Katrina Rescues: The Military’s Work Continues

Joe Roche has shared more emails about his wife, Lili, who is conducting hurricane rescue work as part of her service with the Washington D.C. National Guard. She is based at Naval Air Station New Orleans.

Before I share the (edited) e-mails, a link: Lili’s unit was the focus of a Washington Times story today.

And now for the e-mails, written by Joe, based on the phone calls he is receiving from Lili:

September 11

…Lili sounds great. She was visited by a reporter for the Washington Times today.

In addition to other search and rescue and transport missions, she took calls and coordinates of dogs being sighted in the city. Some dogs are rabid, and that is now a concern while they are also trying to pick up and rescue the pets. There are still some parts that have flooding, and pets there are still on rooftops in those areas…

She said there is a big search for more space on the base, and that people are jealous of her office space. She has it good. Nonetheless, she told me she wants to do more missions in the city…

After yesterday’s mishaps, things got under control again today. Everyone is sleeping when they are supposed to, and getting more of it. So safety has returned.

That is all. Have a good week.

September 10

Much better sounding today. Perhaps the comforts of the base are mitigating the stresses.

Lili said it is wild to see all the people setting up and the huge operations going on. She saw foreign supporting soldiers, rescue workers and aid groups. She saw some from Luxemburg, some from Israel, and some from Germany.

There is also a massive quad in the base with perhaps around 50 large tents, set up as temporary shelter bays, housing a huge number of contractors and workers of all types. These being civilian types.

There are also large numbers of various Search & Rescue units setting up.

Her descriptions really reminded me of what it was like at Baghdad International Airport when during the first year under the 1st Armored Division, it was like one massive operations enterprise. That is what it sounds like is happening at Naval Air Station New Orleans. Not just military, but also every type of rescue outfit from all over the country, huge numbers of diverse civilian contractors, and also the foreign groups. She described long and big set-ups of volunteer campers and trailers.

Clearly, it is all starting to fall into place there. A huge, massive, gargantuan enterprise is being set up that is going to really do some incredible stuff over the coming weeks and months.

Contrary to the earlier report that the Air Force had abandoned the place, she said there are now big operations and set-ups from all of the military services there. This includes the Navy, Marines, Air Force, Army, Coast Guard.

She saw one of those massive giant C-5 Starlifter planes land. It is the fourth largest plane in the world. I remember seeing them at our air base in Germany — they completely dwarf C-130s!

The dining facility (DFAC) on base is very nice, but she doesn’t get there much because it is a long way from where she is, and because of the many different military branches there, it makes it a bit uncomfortable walking around too much. Everyone likes to bark out orders.

She has an office now. It was set up and opened today. It is very nice. People of all sorts of government agencies often pop in to talk to her. She has AC and nice window views of the whole flight line. There are many such operations centers popping up, so it is going to be huge.

She said that the bureaucracy now getting established is really complicated. At first, this is always the case. She said that it was very hard all day to keep track of who was who, what needed to go where, how to do what, and when to do this and that. …Wow!

She said that it impresses her that a huge operation is being established that is going to go on for a long time. “It is all falling into place.”

The heat returned today. This must be making it much harder for the search, rescue and patrolling units in the city. However, Lili lucked out because she worked in her AC’d office.

Her job is pretty much the heart of her unit’s flight operations throughout New Orleans. She takes the calls for missions, and then calls out to get the crews, pilots and mechanics together to get the mission going. She is the key to it all happening — that is her job. They are doing search-and-rescue missions, transporting patients and moving evacuees around/out.

She said that fatigue is starting to show with some of the pilots. Nothing bad happened with her unit, but other units had some mishaps. One, which she said is probably on TV (I haven’t seen it) was when a helicopter carrying a slingloaded water bladder hit a powerline with it, knocking it down and losing the load with water splashing everywhere. There was also a blade strike. And more worrying, there was a “precautionary landing,” which means a potentially serious mechanical failure sometimes leading to a crash. The helicopter nearly had to land in the water. In the end, it landed alright and nothing bad happened. All told, though, there were no injuries and nothing serious resulted from these mishaps. She said the point is, though, that it shows there is a lot of fatigue and weariness being felt by the overworked crews and pilots.

She also said that the water is being pumped out of the city very well, at an incredible rate. However, the effect on Lake Pontchatrain is probably very bad. She said she saw it flowing into the lake as a “clearly defined thick black” pool of stuff.

