Katrina Rescues: Scenes of New Orleans

As I mentioned in this post, our friend Joe Roche‘s wife Lili, a member of the Washington, DC National Guard, is doing helicopter rescue missions in hurricane-affected areas.

Joe’s been sharing her reports about her experiences with friends and family and, with his permission and Lili’s, I’m reprinting one of his emails here.

But first, a photo (taken before Katrina struck) of Joe and his new (less than a year) bride with their mutual boss:

Joe and Lili Roche With Secretary Rumsfeld

And now, Joe’s letter:

Lili is doing missions in downtown New Orleans, picking up people that need rescuing and transporting them to medical triage sites, going around the city, and she has flown over a town in Mississippi… I want to just pass on what she has said and what she is doing, so I’m not going to organize this. I have spoken to her a few times since Monday. Some of what she is seeing and experiencing is very bad….

Lili has been flying into New Orleans, leaning outside the helicopter on the right side (opposite the Crew Chief), with doors off. She said she has gotten sunburned on the right side of her face as a result. The weather is much nicer now because the heat has broken. It still is much hotter there elsewhere, but not as bad as Southern Louisiana can be.

She has flown missions in which they pick up people who need rescuing, and then transport them to medical facilities that have been set up, such as at New Orleans International Airport, called Neil Armstrong airport something-or-other.

The staging area she is based at is at the main international Baton Rouge airport. She says it is one massive military city now. There is an entire huge part of the airport where her helicopters land. There are about 50 Blackhawks also there, huge Sea Stallion helicopters, and C-130 airplanes around too. Today some massive C-17 mega-planes landed. There are soldiers all over the place there, staying in hotels and any other facility that can be opened and taken over. She is currently sleeping comfortably in an office with five other female soldiers. There are soldiers from all over the country, and also police officers from all over the country. She has met some from Virginia and elsewhere.

She has befriended some soldiers from the Louisiana National Guard’s Engineer units. One young girl is getting this weekend off to go get married, and then will return to missions. I think Lili is good friends with the soldier.

The bulk of the Louisiana NG Aviation units are rotating out of missions today because they need servicing. There are only so many hours and days a helicopter can go before it becomes dangerous. ALL of them are at or well beyond those limits. Therefore, as of today, Lili’s unit is picking up the missions they were performing. This is added on to the other missions her unit has been assigned.

One Alabama National Guard unit has flown over 1,600 flight hours since the response began for the hurricane’s impact. That very well could be a record.

Another flight unit performed 148 hoist missions in one day. Bear in mind that hoist missions are very dangerous for helicopters. They make it look easy on TV, but there are many very dangerous issues and things to deal with when a helicopter is hovering and lowering a basket like that to rescue a victim.

Lili said that as her chopper approached to pick someone up, she could see bodies floating in the water. Near one man she picked up, there was a body partially wrapped up in a trash bag just sitting nearby. When she looks down at the flooded streets while flying over them, she can see bodies.

She said that the smell of rotting bodies and all the other refuse that is fermenting in the water in New Orleans can be detected from afar. As her helicopter is approaching the city, even though she is up in the air, she said she can smell it. The soldiers at Baton Rouge say they can smell New Orleans on them all night long. She said that their uniforms and gear smells of this when they return from missions.

She has been flying around the Superdome in downtown New Orleans. The others soldiers she is with are telling of harrowing experiences they had. One soldier was shot in the leg while he was trying to patrol at the Superdome when the crowd was at its peak stress. There were multiple murders, rapes and other crimes carried out inside the Superdome. Some of the rapists were killed by the crowd. One man who raped a small baby girl was lynched by a crowd and thrown off of a ramp.

Lili said that it is interesting to see how in many parts of New Orleans, one side is so bad with flooding, damage and death, while just across the water ways, basically the size of a street, houses are untouched, clean and just fine. There are some neighborhoods of the city that escaped almost all of the damage.

She said that New Orleans actually doesn’t have much storm damage.

In contrast, her flights in Mississippi have seen destruction on massive scales. She said that the damage in Mississippi is wind damage, the direct hit from the hurricane, and that it is therefore much worse. It looks like an atom bomb went off. New Orleans, in contrast, suffered marginal wind damage. She said that there are many buildings with windows, walls and other stuff blown out, but nothing so bad as in Mississippi. New Orleans instead was destroyed by the flooding that happened, interestingly, many hours AFTER the hurricane had passed (because of the levee breaks).

Lili flew over Hattiesburg, Mississippi…

In Hattiesburg, the damage is from the wind of the hurricane. She could see blue tarps over where roofs have been torn off of houses. This is actually a good thing to see because it indicates that people are functioning there. They aren’t suffering massive flood damage, and appear to be able to survive alright. Putting up the tarps is a sign that people can live there and intend to stay and recover. That is what she saw over Hattiesburg.

Lili has flown victims to New Orleans international airport. She said they are being carried on makeshift items, such as one very overweight man who was carried on a large luggage carrier. The people board C-130s, which then fly them to other staging areas.

The work to keep her unit’s helicopters going is a lot. They have pre-flight maintenance, post-flight maintenance, daily equipment checks, and also mechanical fixes to make. Basically, if a bird (helicopter) is in the air for 10 hours in a single day, that is too much. Most all of them there are doing more than that however!

Keeping the birds flying, keeping the rescue equipment working and safe, are also constant jobs.

She said that there are big military convoys moving around all over the place. She sees this at her base, and when she flies she sees them everywhere.

There are still thousands of rescue missions to be carried out. There are also a series of mass casualty medivac missions, and also huge refugee populations to be moved. Also, it is unclear at this time how the New Orleans police decision to begin forced evacuations today will impact the military missions. Lili and her unit are looking at going full tilt for a long time, likely only to stop when the birds can’t fly anymore.

I believe I’ve seen her helicopters on TV a couple times. You can see it too, perhaps. She flies in Hueys that have the medical red cross sign on the front and sides. Actually, one of her helicopters don’t have the sign. Anyway, you might catch a glimpse of her and her helicopters, so I thought I’d let you know.


Addendum 2/19/06: As has now been well-documented, rumors and media reports of murders and other incidents of reported violent crimes in the Superdome turn out to have been unsubstantiated. We apologize for our part in repeating false information.

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