New Orleans Firefighters Rescue Thousands by Boat

Editor's Note:
I traveled through New Orleans and Mississippi in December and observed the incredible devastation wrought by the high winds, rain, storm surge, downed trees and power lines and extensive flooding. Words cannot describe the damage to these areas including Alabama and Texas.

As I said in a previous editorial, I had been in New Orleans only three days before Hurricane Katrina hit the area. I was able to capture the damage with my camera, but only through the small area in which I traveled. Interviews were conducted with firefighters, officers and chiefs, which begin in this issue and more will follow in subsequent issues of Firehouse. Their stories explain what they went through, rescuing residents, under extreme temperatures, with little food and water for the first few days, knowing their own homes were damaged or destroyed. In New Orleans alone, 80% of the department members suffered losses. Firefighters where ever they were located in the Gulf Region battled the storm then fought fires, cut down trees, helped clear streets, performed search and rescue, and responded to people who needed EMS and helped where they could. When help arrived from county, state and federal sources along with firefighters from across the country, they were relieved by their brother and sister firefighters.

These initial stories give only a glimpse of what was accomplished under difficult conditions. This storm left a lasting impression on the landscape, the residents and the firefighters who protect them. It may take years for all three parties to recover.

-Harvey Eisner

Captain Tom Meagher
New Orleans Fire Department

During the approach of the hurricane, we were stationed at a downtown hotel. A woman came up to me and said her 7-year-old son had a heart problem and he would need his medicine soon. She didn't know how long they were going to be down in the lobby. The electricity was off. Generators were running. I said I would go up to their room and retrieve the medicine. Their room was located on the 25th floor.

Just as I made it up to the room and started to look for the medicine, a report of a fire in the elevator shaft on the third floor was radioed. I went out into the hallway. I was asking them if I needed to go to the roof to the elevator room. I could hear the building creaking. Over the radio, the other firefighters said they isolated the problem. I went back into the room. Apparently, the occupants had filled the bathtub with water as a precaution. The water was sloshing around so violently, it was spilling onto the floor from the shaking of the building.

I worked on boat rescue for eight days. My boat and trailer were in a parking garage in a high-rise building downtown. As I was listening to the radio, a young lady had called into talk radio station WWL. She said she was trapped in her attic. I picked up my boat and picked up a few firefighters. Everywhere we looked from the elevated highways, people were on rooftops. The boat was launched from an expressway ramp. From 4 P.M. through 7:30 P.M., 78 people were rescued. My boat is a 20-foot Bayliner rated for eight people. We were able to get between 17 and 23 people in the boat per trip. There were lots of obstacles to get through in the streets, trees, power lines and cars that were submerged. Because of fences, trees and cars, we couldn't get close to many of the houses. A rope was tied to life preservers. At one house we rescued a 97-year-old from an attic. We took turns swimming into the house. A firefighter in the boat would pull the person to the boat with the rope.

A call was received that a firefighter was trapped in an attic with his 80-year-old mother. We couldn't reach the area. We worked until 5:30 A.M., fueled up and went out again. The next day, we tried another route to the trapped firefighter, but that route was cut off. When we would launch, we would leave a firefighter at the ramp. That day, we rescued 360 people. Enroute we would find people that found abandoned boats and were using fence posts or two-by-fours to paddle. Those three or four boats were tied together and 60 to 70 people were towed in at one time. Some people were then evacuated by helicopters.

At one house people inside were worried about the couple next store. The water was 10 inches below the ceiling when we looked in. As we checked on the couple, some slight moaning was heard when we banged on the roof. A woman was found standing on a countertop holding her head at the top of the ceiling where there was a few inches of air. She was holding onto her husband, who had perished. We had to convince her to let go of him so we could remove her. There were six or seven handicapped people with wheelchairs. From 5 through 8:30 P.M., 68 people were rescued.

On the third day, while still trying to get to the firefighter and his mother, another 340 to 350 were rescued. Because of crowds getting restless on the highways, firefighters left at night. Each evening, units at Woodland staging area were given addresses to check for trapped people the following day. For the next five days, units tried to get to these locations. They also tried to rescue as many people as they could from those areas. A report was received from Fire Alarm that 55 people were trapped at a city college. On the way to the site, the interstate highways were crowded with people. Food and water were dropped off and people were told to stay there. On arrival at the college, the people had already been removed just prior by National Guard high-water vehicles. With seven boats, people with medical problems were removed.

