The Coast Guard Mission

Desperate Victims Turning Combative

A Coast Guard helicopter moves into position. The growing desperation of stranded victims is adding a new threat of hostilities to the tough rescue mission.
A Coast Guard helicopter moves into position. The growing desperation of stranded victims is adding a new threat of hostilities to the tough rescue mission. (By Phil Coale -- Associated Press)
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 2, 2005

MOBILE, Ala., Sept. 1 -- Coast Guard rescue swimmer Scott Holway has answered hundreds of pleas to save citizens from murky New Orleans floodwater in recent days, but on Thursday for the first time, a shoving match on a high balcony led to an urgent call for backup from a fellow lifesaver.

"Brett was on the balcony, and there were six people getting really pushy with him, so he called me and I went down, and we both dealt with it," said Holway, 40, of Cape Cod, Mass.

Dealing with it meant, first, muscling four men back into the house and slamming the door, so Holway could safely hoist two other people onto a hovering helicopter.

Amid 100-degree heat and dwindling food and water, the growing desperation among the thousands of people stranded in New Orleans is adding a new threat of hostilities to the dangerous and exhausting mission waged around the clock by about 100 Coast Guard aviators flying from a disaster headquarters here.

"These people want off these roofs," said rescuer Scott Rady, 34, of Clearwater, Fla. As a result, some are growing "a little combative," said Rady, one of about 50 rescue specialists performing six-hour missions plucking people to safety in helicopters. The flights back and forth to New Orleans are a key part of the rescue mission now in its fifth day, and they constitute the biggest operation in response to a natural disaster in recent Coast Guard history, commanders said.

An ugly turn in the attitude of desperate citizens has convinced many of the rescuers that, despite a massive relief effort, the situation in New Orleans in worsening.

Increasingly impatient after days of fruitlessly waving at aircraft, some residents now greet rescuers not with expressions of relief but with complaints. "They see planes flying around, and they're really frustrated," said Dustin Skarra, 34, of Vista, Calif.

"Before, people were excited." Now they ask, " 'Why weren't you here earlier? Why can't you take our luggage?' " Skarra said, when he returned to base after a predawn mission Thursday.

Coast Guard helicopters were grounded for an hour, along with other military aircraft, after reports that residents had fired at an Army evacuation chopper, Coast Guard officials said. To ensure greater protection, rescue swimmers who usually work alone are frequently operating in teams of two, and Coast Guard officials are avoiding dropping off single rescuers on rooftops.

The tensions are rising as Coast Guard crews continue to face an evacuation that appears more massive by the hour, according to interviews with several rescuers here. Already, teams from Mobile have saved 1,500 people, officials said. Holway and another rescuer pulled 62 people to safety in just seven hours Wednesday.

The teams recount inescapable images of human need, vivid even from high above New Orleans.

"When they hear the helicopters coming, they are almost like gophers hopping through the roofs," Rady said.

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