We are coming up on the 5th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Shortly after she slammed into New Orleans, the National Guard activated me to help with the relief efforts. I was there for a couple of weeks and after I got back to South Dakota, I decided to chronicle my experience with a short story to make sure I would always remember what happened during the country’s worst natural disaster.
On Monday, September 12th, 2005, I left for Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on my way to support Hurricane Katrina relief efforts in New Orleans, not knowing exactly what to expect.
As we flew into the city, it was just getting dark. I could see the city lights, so I knew Baton Rouge didn’t suffer the same catastrophic damage that I had seen in New Orleans on television. Other than some tree and shingle damage, Baton Rouge escaped Katrina’s wrath.
The first two days in Baton Rouge were chaotic. I worked out of Louisiana Homeland Security Building in the EOC, Emergency Operations Center.
Things were pretty unorganized from my view point, but then again, the state was trying to get as many resources and military personnel down there as quickly as possible to help in the country’s worst natural disaster.
My first two days I wrote stories about the Army National Guard soldiers who rescued people from their homes, using helicopters and boats, plucking them from their rooftops and attics.
One helicopter medic from the Louisiana National Guard told me he rescued 26 people on the first day. As he flew into the city, he could see water everywhere and knew his mission was going to be unlike anything he’s ever experienced.
Everyday, Louisiana state officials and the National Guard would hold press conferences in a little classroom, set aside specifically for interview. The Reverend Jesse Jackson was even there talking about the relief effort and the government’s slow response.
On Wednesday, I traveled to New Orleans, specifically Belle Chasse Naval Air Station. There I met up with Lt. Col. Reid Christopherson, also a member of the South Dakota Air National Guard. He had volunteered to go the same time I did, but got down there three days before me.
Public Affairs worked out of a makeshift office inside a trailer on base. It was cramped and hot, but under the circumstances, knowing some of the people you’re working with lost everything they owned, nobody complained.
Our main job was to make sure the American public knew about the guard’s role in this effort by writing stories for On Guard magazine and the Pentagon Channel. When we weren’t busy with our own stories, we assisted local and national media, finding National Guard units from their home states or getting them helicopter rides over New Orleans.
My first encounter with national media was with Mary Snow, a reported from CNN. I had never seen her on television before, so I embarrassed myself by asking where she worked and if she was “on air.” She was nice though, and didn’t seem to mind that I had never heard of her before. In fact she asked for my business card in case she needed to get a hold of me for possible story ideas.
The media was predominantly the only civilians you saw in New Orleans. Aside from emergency workers and military men and women in uniform, the city was virtually a ghost town. I’ll never forget crossing the Mississippi River Bridge on a six lane freeway into New Orleans. We were the only vehicle on the bridge, what a weird feeling.
When we got into New Orleans, the city was dry, all the water that we had seen on tv for two weeks had already been pumped out. But you could still see a 4-5 foot deep waterline on every building, at least on the ones that were still standing.
The downtown area had suffered a lot of water damage and if it weren’t for the looters, the city building and glass windows for the most part would have been spared. I remember seeing a $30,000 boat in the middle of Canal Street, wondering how it got there and if anyone was ever coming back to get it.
There were literally hundreds of abandoned vehicles on the streets of New Orleans. They had been submerged in water for several days and were beginning to smell of mold and rot, just like the rest of the city. Garbage was everywhere. It was either debris from the flood or trash left behind by the thousands of evacuees who took temporary shelter on overpasses and off ramps. All I could think about was why wasn’t someone out here cleaning it up? Abandoned vehicles and tons of garbage also lined the interstates.
As I walked down through the historic French Quarters, it felt like a movie scene where a nuclear blast killed everyone and you somehow survived. Like Is aid before, other than emergency workers, military personnel and the media, New Orleans was a ghost town. In fact, it felt like we pretty much owned the city. We traveled down one way streets the wrong way and drove up exit ramps the wrong way just to get where we needed to go. There were police and state highway troopers around, by they didn’t care, as long as we were in uniform, we were good to go.
One night we statyed late to do a taping with my station, KELOLAND TV.
