First Report: Hurricane Katrina

Harvey Eisner reports on the hurricane that devastated the Gulf Coast and discusses his interview with New Orleans District Fire Chief Chris E. Mickal.


Editor's note: I spoke with New Orleans District Fire Chief Chris E. Mickal on the telephone numerous times to get a sense of what the local firefighters had to deal with during and after Hurricane Katrina. I had been in New Orleans on business for four days, leaving the Friday before the...


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Editor's note: I spoke with New Orleans District Fire Chief Chris E. Mickal on the telephone numerous times to get a sense of what the local firefighters had to deal with during and after Hurricane Katrina. I had been in New Orleans on business for four days, leaving the Friday before the hurricane struck. Chief Mickal gave me an extensive tour of the city, then by telephone he shared the following account.

The First Platoon was held over to remain in quarters with the on-duty Third Platoon. Each District (Battalion) moved apparatus out of the fire stations to higher ground or a safe place of refuge. Downtown units went to a hotel loading dock and companies in outlying areas parked at condominiums.

At 6 P.M. Sunday, it started to become windy. By 9 P.M., the entire department had relocated to their safe places of refuge. Units were to stop responding when the winds reached 45 mph. This had taken place before previous storms, but those storms missed the city.

At midnight, winds topped 100 mph. At 4 A.M., a piece of wood shattered the window of a room where several firefighters were located. Hurricane-force winds were blowing into the room. Firefighters and guests were standing in the hotel lobby. Windows were breaking and it was difficult to find a safe place to stand. The winds were blowing through the hotel. After 5 A.M., the power went out. Fierce, wind-driven rain was tearing off the sides of buildings. The radio channels stayed up and units could talk among themselves. People were trapped in the elevators, so rescues were made in the hotel.

After 9 A.M., the hurricane passed and within two hours reports of fires were being received. Two companies that had taken refuge in a condominium complex near Lake Pontchartrain reported house fires. Chief Mickal heard over the radio that companies were unable to respond to these incidents because of the water. Mickal asked, "What water?" That's when the report was given about a break in the levee. Mickal said that when he heard that the levee broke, he knew that his life as he had known it was over. He lived two blocks away and the area was flooded in 15 minutes.

The water traveled south to the Superdome, seven to eight miles away. When the levee broke, the surge of water knocked the first block of homes off their foundations, snapping natural gas lines. The gas ignited, burning houses or just burning off above the flood waters.

Around noon, apparatus that could travel started a "windshield survey." Extensive damage was visible. Fire stations were checked and there was no electricity. Much of the fire department was moved to Lower Coast Algiers on the south side of the Mississippi River. The fire department and EMS were housed at a nursing home complex. Some units in outlying areas were stuck for up to a week at the locations where they had taken refuge. They made rescues of trapped civilians every day. On Tuesday morning, with reports of people trapped, firefighters grabbed boats and removed people day and night. About half-dozen apparatus broke down and some had to be left in the flood waters. Some rigs were still trapped by the flood waters closer to the lake.

When a fire was reported, units responded from their base in Algiers. It took them 10 to 15 minutes to cross the Mississippi River. Looking over the bridge, many times three and four columns of smoke were visible across the city. Some fires were in areas that were inaccessible. After looters broke into a four-story commercial building on Canal Street, they apparently started a fire. The first engine reported no water in the hydrant. Mickal ordered the engineer to drop his hard suction in the street and take suction from the flood water, which was several feet deep. Looters were in the next store while firefighters worked the fire, which extended to all four floors of the building.

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