Katrina – 10 Years Later

Petty Officer 2nd Class Scott D. Rady gives the signal to hoist a pregnant woman from her apartment during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class NyxoLyno Cangemi.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Scott D. Rady gives the signal to hoist a pregnant woman from her apartment during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class NyxoLyno Cangemi.

Written by Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft.

Last week, I joined recruits at Training Center Cape May for a screening of the documentary Paratus 14:50. Directed and produced by a member of our Coast Guard family, the documentary features rescues carried out by the Coast Guard in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Yesterday, I was privileged to meet many of those first responders whose heroic feats were featured in Paratus 14:50, and I saw first-hand the raw emotions still evident from the historic number of lives saved and the unforgettable tragedy of lives lost during Katrina. While our objective was to save everyone by any and all means, 1,883 people perished and Katrina still conjures thoughts of loss and mourning – certainly not an event to celebrate.

A Coast Guard rescue swimmer tells survivors what to expect before they are lifted to safety aboard a Coast Guard HH-65C helicopter from Air Station Atlantic City. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

A Coast Guard rescue swimmer tells survivors what to expect before they are lifted to safety aboard a Coast Guard HH-65C helicopter from Air Station Atlantic City. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Among the footage in the documentary, was an interview with the Commander of the 8th Coast Guard District, Rear Adm. Dave Callahan. Aviation Training Center Mobile’s Commanding Officer when Katrina hit, Adm. Callahan noted aircrews “flew hours that we had never flown before and at rates we had never flown before; we conducted risky hoisting operations in the numbers that folks will never see in their entire career.” Crews who normally trained for rescues at sea hovered above rooftops. They hoisted families through windows and attics, cutting holes with chainsaws and axes to free citizens trapped by rising flood waters in their own homes.

The Coast Guard saved 33,500 people. There is little doubt – the Coast Guard’s response was nothing short of monumental. As Adm. Callahan said: “To this day, 10 years after Katrina, I am still haunted by the magnitude of the heroism that I witnessed.”

As we reflect upon the Coast Guard’s historic operations on this tenth commemoration, we must also consider what we learned from the response and how we have progressed in the ensuing decade.

During Katrina, we saw the limits of a Coast Guard surge in personnel and assets. By necessity, when we deployed equipment and people to the Gulf Coast, we left skeleton crews behind in several areas, which increased risk and the potential for failure in other mission areas. At the peak of the response, we had 3,400 – over 10 percent of the Coast Guard’s personnel complement – deployed to the region in one day. Further, an astounding 45 percent of the Coast Guard’s air assets were in the region at the height of the response.

This massive level of effort was required to save lives. However, we can do more in the future by developing a force planning construct that outlines our planning assumptions and baselines our requirements for contingencies and daily operations. To accomplish this, we are culling best practices from the Department of Defense and private industry to ensure we remain an agile, flexible and resilient 21st Century Coast Guard.

Equally impressive as the Coast Guard’s lifesaving operations, was the response from our marine safety professionals. Within a few days, commerce began moving along the Lower Mississippi River, home to one of the world’s largest port complex and a vital waterway to our Nation’s commerce. With 90 percent of the Nation’s commerce moving via maritime conveyance, a safe and resilient Maritime Transportation System keeps our just-in-time economy thriving, and the Coast Guard is at the center of making it happen.

Adm. Paul Zukunft and Mrs. Fran DeNinno-Zukunft with Kaitlin Smith, director of Paratus 14:50. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley.

Adm. Paul Zukunft and Mrs. Fran DeNinno-Zukunft with Kaitlin Smith, director of Paratus 14:50. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley.

While many things have changed since Katrina, one thing that remains the same is the resolve of our people. The Coast Guard’s success preparing for, supporting and executing any mission is a direct result of a talented and committed workforce. From the relentless backing of the mission support community to the actions of our frontline operators, to auxiliary volunteers who selflessly answered the call to our Coast Guard communities who ensured families were taken care of, the character of America’s Coast Guard once again lived up to its 225-year legacy.

As we reflect on the past and prepare for the future, I’m proud to lead an incredible team who remain Semper Paratus – Always Ready – to fulfill our contract with the American public.

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