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Contrary to all the media reports that it took the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) five or six days to reach New Orleans after the devastating Hurricane Katrina, Tennessee Task Force One (TN-TF 1), the Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) team sponsored by the 1,800-member Memphis Fire Department, was in the waters of New Orleans conducting rescues within hours of the levees breaking.
TN-TF 1 is one of 28 federal USAR teams located across the country and is made up of not only Memphis firefighters but other firefighters, medical personnel and specialists from the Memphis area. The Tennessee team has been pressed into service many times in its 10-year history, including the Pentagon on 9/11, the space shuttle disaster and numerous hurricanes. The team was deployed three times in 30 days for Hurricanes Katrina and Ophelia, and later was located in Lake Charles, LA, for Hurricane Rita.
TN-TF 1 was notified by FEMA and deployed on Saturday, Aug. 27, two days before Hurricane Katrina roared ashore. By 5 o'clock Sunday morning, they had reached their initial staging area, out of harm's way in Shreveport, LA. On Sunday, members of the team watched news accounts as Hurricane Katrina reached Category 5 status.
On Monday, FEMA moved TN-TF 1 and task forces from Missouri and Texas to Baton Rouge, LA, after the storm had moved through. As they arrived, Katrina was still wreaking havoc on southern Mississippi. At the rally point, the Louisiana State University fire training academy in Baton Rouge, task force leaders and members of the Incident Support Team from FEMA to put together their strategy.
After the strategy was devised, the first three FEMA vehicles with USAR team members made their way into New Orleans. The three FEMA vehicles were provided with an escort and as they made their way through the suburbs of New Orleans, they saw what had not been yet reported by any of the cable TV networks. The damage was far-reaching, although initial reports on TV reported the New Orleans area had escaped the worst of the storm. As the team entered the city, it was met with road blockages, looters and building fires that were burning unattended. At one point, the convoy was halted and sent to a secure staging area while the Louisiana State Police chased looters who had shot at them.
On the morning of Tuesday, Aug. 30, the team had little knowledge that it would be the first of federal assets into the waters of New Orleans to conduct rescues for what would turn out to be the largest natural disaster and rescue mission in the continental United States.
Members of the team describe the first day of operations as "organized chaos." By that point, 80% of New Orleans was under water, so the team established its first area of operations at the intersection of Interstates 10 and 610. This turned out to be one large boat ramp where helicopters and rescue boats continued to drop off those who had been rescued from rooftops, attics and the tops of cars. Members of the team described the people as coming in "droves." They were the elderly, the sick, the hot and the tired.
At one point during the operation, announcements were made on the radio that this was not a "normal" search and rescue operation. FEMA teams are designed to handle search and rescue operations involving the collapse of structures or other specialized rescues. Never had a FEMA team been thrown into a water rescue operation of such a magnitude.
Although rescues from helicopters and boats continued unabated, the reality was that this operation was turning into a medical and humanitarian mission. Those who were brought to the Interstate 10 and 610 interchange were exhausted from hanging onto what they could in the flood waters. Some had chronic illnesses. Others had not eaten nor taken their medications in over 24 hours. Still others had lost their home oxygen supplies or were just mentally zapped from what they had endured.