Coast Guard's Response to Katrina a Silver Lining in the Storm

By Stephen Barr
Tuesday, September 6, 2005

Let's have a round of cheers for the U.S. Coast Guard.

Hurricane Katrina wiped out Coast Guard stations in Gulfport and Pascagoula, Miss., and looters wrecked part of its New Orleans base. But that did not stop the Coast Guard from sending out rescue helicopters and cutters on dangerous and exhausting missions to save lives and clear waterways after the hurricane ravaged the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29.

"We started the night that the storm hit," Jason Shepard , a Coast Guard rescue swimmer, said yesterday in an interview from Mobile, Ala., one of the agency's staging bases for Katrina.

Shepard, who carries the formal title of aviation survival technician first class and has served in the Coast Guard for 18 years, called the Katrina rescue effort "probably the biggest thing that has happened in our careers."

Coast Guard crews have rescued 22,000 people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, Petty Officer Andrew Kendrick , a Coast Guard spokesman in St. Louis, estimated yesterday.

The Coast Guard, in many ways, is a model agency. It is relatively small -- with about 45,000 uniformed and civilian employees -- and believes in "cross-training" so that each employee can perform more than one job.

It also is a part of the Department of Homeland Security, and the Coast Guard's response to Katrina in recent days has again illuminated the importance of capable leadership and a clear chain of command in agencies during a crisis. Hopefully, as Congress moves to probe how the government handled the Katrina crisis, the Coast Guard can serve as a model for fixing what's wrong elsewhere in Homeland Security, including what many perceive as poor leadership at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Jim Elliott , who is helping oversee rescues from Mobile, said the agency set up a unified command with states and local industries before the hurricane roared ashore.

"We know how to join with other organizations to get the job done," he said. "We were out the door as soon as the winds died down."

Elliott has been getting by on three to four hours of sleep each day for the past week. Shepard said rescue operations are running round-the-clock, with crews working "anywhere from six- to 18-hour missions, depending on what was going on."

The work is demanding. Rescue crews that normally would be asked to pluck about 20 people from danger on a tough day have been "doing 100 to 120 hoists" in adverse conditions that include heat and humidity and exposure to contaminated water kicked up by chopper rotors, Shepard said.

The work is hazardous. Pilots have had to hover between electrical and phone wires and drop cables from heights of 10 to 180 feet, Shepard said.

The Coast Guard trains personnel to rescue people from buildings, trees, mountain cliffs and sinking ships. While the employees often specialize in certain types of operations, they all train to a standard so that they can form up as teams in emergencies, with each person knowing what each job entails and how it fits into overall operations.

As Katrina approached, the Coast Guard pulled its regional command out of New Orleans and relocated to St. Louis. Aircraft and cutters were dispersed out of the storm's path.

The Coast Guard has put about 100 chopper crews, typically made up of four people, in the air each day for the past week and has flown more than 900 sorties, Kendrick said.

Shepard and Elliott said their great satisfaction has come in helping pull families and children to safety. "It is amazing the lives that we have saved," Elliott said. "It is a great feeling to be a part of this operation."

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