New Orleans Fire Department Hazmat Response Following Katrina

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...


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Birou was able to contact his sister at the Phillips/Conoco Emergency Operation Center in Houston. He described the dire communications situation in New Orleans and asked whether help could be provided. She made some contacts and within two days there were 10 handheld satellite phones at FedEx in Baton Rouge. According to Birou, once received, those "10 handheld phones became the most important items on the fire department." After about five days, the direct connection on their Nextel phones began working.

Nine hazmat specialists on duty the day of the hurricane ultimately worked 24/7 until Dec. 18, except for a mandatory rehab Sept. 6-12. Personnel from the New York City Fire Department were assigned to New Orleans Hazmat during the rehab period. As New Orleans slipped into anarchy and police protection was limited or non-existent, the superintendent of the fire department told firefighters who had personal weapons to carry them and they became their own police force, protecting themselves and other personnel.

Each new day began with hazmat team members foraging for boats, fuel, flashlights, tire-repair kits, food and water to accomplish the rescue mission before them and for survival themselves. The first 2-weeks their time was spent on rescue operations. One operation at the Louisiana State University School of Dentistry turned out to be the rescue of 100-plus firefighters, police officers and New Orleans Health Department paramedics who were using the structure as a safe haven from the hurricane. Flood waters from the broken levees surrounded the dental school, trapping the personnel for four days.

When not conducting rescue operations, the hazmat team members evaluated a list of 93 Tier II Facilities with Extremely Hazardous Substances (EHS). They also searched through 430 facilities without EHS substances, looking for railcars and other hazmat containers with leaks or damage. In addition, they searched for "orphaned" containers carried away from facilities by the flood waters. A grid system was drawn on a map to identify areas of the city that needed to be searched. As of Dec. 7, over 10,800 containers of hazardous materials had been located and evaluated. Examples of containers are listed below:

  • Glass bottles - Lab chemicals, solvents, corrosives, oxidizers, flammable liquids, dangerous-when-wet phosphoric materials, toxic, radioactive and unknowns.
  • 30- to 70-pound cylinders - LPG and propane.
  • 150-pound cylinders - Oxygen, acetylene, helium, argon and nitrogen.
  • Drums and pails - Hydrocarbon fuels, oils, solvents, corrosives, oxidizers, flammable liquids, dangerous when wet phosphoric materials, toxic, radioactive and unknowns.

All containers found were checked and marked. Five major Level A entries were conducted for atmospheric testing, evaluation and discovery of hazards in the New Orleans Medical Center of Louisiana (Charity Hospital), University Hospital, Louisiana State University School of Dentistry, Dennis Sheen Transfer Company (following fire and explosions) and 2321 Timoleon St. (unknown release at debris-removal site).

The Louisiana National Guard 62nd Civil Support Team, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on-scene coordinator and START (Simple Triage And Rapid Treatment) teams eventually reached the city as waters started to recede and were an excellent resource during hazmat operations. They provided personnel and hazmat equipment and helped the firefighters survive the first couple of weeks. Civil Support Teams and a small EPA group were assigned under the command of New Orleans Hazmat for operations within the city. Hazmat personnel from Illinois fire departments in Carpentersville, Chicago, Chicago Heights and Decatur assisted New Orleans Hazmat in addition to Gonzales, LA. Approximately 2,000 firefighters from around the country supplemented the entire New Orleans Fire Department in the weeks following Katrina.

There were more than 3,000 railcars in Orleans Parish during Hurricane Katrina. Of those, 640 contained hazardous materials and 105 of those were derailed by the flood waters. Two releases occurred from railcars, one at the CSX rail yard releasing ethylene oxide and another at Air Products Company, releasing hydrogen chloride.

The CG Railway Company is a Mexican operation in which railcars are shipped from Mexico by specially designed barges to off-load in New Orleans. Four of the tracks in the CG rail yard were under water with five derailed cars. Documentation provided by CG Railway showed 14 railcars containing hazardous materials at their New Orleans facility. Materials in the railcars included methylamine, anhydrous ammonia, potassium hydroxide solution and chlorine.