Remembering Katrina: Landfall

This blog is part of a series that reflects upon the tracking, landfall, response and long-term recovery 10 years ago when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Throughout each stage, Coast Guard men and women played an integral part in the immediate rescue and recovery efforts. Follow along this weekend as Coast Guard Compass remembers Katrina.

Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Scott D. Rady, 34, of Tampa, Fla., pulls a pregnant woman from her flooded New Orleans home here today.  Rady is a rescue swimmer sent from Clearwater, Fla., to help aid in search and rescue efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  U.S. Coast Guard photograph by Petty Officer 2nd Class NyxoLyno Cangemi.

Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Scott D. Rady, 34, of Tampa, Fla., pulls a pregnant woman from her flooded New Orleans home here today. Rady is a rescue swimmer sent from Clearwater, Fla., to help aid in search and rescue efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. U.S. Coast Guard photograph by Petty Officer 2nd Class NyxoLyno Cangemi.

It was 6:10 a.m., when it came ashore in southeast Louisiana, blowing 125 mph winds and dumping heavy rain.

The area of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in Plaquemines Parish was completely destroyed. The high storm surge reached up to 22 feet, furthering the destruction.

No one could predict just how devastating the strong Category 3 hurricane would be for New Orleans. And no one knew at the time, but the Coast Guard’s response to Hurricane Katrina would turn out to be one of the largest search and rescue mission in the nation’s history.

As New Orleans sounded the evacuation call for residents and opened up shelters for those who couldn’t make it out, the Coast Guard was enacting their own regularly exercised hurricane plan.

Flooded roadways can be seen as the Coast Guard conducts initial Hurricane Katrina damage assessment overflights. U.S. Coast Guard photograph by Petty Officer 2nd Class Kyle Niemi.

Flooded roadways can be seen as the Coast Guard conducts initial Hurricane Katrina damage assessment overflights. U.S. Coast Guard photograph by Petty Officer 2nd Class Kyle Niemi.

At 11:00 a.m., on August 29, 2005, authorities received the first report of a levee breach at the 17th Street Canal.

In all, 53 levees breached and led to flooding of over 80 percent of the city to a depth of up to 20 feet, leaving 50,000 citizens who were still there trapped.

Actual operations began while the hurricane left the region. The Coast Guard Cutter Spencer chased the storm as it swept north and was the first federal vessel to arrive in New Orleans. In addition, dozens of fixed-wing aircraft flew over the affected areas to assess the damage and vector Coast Guard helicopters into the worst hit areas to rescue victims and survivors.

Rear Adm. Robert Duncan, the commanding officer of the 8th Coast Guard District, was on one of the first flights to assess the damage.

“As we came up into the city I think we were all kind of stunned by what we saw,” Duncan said. “Nothing was above water. You know, we’d see steeples. We’d see roofs. And if you look closely, you could see where the telephone poles were and that would give you some indication of where the road was but there was nothing else that you saw. The entire Gulf Coast from Mobile, Alabama, to some point west of New Orleans was blacked out.”

Seven Coast Guard helicopters initially launched in tropical storm winds to fly to New Orleans to begin the massive rescue operation.

In the first nine hours after Katrina came ashore, Coast Guard helicopter crews had rescued 137 people.

A Coast Guard rescue swimmer with the pilots from Airstation Atlantic City, N.J., prepares an elderly man and woman for transport to safety. Official Coast Guard photo.

A Coast Guard rescue swimmer with the pilots from Airstation Atlantic City, N.J., prepares an elderly man and woman for transport to safety. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Although Coast Guard crews conduct rescue missions every day, little could prepare them for the dangers they encountered during the Hurricane Katrina rescues.

“The first few days I would say the most challenging part was wires,” said Cmdr. Patrick Gorman, an HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter pilot on the first rescue missions. “Wires are the worst thing that can happen to a helicopter. In fact they are referred to as ‘helicopter catchers.’ I start sticking rotor blades in the wires and we’re done.”

Improvising proved to be the key to success.

When the rescue swimmers determined that many residents were trapped in their attics and were unable to reach their roofs, the swimmers began chopping through the roofs with the small crash axes carried aboard the helicopters. When these proved to be problematic due to their small size, the swimmers would ask for an ax from any nearby firemen when they landed to offload their rescued passengers.

For the rescue swimmers involved in Katrina an important part of their job was crowd management where they had to practice a bit of psychology to get everyone to follow their orders. Swimmers are trained in rescue swimmer school to handle a struggling person in the water, but controlling a situation on a rooftop dealing with armed persons was not part of that training.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Rob Williams, an aviation survival technician,  found himself in this type of dangerous situation on the roof of a hotel.

He was a crewman aboard a Corpus Christi HH-65B Dolphin helicopter that was deployed to rescue a reported 150 persons trapped on the roof of a Days Inn near Lake Pontchartrain. As he was lowered to the hotel’s roof, three men armed with knives approached him. They told him they also had a firearm and demanded to be rescued first. Williams faced down the three men and organized the survivors’ rescue by immediate need, ultimately getting all 150 victims off the roof safely.

Members of a Louisville, Ky., based Coast Guard Disaster Area Response Team approach a house in a flooded area near Lake Pontchartrain. Coast Guard crews continue to search for survivors of Hurricane Katrina who may be trapped in their homes. USCG photo by L.F. Chambers.

Members of a Louisville, Ky., based Coast Guard Disaster Area Response Team approach a house in a flooded area near Lake Pontchartrain. Coast Guard crews continue to search for survivors of Hurricane Katrina who may be trapped in their homes. U.S. Coast Guard photo by L.F. Chambers.

In total, the Coast Guard had 26 cutters, 38 helicopters, 14 fixed-wing aircraft, 13 Auxiliary aircraft, 119 boats and eight Marine Safety and Security Teams and Disaster Assist Teams and more than 5,600 Coast Guard men and women involved in the rescue.

At the peak of the Katrina response, the Coast Guard rescued 750 people an hour by boat and 100 people an hour by air.

As the clock wound down on the first day following landfall, Coast Guard men and women knew that it was only the beginning of a long and demanding rescue and recovery operation.

 

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