Hurricane Katrina - what really happened?

Published:  01 January, 2006

Hurricane Katrina and its effect on the Gulf Coast is now widely regarded as one of the worst disasters ever to have struck the United States, not least because of the great confusion about what actually was going on. F&R’s Ann-Marie Knegt talked to Brian Inglis, Taskforce leader of the Vancouver US&R Team.

It was by far the worst disaster he had ever attended - that’s what Brian Inglis says - and he is not someone given to exaggeration. A rescuer with an extensive background in Urban Search and Rescue, he makes comparisons between the hurricane damage in Florida after hurricane Andrew in 1992 and the terrible 1999 earthquakes in Turkey.
“Those disasters seemed to be more selective, leaving some buildings up at least. In the town of Chalmette, Saint Bernard Parish - where we were we were stationed - everything was wiped out,” Brian comments.
This disaster was different, says Brian, because his team was travelling with much less equipment than they normally would have.
“Our team was already on alert when the page came in. We had a 6-hour time- window between notified deployment until we were on the road and in the air with what we call ‘wheels-up’. Before you leave there is actually quite a bit of pandemonium. People get their medical screening; there is a team selection. We have to mend and collect the appropriate equipment. In this case we did not have a cargo aircraft at our disposal, so we could only take 11,000-12,000 pounds of equipment with us,” he continues.
The team had to get their hands on as many chest waders as they could because they knew they would be facing so much water. They left their boats at home as such craft were readily available over in Louisiana, but took their swift water rescue gear.
They were providing direct aid between the province of British Columbia and the State of Louisiana and attached to the Louisiana State Troopers. “We drove off to the town of Chalmette in Saint Bernard’s Parish. It took some time to get there from the airport in Lafayette. Things were really bad that day in New Orleans. There was much gunfire and a lot going on and no one could get a handle on it.
“Our point of contact, Captain Joe Lentini, told us we were the first rescue people he had seen since the hurricane struck - and this was early Thursday morning, on the 2nd of September,” says Brian.
First at the scene:
It was revelation for the team to discover they were the first to be deployed in the field. Other residents confirmed this: Brian met three undercover drug agents who lived in Chalmette; they managed to get a boat and come back up the Mississippi to the State Trooper headquarters.
“We haven’t seen anybody,” they said. “We have seen military helicopters flying overhead. Nobody landed; there is no food and no water. Can you give us a hand?” Brian answered that he was the leader of a Canadian Rescue Team and that he would certainly help them out.
The cops responded, bemused: “A rescue team from Canada is here before any other team?” With the help of US Navy Seals the rescue team got their hands on several boats and set off to their final destination of Chalmette. By now it was the Friday after the hurricane. When they arrived in the town, the mayor and the City council were waiting for them on the levee in a very emotional state of mind.
“We were the first help they had seen. There was no communication available at all; the UHF and VHF Frequencies were wiped out. We borrowed a helicopter from the Drug Enforcement Agency and we only had to rise 30 feet above the ground to see how bad it really was,” Brian reports.
This area was affected by a storm surge from the hurricane at least 20 - 24 feet high (7.8 metres). This surge was carrying swamp water and all sorts of pollution. At the Chalmette refinery, a mile and a half east of town, a tank with a capacity of a 155,000 barrels of crude oil had ruptured.
“You have no idea what a mess this place was. It covered a good third of the town and was at least 8 inches deep,” Brian explains. It wasn’t until Saturday morning that the real search and rescue operation got really underway.
“We could not believe the situation we encountered. People were wandering around dazed and they had been doing so for two or three days without any food and water. Some were camping on the freeways because they did not have anywhere else to go,” he reports. Brian is sure that reports about violence have been blown out of proportion but that he did hear much gunfire and that everyone was fairly nervous. He believes that much of this friction was down to gang activity and a small number of people being marooned who saw an opportunity to settle old scores. He feels that many questions still haven’t been answered.
“Why was a team from Canada there before any others? Why wasn’t it until Monday [Day 4] that we saw other teams coming in?”
He identifies communications as a factor in this failure. It wasn’t just down to equipment - another issue was the complete confusion.
When the rescue efforts finally continued on a full scale the team rescued over a 100 people in the first two days.
“On the first day we rescued 70 people and most of them were elderly. To be honest it was a bit of shock. I cannot describe it as anything other than total and complete devastation. Nothing could put this disaster into perspective; it was a 100°F (40°C) with 100% humidity. That whole week it was very difficult working. We were wading from house to house in waist-deep water for 11-12 hours a day,” Brian recalls.
Health risks & encounters:
Protecting team members from health risks was a matter of having the right PPE and equipment. Everyone wore waders, protective boots and gloves. Everyone in the team received the right vaccinations and worked to a very strict health protocol. If gloves or shirts were contaminated at the end of the day, they would be disposed of and everybody was issued personal bottles of chemical hand-cleaner.
Brian comments: “Our medics continuously monitored everyone. They were fantastic, they just shone. There was no order anywhere but Mike Flescher and Andy Fletcher went in to town where they met up with a couple of doctors and nurses who had no medicines left. Mike and Andy told them to get some sleep and set up the medical triage and a landing zone with the US military. They further arranged Medevac helicopters and buses to transport the uninjured to secondary transport.”
The team went on to set up secondary triages with a local fire brigade which had ambulances standing by.
Brian recounts some very sad experiences. One of them involved an elderly lady who had been wandering around for days - and died only 5 minutes after she arrived in the camp. Others were more pleasant; the team encountered some people who had cold beer but no food and who had made the best of it by drinking up.
“In total we rescued a 119 people and we treated 174 people for various medical conditions. With help of one of the Tennessee teams from FEMA one of our communication guys got the communication system working at the Chalmette Fire Department so we could take calls from their people with one of the handheld radios. We did anything to get around, driving through the mud and oil to hotwiring boats. We did what we could,” he concludes.
Unlike many, the Vancouver Urban Search and Rescue Unit kept up with its paperwork administration, keeping records of every victim entering and leaving the camp.
Two or three weeks after the mission ended they were still getting requests from various areas for copies of the teams’ records - nobody else had been keeping track of patients. Even several weeks after the team returned home, thanks to these records the authorities were able to reunite people with their relatives.

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