Challenges Overcome, Objectives Met As Florida Task Force 1 Responds to New Orleans

Dave Downey and Eric Baum detail the response of Florida Task Force 1 during the costliest natural disaster to strike the U.S.


Hurricane Katrina will go on record as the costliest natural disaster to strike the U.S. and one that resulted in the largest mobilization of National Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) assets in the history of the National USAR Program. Florida Task Force 1 (FL-TF1), comprised primarily of members of...


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Hurricane Katrina will go on record as the costliest natural disaster to strike the U.S. and one that resulted in the largest mobilization of National Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) assets in the history of the National USAR Program. Florida Task Force 1 (FL-TF1), comprised primarily of members of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue (MDFR), and no strangers to the damaging effects of hurricanes, played an integral role in the local and national response in the aftermath of Katrina.

Days before Katrina wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast, the hurricane made landfall in South Florida on the evening of Aug. 25. The strong winds and rain cut a swath through South Florida, directly impacting Miami-Dade County. Immediately after the winds subsided, MDFR and elements of FL-TF1 were mobilized to assist with the rescue efforts, from conducting canine searches of devastated mobile home parks to searching the rubble of a collapsed concrete overpass. In the days to follow, FL-TF1 personnel coordinated the local humanitarian relief efforts by establishing ice and water distribution stations throughout Miami-Dade County. All of this took place while the homes of many of the members were in need of attention as well.

Days after the storm had made landfall in South Florida, it was evident that the Gulf Coast was next. On the morning of Aug. 29, FL-TF1 received Federal Activation Orders to deploy immediately as a Type III, 34-person "Light Task Force" to Baton Rouge, LA. The Light Task Force concept (28 people with six support specialists) is a departure from the traditional 70-person Type I Task Force and was a few years ago to deploy to events such as this. A Type III team focuses on hurricanes where search and rescue of the entrapments are a result of lightweight construction collapses. The national hurricane deployment model developed after the 2004 hurricane season paired two Light Task Forces with a Full Task Force. FL-TF1 personnel were assembled, the equipment cache secured and the task force was enroute for what was expected to be an 18-20 hour trip.

Because of the emergent nature of the mission, the task force leader, in consultation with the team medical and safety officers, decided to drive straight through, stopping every 300 miles for fuel, personnel relief and to switch drivers.

While enroute, the task force leader maintained frequent communications with the national USAR command center as well as the FEMA/USAR Incident Support Team (IST) assigned to the region. Prior to leaving Florida, the task force was re-directed to New Orleans by the IST. Because of the devastation in Alabama and Mississippi, the most direct route to New Orleans was nearly impossible to traverse.

The task force planning team manager and technical information specialist were assigned the responsibility of charting a route into New Orleans. Communications with IST personnel now in all of the affected states provided real-time information that assisted in planning the most direct route, through Alabama into the middle of Mississippi and then south into Louisiana. The trip took approximately 25 hours. Once FL-TF1 entered Mississippi, vehicles maintained fuel levels at three quarters because of anticipated fuel shortages in the area.

The point of assembly for federal USAR assets was Metairie, LA, just outside New Orleans. After FL-TF1 arrived on the evening of Aug. 30, personnel were tasked with establishing their base of operations (BoO) and were required to attend the night's planning meeting. At first light on Aug. 31, FL-TF1 was assigned with other federal USAR task forces to perform rescue, hasty searches, primary searches and victim triage in the flooded areas northwest of downtown. This mission required the use of watercraft provided by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) contractors. Based on information provided by other task forces from Texas and Missouri, which had operated on the previous day, FL-TF1 decided to use as many personnel as possible to provide for an effective search-and-rescue operation. The 34-member multi-disciplined team was split into two-person search groups. Hand tools were carried on each boat to facilitate forcible entry and light extrication. In addition, chainsaws were available to ease roof opening. On this first day the use of airboats proved beneficial as they were able to traverse the flood areas as well as the dry ground around the levees. In our initial search area, two levees divided the grid and impeded the movement of victims to safe refuge. Utilizing traditional boats necessitated multiple entrances and exits of victims as well as the need to carry the boats over dry ground.

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