Sept 2, The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, Louisiana on the rescuers during Hurricane Katrina:
The 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the levee breaks passed Saturday (Aug. 29) with memorials to the 1,833 who were lost and testimonials about how far we’ve come. Before we move on, though, we should take a moment to honor our rescuers. As horrific as the death toll was in Katrina, there were tens of thousands of people who were saved from the floodwaters – plucked from their rooftops and attics by helicopter or brought to dry land by boat.
With tropical force winds still swirling on Aug. 29, 2005, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter crew rescued two women and 4-month-old baby in the community of Nairn in Plaquemines Parish. Their home had been standing since 1876, and they had thought they were safe.
But Katrina made landfall nearby and stormwaters rose into the second floor of the house. Bobbie Jean Moreau tied netting together to steady them as they climbed onto the roof, and her daughter Cheramie swam to get a neighbor’s boat. In the boat, which had a cabin and a radio, they began calling for help.
Lt. Dave Johnson, Lt. Craig Murray, Petty Officer 2nd Class Warren Labeth and Petty Officer 3rd Class Laurence Nettles were getting numerous “mayday” calls as they flew out of Houma, but they heard Ms. Moreau mention the baby and made her their first rescue.
The crew would fly nine straight days of missions.
The Coast Guard rescued 33,500 people across the Gulf Coast after Katrina, according to the agency’s count. Of those, 19,000 were stranded in flooded neighborhoods in the New Orleans metro area – and 6,500 of them were picked up by helicopter. It was the largest air rescue mission in the agency’s history and one of the rare success stories in the federal response.
Coast Guard helicopter pilot Lt. Patrick Dill talked later about seeing small beams of light pointed up from the flooded neighborhoods in New Orleans during five nights of flights. “They were everywhere, shining flashlights,” he said. “There were just thousands.”
Thankfully, there were thousands of rescuers as well, including more than 5,600 men and women from the Coast Guard. The agency deployed 26 cutters, 38 helicopters, 14 fixed-wing aircraft, 13 auxiliary aircraft, 119 boats and eight Marine Safety and Security Teams and Disaster Assist Teams.
At the height of the effort, the Coast Guard contingent was rescuing 750 people an hour by boat and 100 people an hour by air, according to agency officials.
The heroic rescue operation included many others, of course: New Orleans police and firefighters, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the National Guard, active military personnel and regular citizens who volunteered with their own boats.
At a congressional hearing in January 2006, Sen. Joe Lieberman praised Wildlife and Fisheries rescue workers. They “put on what I would consider to be an extraordinary display of both organization and courage. On Monday morning, as Katrina was still raging, they transported 60 boats to New Orleans from their prestaged areas around the state, and by 4 p.m. the same day they began to rescue people stranded in the storm. They succeeded in rescuing more than 1,500 by the next afternoon, and more than 21,000 before it was over.”
New Orleans firefighters and police carried on numerous rescues as well despite difficulties with communication equipment and a lack of boats, he said.
“These heroes stepped in, in some ways unprepared and unassisted, you might say with nothing but their courage and their wits about them, to save tens of thousands of lives,” Sen. Lieberman said.
And for that, we will be eternally grateful.