Because we are a CBS affiliate, CBS agreed to hook me up with their satellite truck free of charge so I could talk to the anchor who was filling in for me. The CBS producer, I forget his name, but was really nice, said, since I was wearing a uniform and serving my country, they wouldn’t charge our station for the satellite time. I thought that was a pretty nice gesture.
After the taping, the city was dark. Power hadn’t been restored yet, so getting out of town proved to be challenge, not to mention, a little eerie. Gangs had infiltrated their way back into the city and were causing problems for local police, so we were a little apprehensive about driving through a city in the dark, but we had no other choice, we had to get back to Belle Chase. Because the hurricane had 150 mile per hour sustained wind, most city street signs were gone, so using a map to get out of the city was next to impossible. But after a half hour of driving around in the same area looking for the correct on ramp to the interstate, we finally found it. I can’t even begin to tell you what a relief that was, especially since I was the driver and felt responsible for the other two airmen who were assigned to me. They were from California, so they were used to big city crime and corruption, but I wasn’t.
One of the worst areas of New Orleans devastated by Katrina was the now infamous 9th Ward. But from what everyone told me is that the 9th Ward neighborhood was a piece of trash to begin with. Poverty was high and so was the crime rate. We went there looking for an Air National Guard unit that was providing security to the neighborhood and businesses that had already been broken into by looters. The smell in the 9th Ward was horrid. It reeked of death. My lungs began to burn after standing on the edge of the water in one neighborhood near one of the levee breaks.
Cars were flipped upside down, toys were stranded on rooftops, and houses had been lifted off their foundations. Disaster doesn’t even begin to describe the devastation. I couldn’t help but thinking about the number of lives that have been uprooted because of Katrina.
One member of the Louisiana National Guard, who lost his house in the flood but had been activated to help with the relief effort, told me how lucky I was. He told me, I was on vacation and would go home in two weeks, but he had to stay there and deal with the reality of it.
That was true for thousands of guard members who had been put on active duty the Friday before the hurricane hit. Most of them hadn’t even been back into the city to see their homes, but knew they were either flooded or damaged just by watching the news. What a sick feeling!
In the military there’s a saying “Service Before Self” meaning a person should be dedicated to serving his country first, then take care of your family and personal needs second. The Louisiana National Guard showcased that.
The locals, the ones who didn’t evacuated, were so appreciative of the National Guard and to anyone who was down there helping out. One guard member got a haircut off base, but when he tried to pay for it, the barber told him, anyone in uniform gets free haircuts.
A woman, who owns a shop in the French Quarters just off Bourbon Street, opened up her business to give me some beads. It was her way of saying thank you for being there and helping. I had never been to the Big Easy before, but it wasn’t exactly the way I thought I would get beads in New Orleans.
Another woman, who owned a bar on the outskirts of New Orleans, invited us to come in and sing Karaoke. We had stopped by to take a picture of a crude sign she had painted on the front of her bar that read Thank you Guard! It was three o’clock in the afternoon, but she was planning an all night party, almost as if to say, we’re open for business and we’re drinking. No hurricane was going to put her out of business.
As far as anyone being upset with the response time, I got the feeling it was anger more directed at New Orleans, mayor Ray Nagin, FEMA, and the governor, Kathleen Blanco. My own personal feeling about the response time is that state government didn’t have a real plan in place to respond to this large of a catastrophe. I don’t think they had any idea how many people would stay behind, even though the mayor had ordered everyone to evacuate out of the city. I read online that 30 percent of the people in New Orleans don’t own vehicles, so they had no means of leaving. The city should have had busses there waiting to take them somewhere. That way 30-tousand homeless residents would have had to take shelter in the new infamous trashed SuperDome. The convention center became a story in itself too. I remember driving by it two weeks later and seeing the mountains of trash still in the lobby. I went inside to take pictures of the guard members who were camped out there and it still smelled a lot like landfill on a hot summer day.
New Orleans got all the press, but the truth be told, there were lots of small town around the gulf coast region that were wiped off the map. I remember driving south toward the Gulf of Mexico and came across a small town called Port Sulphur. It looked like a tornado had ripped through the town, because there was absolutely nothing left. Homes were shredded and off their foundations, some even rested on the edge of the levees.