The Long Blue Line: Coast Guard responders during record-setting Hurricane Katrina

deciThis blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.

Written by William H. Thiesen, Coast Guard Atlantic Area historian

Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Shawn Beaty, 29, of Long Island, N.Y., looks for survivors in the wake of Hurricane Katrina here today. Beaty is a member of an HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter rescue crew sent from Clearwater, Fla., to assist in search and rescue efforts. U.S. Coast Guard photograph by Petty Officer 2nd Class NyxoLyno Cangemi

Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Shawn Beaty, 29, of Long Island, N.Y., looks for survivors in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. U.S. Coast Guard photograph by Petty Officer 2nd Class NyxoLyno Cangemi

Hurricane Katrina shattered all records for number and ferocity of North American tropical storms as part of the record-setting 2005 Atlantic hurricane season. The tropical depression that developed into Katrina formed over the Bahamas on Tuesday, August 23, 2005. By the weekend, evacuations were underway all along the Gulf Coast.

Flooded roadways can be seen as the Coast Guard conducts initial Hurricane Katrina damage assessment overflights here today. 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

Early in the morning on Monday, August 29, Katrina made landfall between Grand Isle, Louisiana, and Mobile, Alabama. By that time, the hurricane had weakened from a Category 4 to a Category 3 storm on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, but it still packed sustained winds of 125 miles per hour. More importantly, Katrina pushed over parts of the Gulf Coast a whopping storm surge of up to 27 feet above sea level, smashing the previous record by over six feet.

The U.S. Coast Guard already had up-to-date and regularly exercised hurricane plans in place. For Katrina, the Coast Guard prepositioned assets for a “surge operation,” a high-intensity response effort launched with the maximum available resources and personnel. The Coast Guard pre-staged air assets in Texas, Florida, and North Carolina. Service experts foresaw communications as the weakest link in the initial response, so they preplanned initial localized response efforts and pre-distributed self-reliant communications equipment, including the latest satellite and cell phones.

A Coast Guard rescue swimmer tells the survivors what to expect before they are lifted to safety aboard the Coast Guard HH-65C helicopter from Airstation Atlantic City, N.J. U.S. Coast Guard photo

A Coast Guard rescue swimmer tells the survivors what to expect before they are lifted to safety aboard the Coast Guard helicopter. U.S. Coast Guard photo

In response to the impending landfall, the Coast Guard launched what would become the largest search and rescue mission in nation’s history. Actual operations began well before the hurricane left the region. Coast Guard Cutter Spencer chased the storm as it swept north and was the first federal vessel to arrive in New Orleans. As soon as the storm passed, dozens of Coast Guard fixed-wing aircraft flew over the affected areas to assess the damage and vector Coast Guard helicopters into the worst hit areas to find and rescue survivors.

In its response to the disaster, the Coast Guard drew on resources from every corner of the nation with no significant loss to its own personnel, assets, operations or financial resources. Nearly 30 Coast Guard vessels would follow Decisive to support response operations. The Coast Guard also drew on 100 response aircraft, including C-130 long-range aircraft, HU-25 Falcon jets, HH-60 and HH-65 helicopters and over a dozen Coast Guard Auxiliary aircraft. These aviation assets flew from bases as far away as Alaska to support the response effort. All of these air and sea assets focused on search and rescue, marine environmental protection, maritime commerce support and aids to navigation.

A surviving American flag from a Gulfport Coast Guard station. In the background is a Coast Guard building that was completely annihilated under the wind and tide of Hurricane Katrina. Photo by Spc. Thomas Day

A surviving American flag from a Gulfport Coast Guard station. In the background is a Coast Guard building that was completely annihilated under the wind and tide of Hurricane Katrina. Photo by Spc. Thomas Day

Coast Guard personnel also played a major role in ensuring a prompt and effective response effort. Early in September, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff appointed Vice Adm. Thad Allen as the principal federal official to oversee the federal response to the hurricane’s devastation. Over the duration of the operation 5,600 active duty, Reserve, civilian and Auxiliary personnel participated in the response to Katrina. Locally based Coast Guard personnel performed duty around the clock, despite damage to their bases and the destruction of their own homes.

