Keesler Air Force Base Reflects on Katrina Devastation
By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast of the United States 10 years ago today, destroying a huge swath of land from Florida to Louisiana and leaving about 80 percent of New Orleans underwater. It was one of the biggest natural disasters in U.S. history, and countless assets from the armed services were called upon to help with the unprecedented recovery and relief efforts.
Memories of that time are ingrained on the minds of those who helped bring the region back to life. Three members of the relief effort offered to share some of them with me.
USS Iwo Jima commanding officer Capt. Richard S. Callas
The USS Iwo Jima, a naval multipurpose amphibious assault ship, arrived in New Orleans days after Katrina. One of the first things it did was take care of the first responders, including a Rhode Island National Guard unit that had been sleeping on concrete tarmac for a week.
“I remember turning to the command master chief, and I said, ‘If we have hundreds, if not thousands of empty bunks, why on Earth are they sleeping out in the open?’” recalled Iwo Jima commanding officer Capt. Richard S. Callas. “The next thing you know, we have the Rhode Island National Guard living onboard the Iwo Jima, taking their first shower in a week, having their first hot meal. I think it did an awful lot to help their spirits.”
Find your role, and do your part — that’s what Callas said President George W. Bush had asked of the Navy, so that’s what they did. Crew members offered medical help and supplies to the community. They rescued people and helped clear roads and bridges.
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“We had minesweeping ships down there using their side-scan sonars to clear channels to identify wrecks and debris so we could open up Gulfport and Biloxi to commerce,” Callas said.
There was a lot of ingenuity on the part of the sailors.
“One of our first responders built this giant steel contraption that went on the front of a very heavy truck that allowed them to go down the streets and push the debris out of the way to get to areas basically left isolated,” he said. “In many cases, the crew didn’t need to be asked.”
Helping bring New Orleans back to life was the part of the recovery effort Callas said his crew will remember most.
“Everybody there understood … that there was a sense of history that we were helping to contribute to,” he said. “For us and the ship at that time, it was our finest hour.”
U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Robert Mueller
U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Robert Mueller, the deputy commander of Sector New Orleans, was on one of the first helicopters into the city after the levees broke.
“We watched Industrial Canal flood the Lower Ninth Ward. Everything was flooding rapidly,” he said. “The hardest thing was just the frantic need to get to everybody as fast as we could.”
The Coast Guard was able to rescue about 33,500 trapped people, including many of the city’s firefighters and police. They also provided another valuable asset — security during the chaos that ensued.
“People were shooting at each other because the police were gone. We brought down our Marine Safety and Security teams — they’re like SWAT teams on the water — and we reestablished law and order,” Mueller said. “People don’t realize we lost the city. The police were gone, government was gone, civilization was gone, and this was what was left.”
There were a lot of hardships during the rescue effort, what stuck out in Mueller’s mind were all the “miracles.” Like when a crew rescued a pregnant woman from flood waters, and her water broke as soon as she was in the boat.
Or when another crew doing its third and final search of a home was told to give up but didn’t.
82nd Airborne commanders, Lt. Gen. Russel Honore talk Katrina
“The coxswain in charge of the boat goes and looks at this house and says, ‘There’s something about it. I’ve got to go in,’” Mueller recalled. They knocked and got nothing, so they decided to break in. “There was a guy there … in his 60s, and his mother was there in the water up to her neck. She’d been sitting there praying for rescue.”
There were plenty of miracles for Mueller’s crew, too.
“With all those rescues, nobody got hurt. When we needed gas, it was there. When we needed food, it was there. No matter what I needed, it showed up,” Mueller said.
He also spoke of the resilience of the local “Coasties.” Their equipment was looted, their cars were underwater, and many lost their homes. But they never quit.
“These kids lost everything they own, and you could not stop them from rescuing,” Mueller said. “They were working, like, 20 hours a day. I had to order them to stop and eat and stuff because they were just going and going.”
Louisiana Army National Guard Sgt. Casey Morgan
Sgt. Casey Morgan, a native of Bossier City, Louisiana, was just about to end a nine-year run in the Louisiana Army National Guard when Katrina hit. His unit was called up to help in New Orleans. He remembered the struggles of the first few days.
“We tried to help as many people as we could,” he said. “We had families and kids literally living in the streets.”
Morgan, a combat veteran, compared his experience during the heavy looting and chaos to his time in Iraq.
“It was like fighting the same type of enemy,” he said. “We were shooting. … We had food drops, just like Iraq. We had to set a perimeter to protect the food and water and ration them out. The stores were looted. Martial law was put into effect,” he said. “It was sad and heartbreaking, because this was my home state.”
Leading the Road to Recovery
Residents, tourists and life have since returned to the Gulf Coast region. While not all of the wounds from Katrina have healed, members of the armed forces were able to help pick the region up and get it back on its feet.
“Soldiers all across the nation helped each other out. We all worked as a team, regardless of what we were given,” Morgan said. “We did a damn good job at it.”
“The DoD did a great job. The 86th Airborne came in and helped us out. The Marines, Navy and Air Force were here. The National Guard guys did great. It was just truly an ad-hoc joint operation that worked superbly,” Mueller said.
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