next got a request from Sheriff Jack Stephens of St. Bernard Parish to help evacuate the traumatized Chalmette flood survivors. Lewald asked the Navy if he could take people to the Naval Support Facility in Algiers. He was told that they were in lockdown mode and didn’t have the Marines to keep control of the situation and that there were criminals on the loose. "I told them we could handle security, but they said no, they didn’t want anyone on their base."

The day after the storm, Air Station New Orleans was littered with debris. It had no power or water and only one tanker truck of aviation gas that was rapidly being depleted. The Navy had locked up its fuel depot before evacuating the adjacent airfield. Taking the initiative, Electrician’s Mate Rodney Gordon got into the Navy fuel farm, found some tanker trucks, and, using a scavenged generator, forklift, and electrical wire, got the power working to siphon gas into the trucks.

With their fuel secured, the air station ops center now gave what would become its standard instruction to newly arriving aircraft, "Go out over the city and rescue people."The station’s five helicopters would rescue more than fifteen hundred people that week, as many as they had saved over the previous twenty-two years.

Like the Marines in war, the Coast Guard is designed to go in first during disasters while larger forces are mobilized. Only in this case those larger forces— local, state, and federal—failed to mobilize due to incompetence, inattention, and jurisdictional disputes, particularly between the Bush White House and the State of Louisiana.

Meanwhile, Coast Guard resources—boats, aircraft, and people—continued to flow in from around the nation. By Tuesday, Air Station Cape Cod had sent six of its eight aircraft. The Canadian Coast Guard volunteered to provide backfill, taking over search and rescue missions out of Cape Cod for the next two weeks.

A Coast Guard C-130 was the first heavy transport plane to bring relief supplies into New Orleans. The pilot of another C-130, sent to do an environmental survey, decided her plane would be more useful acting as an air control platform linking helicopters with hospitals and improvised landing zones, so that’s what she had it do.

"By now we had multiple calls going all the time,"says New Orleans pilot Shay Williams. "A director at Tulane had forty people who needed evacuation, the medical center had patients to get out, and we’d just get aircraft anywhere we could—say, sixty people here, ‘come here, take these patients’ there. We took women and children off the roof of a Winn-Dixie downtown. You just do it till you can’t do it anymore.

"We just kept working for two days straight. I flew so much that they grounded me on day three and dropped me off at the Superdome, where I represented the Coast Guard [among twenty-five thousand hurricane refugees]. That was a bad scene. No food, no water, no order.

"I don’t want to get into the politics, but we found ten FEMA trucks with food and water and cut the locks and had our aircraft kick it out to people at UNO [the University of New Orleans campus, which had become a refugee center], the cloverleaf, the lakefront...Eventually, come day five, six, or seven, the Regular Army, the 1st Cavalry and 82nd Airborne, arrived."

I’m interviewing the square-jawed, brushy-blond lieutenant at the air station three weeks after Katrina and in the immediate wake of Hurricane Rita, which has reflooded the Ninth Ward and smashed through the western part of the state, including Lake Charles.

I ask the former Army Black Hawk pilot how the two services he’s worked for differ. "The Coast Guard is more focused. I joined because it mixes flying and lifesaving, and that’s a pretty thing,"he answers.

He’s still working nonstop amid what looks like a gypsy camp of RVs, trailers, office cots, communications gear, and pallets of canned water, soda, and brown plastic MREs. The roof of the hangar remains damaged, but running water and electricity have been restored. I ask about his apartment in New Orleans. He says he hasn’t had a chance to get over there to check it out yet.

Outside the gates of the Belle Chase Naval Air Station, where the Coast Guard is based and a tan-colored tent colony is being erected, are scenes of vast devastation and some one million environmental refugees living under damaged bridges, in carports, moldy offices, rural barns, marine lab dormitories, tents, and refugee centers, and with families scattered across the nation. Daily I’m reminded of war zones I’ve reported from. The casualties are fewer (some sixteen hundred estimated dead) but the area of devastation far more extensive. Over 150 square miles of wetlands and barrier islands have simply vanished beneath the waves.

A big C-130 from Sacramento lands and taxis, as does a Jayhawk from Clearwater with a crew from the Weather Channel on board. Larry King’s producer is calling for the captain, but he’s on the phone with Fox News. The ops center wants a copter to check out a reported levee break in Abbeville to the west.