U.S. Coast Guard Chief Phillip Jenicek of Sector New Orleans and Edward Primeau of Atlantic Strike Team take samples at the Sundown East Oil Facility. The site, which has spilled approximately 18,900 gallons of oil after sustaining damage during the Hurricane Katrina, is one of ten large oil spills that federal, state, and local officials are responding to in cooperation with industry partners. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Mariana O'Leary

U.S. Coast Guard Chief Phillip Jenicek of Sector New Orleans and Edward Primeau of Atlantic Strike Team take samples at the Sundown East Oil Facility. The site, which has spilled approximately 18,900 gallons of oil after sustaining damage during the Hurricane Katrina, is one of ten large oil spills that federal, state, and local officials are responding to in cooperation with industry partners. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Mariana O’Leary

The service continued response work for well over a year. The storm caused the release of eight million gallons of environmental contaminants into the Gulf, only three million gallons less than the massive Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. Coast Guard personnel responded to over 4,000 pollution cases, including seven major pollution incidents, and helped reopen all of the nearly 60 refineries in the affected area. They also repaired and replaced 1,400 damaged or missing aids to navigation along hundreds of miles of coastline and coordinated the salvage of over 2,500 wrecked vessels. The Coast Guard oversaw the salvage of countless offshore structures that were adrift, damaged or sunk. A year after Katrina hit, the service undertook a $230 million project to clear storm debris between the I-10 Freeway and the Gulf of Mexico. The operation removed materials ranging from lost houses and autos to missing railroad cars.

Hurricane Katrina impacted 6,400 miles of shoreline and created a 90,000 square mile swath of destruction – an area larger than the size of Great Britain. The storm displaced over three-quarters of a million Americans. Katrina also caused more than 1,800 deaths, making it one of the costliest U.S. storms in lives lost. In terms of property damage, it was by far the worst U.S. disaster, natural or man-made, with an approximate total loss of nearly $125 billion.

Members of the Coast Guard Sector Ohio Valley Disaster Response Team and the Miami-Dade Urban Search and Rescue Team mark a house here today to show that it has been searched for survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Teams are conducting massive search efforts for anyone who may still be trapped by the floodwaters. U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Robert Reed.

Members of the Coast Guard Sector Ohio Valley Disaster Response Team and the Miami-Dade Urban Search and Rescue Team mark a house to show that it has been searched for survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Teams are conducting massive search efforts for anyone who may still be trapped by the floodwaters. U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Robert Reed.

The Coast Guard excels at missions required by storm response efforts. Of the 60,000 people stranded by the storm, the Coast Guard aided over half of them. The men and women of the Coast Guard performed search and rescue, waterway reconstitution, environmental assessments, facility damage assessments, emergency repairs and established temporary operational and support facilities throughout the disaster area. The service used its aviation and boat crews to rescue more than 24,000 people and assist in the joint-agency evacuation of nearly 9,500 patients and medical personnel from healthcare facilities in the devastated areas.

Motor vessels Sea Wolf and Sea Falcon found themselves high above ground in Empire, La., after Hurricane Katrina ripped through the area Aug. 29, 2005. U.S. Coast Guard photo by PA2 Jennifer Johnson.

Motor vessels Sea Wolf and Sea Falcon found themselves high above ground in Empire, La., after Hurricane Katrina ripped through the area Aug. 29, 2005. U.S. Coast Guard photo by PA2 Jennifer Johnson.

In May 2006, President George W. Bush awarded the Coast Guard the Presidential Unit Citation, the highest honor bestowed to a military unit. Citing the thousands of Coast Guard personnel who served in the response effort, Bush described the operation as “one of the finest hours in the Coast Guard’s 216-year history.” Bush went on to say that, “When Americans were at their most desperate, they looked to the skies for help, and they knew their prayers were answered when they saw the rescue choppers from the United States Coast Guard.”

Today, the Coast Guard’s response to Hurricane Katrina stands as the largest of countless search and rescue operations undertaken by the Coast Guard. Throughout the Katrina response effort, men and women of the United States Coast Guard went in harm’s way to complete their mission as members of the long blue line.

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