To access the remainder of this piece of premium content, you must be registered with Firehouse. Already have an account? Login
Register in seconds by connecting with your preferred Social Network.
Complete the registration form.
News media personnel, emergency responders and others have said that you cannot appreciate the devastation in New Orleans from news footage and photos. What an understatement, as I learned when I visited New Orleans on Dec. 23, 2005, to talk with members of the New Orleans Fire Department Hazmat Team.
Under ordinary circumstances, a visit to the New Orleans hazmat team would begin at Station 7, located at 1441 Saint Peter St. There, HM (Hazardous Materials Unit) 1 and HM 2 are headquartered along with Rescue 1, Engine 7, a mass-decontamination trailer and other hazmat support equipment. However, Station 7 became one of the casualties of Hurricane Katrina - four feet of water remained inside for 10 days. Currently, Station 7 is uninhabitable due to mold, bacteria and structural damage.
Alongside the Mississippi River, behind the Hilton Hotel on the river side of the flood gates next to the cruise ship Sensation, I found HM 1 parked next to a security fence in front of several bright-yellow tents that turned out to be the headquarters for the hazmat team. HM 1 is a 2000 custom-built American LaFrance apparatus. The team also responds with a Chevrolet Suburban, purchased with federal grant funds, for assessment and control. Both units have satellite communications equipment that was installed just a week before Katrina hit. New Orleans Hazmat normally responds for hazardous materials and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) calls to the parishes of Orleans, St. Bernard, Jefferson and Plaqumines.
Captain Don Birou was the officer in charge when I arrived. We sat down at a table in his tent quarters and I heard amazing stories of victim rescues, firefighter survival and hazmat responses following Hurricane Katrina. Having spent over 26 years in the emergency services, I never dreamed I would hear about fire department or hazmat personnel having to operate under such desperate conditions within the United States. Following the hurricane, they survived, operated and rescued thousands of victims under impossible conditions. This would be a day burned into my mind for as long as I live.
Awaiting the arrival of Katrina, New Orleans hazmat personnel were staged in the city's convention center to ride out the storm. Once the storm subsided, personnel emerged to survey the aftermath of the Category 3 storm. Surprisingly, there wasn't the catastrophic damage many had expected. It looked as though New Orleans had dodged the bullet once again. Power was out, but backup systems designed for 24 to 48 hours of operation in the emergency communications center and other facilities in most cases were in full operation.
Reports began to filter in on Aug. 29 that water was flowing over some levees and that some levees were failing. The city rapidly began to fill up with water in low-lying areas as Lake Pontchartrain, swollen by the storm surge of the hurricane, began to flow into New Orleans. The real disaster was just beginning. Ultimately, almost 80% of the city was under water, including the 911 and communications centers and many of the city's fire and police stations. Nearly 70% of New Orleans fire stations were under water or damaged. Some had been looted.
On Aug. 31, backup batteries and generators for the department's communications network went dead. There was no way to replenish the fuel or batteries needed to keep the communications network on line. Firefighters who were on duty the day the levees broke were stranded in the city and on their own once radio and telephone communications systems went down. They were without food and water and, in many cases, without living quarters.
All cellular and regular phone service was disabled by the hurricane. Firefighters were forced to use written messages delivered by runner to exchange information. Satellite phones were the only means of communications and only two of them were available.