Hurricane Isaac is right now working its way across the gulf coast. Seven years ago today, so was a full category 5 Hurricane Katrina. Luckily, Isaac doesn’t look to make it beyond a category 1 and the area is much better prepared. In 2005, however, that was not the case: New Orleans would be a total loss and FEMA had reportedly ordered 100,000 body bags for the expected casualties. At the last minute she veered northeast, sparing the city from a direct hit. Great news for NOLA. Not so great for Mississippi.
The celebration was short-lived, as news of levee failures and massive flooding across NOLA came in almost immediately, and on August 30, 2005 EPA received a Priority 1 (Lifesaving) Action Request from FEMA to “provide boats and crew to support critical life-saving transportation” for flood victims. EPA accepted the request, and FEMA immediately it to a Priority 1 (Lifesaving) Mission Assignment, unprecedented for our Agency. In my position as a Federal On-Scene Coordinator, our Regional Response Center in Dallas asked me to lead the operation.
I headed for NOLA that afternoon, not really knowing what to expect. My team staged in a parking lot in Gonzalez, LA for the night, collecting our thoughts and resources and trying to plan for something unbelievable. No one got any sleep, and we headed for the water at around 0500 hours. We had no real sense of the best place to start, and our only guidance from the police checkpoints was to keep going until there were no lights and we saw water. That sounded useful until we discovered there were no lights for 40+ miles past Gonzalez, and there was water everywhere.
We ended up at the I-10/I-610 split in NOLA around daylight on August 31 and began working through the crowds of volunteers to find the FEMA search and rescue Team Leader, part of a California group. The submerged ramps made excellent launch and retrieval points, and we were on the water after about three hours.
There were stranded people everywhere, and it was obvious that we needed many more boats and much more support. We pulled hundreds off the water that day, but the logistics were terrible. Travel distances were increasing, and the heat and humidity were brutal. Reports of shooting and fires were coming in from all over. We had almost no communications beyond visual. None of our people knew New Orleans, and certainly not with it under water. A woman we rescued said she saw one of my men shot in the head by a boat-jacker. Our crew and boat were recovered intact hours later when the boat was caught sneaking into the drop point, with the new pilot trying to disappear into the crowd. He turned out to be a NOLA firefighter who jacked our boat at gunpoint, stranding my crew on a levee and taking the boat to rescue other firefighters from their flooded station. Apparently the rescued woman saw a different person killed and his boat taken. Good news for us. Not so good for someone else. It was a rough first day for everyone, and worse for those who spent another night on the water or trapped in attics.
It took only a day or so for the water to turn black. The stench was relentless, and the sun, heat and humidity punished everyone, rescuers and victims alike. Denials by government agencies and remotely located spokespersons aside, shooting, looting, raping and killing were not in short supply. We had no force protection, and our people were operating at very high risk to their lives. The FEMA operation ran out of fuel within about 48 hours, and was having no luck getting more. We got our own just in time. At that point EPA had the only fuel available and supplied everyone from FEMA to the police for the next two days. We lost only one tanker to armed bandits — uniformed officers in a Parish Sheriff’s car.
At the 0500 Operations briefing on September 3, 2005 a Coast Guard representative reported that two of his men had observed a “huge” oil spill in Chalmette, Saint Bernard Parish where our search and rescue teams were finding oiled victims. The apparent source was the Murphy Oil refinery located in the adjacent town of Meraux (pronounced “Mee-ro”). Though flyovers of the facility on August 30, 2005 found only a submerged facility, one million gallons of crude had later released into the flooded town, oiling over a square mile of homes and other properties. I’ll write more on that in the next few days.
Our EPA operation was credited with over 1,200 rescues and all of my people made it out relatively unscathed. At least physically. Those were hard times for everyone, and we need to know that right now along the Gulf coast, a lot of people are putting themselves in harm’s way doing the same thing. Hopefully this time around it will go a little better for them. For a lot more detail and photos of the katrina effort, visit the EPA website.
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