"Like many search and rescues we’re going out without enough information,"Shay gripes to me, nevertheless grabbing the chopper before another pilot gets to. I walk out on the flight line with him as he pulls safety tags and does a preflight check around an underpowered HH-65B Dolphin that looks like a big orange waterbug (or small plastic helicopter). A mechanic and copilot join him. So does a rescue swimmer, pedaling up on a big tricycle with his black gear bag in the rear basket, including wetsuit, fins, helmet, dive mask, etc. Early on the swimmers also started carrying fire axes to break through rooftops where people were trapped in their attics.

Standardization of training and language among the pilots who fly the helicopters, the mechanics who maintain them, run the hoists, and direct the pilots during a rescue, and the swimmers who deploy on a cable hook or by jumping into the water is now so advanced that crews are being mixed and matched as needed.

They begin revving up the helicopter’s engines as the blue-helmeted copilot makes a quick call on his cell phone. "Hey, I’m getting launched out. Love you. ’Bye."A moment later they’re airborne, being tracked by an Air Force AWACS plane circling over the Gulf of Mexico.

On the other side of the air station, twenty-one-year-old Rescue Swimmer Keola Marfil of Hawaii is playing catch with two hounds a young woman Coastie has just rescued. He joined the service at a high school job fair in Kona after they landed a Dolphin on the playing field, he tells me. He’d grown up bodyboarding and paddling an outrigger and already knew he wanted to be a rescue swimmer. His first assignment was at Humboldt Bay in Northern California, where the ocean’s a lot colder than in Hawaii. "The first time I went in the water with only my board shorts I almost died."He grins. "Nice jump, buddy,"he compliments one of the dogs.

Keola has light brown eyes, short brown hair, a creased brow, and bulging leg and calf muscles that Popeye the Sailor Man would envy. He flew out of Mobile during the first days of the surge.

"I was involved in about a hundred and forty rescues,"he says. "A lot of rooftops on the first day, more balconies on the second. It was nonstop. We were just hoisting and fueling. It was surreal, like something you’d see in a movie."

I ask him if he had to get in the water at all.

"I only had to go in the water one time. There was this elderly man and his son, and we had to get him to the yard next to his house to get some clearance from the trees and power lines, so I got on the roof next door and jumped over to their balcony."

"You jumped from the next-door roof?"

"It was only about six feet, and I still had a line on to the hook, but his was a gated house, so his son and I walked him into the yard through this chest-high water. There was lots of stuff in the water, and it was warm, and I’m glad I only went in once. We lowered the basket, and there were still power lines all over the place. These pilots are pretty skilled. You realize these people you’re helping have nothing left but they’re still smiling at you, and that’s the appreciation."

Keola, like many Coasties, has a talent for improvisation. "We carried axes to break through doors and roofs and windows, but I didn’t have one, and I had to break through this locked sliding glass door three stories up in this apartment to get to three people on the next balcony over. I tried this piece of wood, but that didn’t work, so then I found this aluminum crutch and used it to smash through and get them across the hallway so I could hoist them."

On Tuesday, August 30, Rescue Swimmer Joel Sayers landed on a steeply sloped roof to rescue an elderly woman from the floodwaters. She pointed to a small opening in the roof that she’d squeezed through. Her husband was still trapped inside the broiling attic. Unable to widen the hole with the helicopter’s rescue ax (a hatchet, really), he tied a bright piece of cloth around a vent pipe and convinced the wife they had to leave. After touching down at an improvised landing zone where he was able to borrow a fireman’s ax, they returned to the neighborhood, found the flagged house, and lowered Sayers back onto the roof, where he chopped away at the hole till it was large enough to bring the man out. One of his crewmates videotaped Sayers, and a fifteen-second clip of his roof-chopping heroics aired nationally on TV that night.

On another roof, where a dozen people had been waiting too long, some guy came up behind Sayers and smashed a bottle over his head. Luckily he was wearing his helmet. He immediately grabbed the biggest guy on the roof and said, "If anyone does that again we’re out of here."The bigger man established order, and Sayers was able to get everyone safely off the roof. Sayers, Jason Dorval, and Shay Williams would be among thirty Coast Guard aviators to win Distinguished Flying Crosses for their Katrina rescue work.

Excerpted from Rescue Warriors by David Helvarg.
Copyright © 2009 by David Helvarg.
Published in 2009 by St. Maritin’s Press. 

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