I think it may help that today the outline of a huge massive organization is starting to take shape. Structure in such a place stricken by anarchy and chaos might be a comfort. I don’t know. She did sound good, spirits lifted, and determined to keep carrying on.

That is all.

September 9

She sounded drained, sad, maybe a little depressed. I asked her about it, and it appears that this is being felt all around now. It may be because of the missions, the constant sights, and the smell. I can tell you that in my unit, we are told that for a full-on/full-mass rescue mission, one week is about the total amount of time. Here is what she said about the day today…

She flew a mission with reporters. One was a video journalist and the other was a New Orleans Times-Picayune journalist. They had them fly to the worst hit areas where they are doing missions, over the broken levees, and a number of other significant sights.

She also flew other missions. She said that her unit is flying “anything” that comes up for missions. Sometimes it is rescue, sometimes it is transporting something, sometimes it is taking VIPs around. They never know.

The constant sights of “total destruction,” however, are making everyone (her fellow soldiers) feel down and maybe a bit depressed. She said that it is “overwhelming to see the total destruction” and that it “isn’t like any movie you have seen, except perhaps some weird sci-fi flick.”

She saw unexpected random things that throw you a bit. For example, there was a horse standing lost and clearly dazed in a street intersection. Another one later on was eating what was obviously bad and contaminated stuff. There are animals starving to death on rooftops. And while it is hard to make out human bodies in the water because of all the sludge and debris, when they lower, you can see a few at a time.

The smell is really messing them up. It is all over everything, “you smell New Orleans on everything, all night long.” She said, “you can’t wash it out.”

The water has dropped in much of the city. Some areas have had up to 20 feet of flooding recede. What is left, though, is not nice to see: “Everything is covered with this grey mud that stinks really bad.” There are houses with rings around them from where the grey mud just piled up from the flooding. Some only had the very top tips of the roofs over the water.

At collection points where previously there had been hundreds and thousands of evacuees, “there are piles and piles of peoples luggage, purses, bags and personal stuff.” All that had to be left behind, is now just sitting there abandoned.

She said that you see no one most of the time. “The city is dead.” “Nothing pretty. It is full of dead.”

When there are people, it is more sad and bad-feeling than before. They are still doing rescue missions, but the people are mostly those who don’t want to leave. They are giving up because they have run out of food, or other traumatic reasons.

She said, “being near the devastation every day, all day long, constantly, is wearing on everyone.”

She said that an eerie sight is all the buses that are sitting spaced out at intervals along certain streets. They are wrecked, having been left and not used through the storm and the flooding. They are city buses, school buses, and those tan or plain types sometimes used by churches or the military. All of them just sitting there, never having been used. There are cars scattered everywhere too, as though people often just abandoned them in the streets.

She sees “heavily armed military and police” patrolling the streets. “They must have it really hard” because she said they are right on and in the mess and smell. Some are walking where it is dry, others are riding in high-water trucks and armored vehicles. She also saw many military convoys going through the city.

She said that except for a few areas where people still remain, mostly it is like a “dead city” with heavily armed soldiers and dying/starving animals. The smell and that grey mud just makes it all seem “unreal.”

She saw a lot of houses and buildings that had “like shuffled and bumped into other” houses and buildings. There was a marina where “all of the boats had been forced off of the water and onto the land.”

When they see someone, they contact ground units to get to them if it isn’t an urgent rescue situation.

She said it appears that around the base and into that part of New Orleans, that is where the worst of the hurricane wind damage hit. The flooding parts are like a separate event. She said that while the press/media focused so much on the Superdome and Convention Center, “the reality is that there is massive, just total devastation elsewhere.” She said that so much “focused on those sights because it was easier to get cameras and quick powerful pictures.” The other areas are just like dead parts of the city.

She warned that when she returns, the smell of New Orleans will be on her.

She added that the weather is beautiful. “It is perfect for flying.”

…She said that her unit is on standby constantly for missions. They are setting up more permanent operations centers, so all this can go on for much longer and be very organized. She said the Crew Chiefs are working incredibly hard, and everyone is overdoing themselves.

She did add that it is nice to be back at base because they have AC, electricity, lights, and it is comfortable. They even have running water, though they can’t drink it or put it on toothbrushes. It is brought in by the military.

That is all.

Earlier e-mails covering Lili’s hurricane rescue experiences can be found here and here.

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