In the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, two extended Urban Search and Rescue (USAR)/canine search and recovery operations were conducted in New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward. These operations thrust canine teams and non-canine users into close professional quarters for two or more weeks at...
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Canines were used as the primary method for searching the devastated areas. Any alert was marked immediately with colored tape, then a second canine was sent in for a confirmation and a technical and/or physical search was conducted to try to confirm the alert. If the alert was made in one of the many muck-filled buildings, a team was called with an excavator to dissect the building in an attempt to find remains. With limited materials available for shoring these structures, an excavator was the only safe means available to search the structures. On Dec. 11, 2005, after 84 days of deployment and 47 victim recoveries, search and recovery operations were terminated due to lack of funds.
On March 2, 2006, the task force was reactivated to conduct a far different style of search in the Lower 9th Ward. The Louisiana Family Assistance Center had produced a list of 236 missing persons, with additional lists coming from New Orleans Police Department (NOPD), the Orleans Parish Coroner and Kenyon International Emergency Services, a private agency that helped search for human remains in the Lower 9th Ward. These lists had to be harmonized and plotted for search. In addition to the missing-persons list, 2,177 houses were slated for demolition and had to be thoroughly searched for human remains before being cleared for demolition.
Initially, the Army Corps of Engineers wanted SELA TF-1 to do a search that paralleled its demolition plan. This plan was random at best and would have had SELA, along with the canine teams, jumping all over the Lower 9th Ward. Knowing this would be impossible to control and coordinate, the command staff made the determination to divide the Lower 9th Ward into 40 grids, each to be searched by two canine teams. Canine teams consisted of one dog and handler, with one or two SELA TF-1 personnel to provide security, forcible entry and cross ventilation as necessary. If at any time a canine alerted, a search team would be dispatched from the task force command post in the Lower 9th Ward to thoroughly search the area and recover any remains found. All search tracks and indications would be marked by GPS and any building demolished by the task force in search of remains would have its picture taken before and after the operation. These 12-hour-a-day searches went on until June, 30, 2006, when all search operations in the Lower 9th Ward ceased. During the operation, 32 canine teams were used, 72 to 80 miles were walked by cadaver dogs and 2,177 houses were searched. Twenty-four victims were recovered because of this effort.
The following canine issues were raised during field operations. Flagging alert points with colored, plastic tape was a temporary, inefficient method that was replaced by using GPS. This was because many volunteers were in the area and would disregard flagged areas. In fact, flagged areas seemed to attract these volunteers and they would start cleaning up the area. It was also determined that one backup alert was insufficient, and all alerts were confirmed by a third canine.
The task force leadership also needed guidance from the canine people to set up a decontamination station properly for the dogs. Canine decontamination was a new concept for SELA TF-1. An acceptable work schedule was difficult to set up. The dogs obviously could not work continuously for a 12-hour day; nor could the humans. A work/rest schedule was agreed upon between SELA TF-1 personnel and the canine team coordinator, a schedule that was flexible, based on the needs and condition of the canine. Veterinarians, or at the very least a vet tech, needed to be on hand every second of every hour that the dogs were actively working.
Several issues were unique to the operation in the Lower 9th Ward. The area had been underwater for over a month; water that held more than 100 bodies. Scent was everywhere, sunk into the all-pervading mud, the wood of the buildings, and anything and everything porous in the Lower 9th Ward. There were other distracters. Almost every residence contained a freezer filled with rotting meat. Many handlers swore that this would not interfere with their dog's capabilities, but for observant task force escort personnel, this didn't seem to be the case. The hot, humid climate was murder on those personnel who lived in the New Orleans area, and was much worse for canines coming in from Maine and other cold climates. Task force logistics personnel found an empty mobile home with a working air conditioner that was set up at the command post as a canine rehab center.