Honoring Those Who Went Above and Beyond During Katrina

By Stephen Barr
Thursday, May 11, 2006

There are rumblings about abolishing and replacing the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

There's talk of merging Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

There's debate about staffing and turnover at the Transportation Security Administration.

Overall, there's worry about morale of the 180,000 employees at the Homeland Security Department.

Not many Cabinet agencies have been under siege like Homeland Security, where perceptions of bureaucratic bungling have taken hold. The criticism and congressional scrutiny intensified last year, after Hurricane Katrina roared through the Gulf Coast and rattled the department.

Yesterday, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson put bureaucracy and restructuring to the side and focused on the people of the department, especially the courage, sacrifice and dedication of those who found themselves responding to Katrina, one of the largest natural disasters in the nation's history.

Chertoff and Jackson honored more than 75 employees and employee teams at the secretary's second annual awards ceremony, held at Constitution Hall. Many awards ceremonies in Washington are perfunctory events, but not Chertoff's 2005 awards fete.

The department's gold medals went to employees who met the challenge of Katrina and are, Chertoff said, symbols of "the thousands of employees who brought distinction to the department throughout the hurricane response effort."

The gold medal winners were:

Frank DiFalco , deputy director of the Homeland Security Operations Center, who worked around the clock for 30 days during the emergency and oversaw reports prepared for the White House.

Eric Gentry , a FEMA division supervisor in Mississippi who led a team that provided more than 450,000 displaced citizens with financial aid and temporary housing.

Claudia Gordon , a senior policy adviser in the office of civil rights and civil liberties, who arranged aid for disabled and elderly evacuees.

Carl Haaland , assistant federal security director for the TSA at the New Orleans airport, who led an effort to evacuate 40,000 hurricane victims.

Janet Hale , undersecretary for management, a top aide to Chertoff who pulled together resources for the Katrina response.

William Heffelfinger , deputy assistant commissioner at Customs and Border Protection who went to New Orleans to serve as the agency's on-site commander.

Michael A. Holt , a special agent at Immigration and Customs Enforcement who launched an effort to account for displaced ICE employees in the New Orleans area.

Ashley Lewis , who headed a team that worked 12 hours a day, six days a week after Katrina to improve the accuracy of FEMA contract data being reported to the president.

Brian H. Rossito , a Secret Service agent who helped coordinate law enforcement efforts in Louisiana.

Lt. Olav M. Saboe , a Coast Guard helicopter pilot who directed the rescue of 143 people. He flew 17 sorties totaling 30 flight hours in what officials called stressful and dangerous conditions. He also discovered a school where more than 400 people had taken refuge from floodwaters and called in Air National Guard helicopters to help with the rescue.

Jackson's description of Saboe's heroics, such as flying through heavy rain squalls to save a critically injured woman, prompted a standing ovation from the crowd.

Others who won standing ovations included Vice Adm. Thad Allen , the next commandant of the Coast Guard, who was presented with the first Homeland Security Distinguished Service Medal. Allen was lauded for taking control of the Katrina rescue and recovery and providing what Jackson called "an innovative vision that restored faith in the response effort and calmed the public."

Two awards for volunteer service also drew loud applause. Kevin Kelly , an Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent, was honored for his volunteer work in helping disabled veterans at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Jo Ann Kaminski , a program analyst at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, got a standing ovation when the crowd was told she had donated a kidney to a colleague's wife, who would have died without the transplant.

Stephen Barr's e-mail address isbarrs@washpost.com.

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