We went to the location we launched the first night to get the mother of a firefighter. She had already been removed. There was a couple in a house. They said they had a car parked downtown in a hotel garage, full of gas. I told the people we would take them to their car. As we were on the ramp, I saw something in the water. I kept looking. It was a person in a kayak. As we waited, an 84-year-old World War II veteran got out of the kayak. He had a small travel suitcase under his seat. He pulled the bag out and extended the handle and started walking. I said, where are you going? He answered, out of town. He said he had two sons in Houston, but hadn't talked to them since before the storm. A firefighter pulled out a cell phone and dialed one of his sons. He spoke to the son and the father spoke to the son. I asked the couple if they would take him to Baton Rouge and tell the son where he is located so they could pick him up. The couple said yes. The last we saw them they were waving to us as they drove off. The vet paddled 2 miles to the ramp. He saw the kayak floating by his house and decided to get in.

Several times, we had to break into an attic to remove people. Carried on the boat were two pickhead axes, a halligan tool, chain saw and life preservers. Extra fuel, food and water were brought on each trip. The last three days, the water was turning nasty. The water turned black. Dead fish were floating along with dead dogs and animals. I didn't want to really get into the water at this time to pull people into the boat. As we were proceeding down a street, we ran up onto a car. At that time, we had only women and children onboard. I got out of the boat and was standing on the hood of the car. I walked up the windshield and went underwater over my head. The car had a sun roof and I stepped right into it. Everybody was laughing.

We were removing a handicapped person and he was placed in a life preserver. I pulled the rope attached and when I went to lift him up onto the boat he felt very light. When I placed him in the boat, I saw he had no legs. Two women were in the rear of a house. A big lady came out the window. The next woman was even larger. When she went through the window, the entire aluminum window frame was stuck around her like a hula hoop.

At one house we removed some people. They wanted to check on the neighbor. I swam inside and found him dead. I told them he must have already left or I couldn't find him in those types of situations.

We didn't know what else was going on around the city. After it was all over, we talked to other firefighters who were stranded at their places of refuge and they were doing the same things we were doing. To see the old vet made it all worthwhile. When New York and Chicago arrived, we were beat. One day when I was off, a large group came to my house. We gutted the house in six hours with their help. They did that for many firefighters. On my Flying Squad, there are eight of us. Only one has a house left. That's the way most companies wound up.

After 19 days, I left to see my family. I had used my pickup truck several times a day to back the boat into the water. Because it was a highway on or off ramp, you had to back far into the water. I was driving and heard noises. The mechanic took a look underneath and said, where have you driven? He said, your brake pads are gone - not worn, but gone. It took $1,300 to repair all the damage from the salt water.

Over the eight days, 1,100 people were removed from my boat. Twenty-two firefighters used their personal boats. Other firefighters who were located at places of refuge as the storm approached, they commandeered boats and also rescued people for days. It is estimated that all the firefighters together removed between 12,000 and 20,000 people.

Captain Alan Luc
New OrleansFire Department

At about 10 P.M., I heard about a firefighter who lived in the Lakeview section who was trapped in the attic with his 80-year-old mother. We tried to figure out, if we couldn't get the other people out, how we were going to get him out? We used a firefighter's personal boat. We launched the boat and hit a high spot. We ran out of water. There was no way we were going to get to him.

Once we were able to get down the street, we decided to start picking up people. We could hear people screaming for help. This city stays lit 24 hours a day. The city was dark. There were no lights except for the lights we had when we launched. We couldn't see anybody, but they could see us. They were screaming for help in the dark. It was like a horror movie. The sounds, in my entire life, I never heard anything like that.

Tom Meagher and I were with three young firefighters. I could see fear in their faces. We picked up 25 to 30 people and returned to the overpass where the squad was parked. We told other people, we're coming back after we pick up the people who were trapped. People were transported to the Superdome. We did this until 2 or 3 in the morning. The majority of people were glad to see the firefighters. At first, they were edgy when they were picked up. The fact that they were getting out of there, the confidence calmed them down. They didn't think it was going to be that bad or didn't have the means to get out. When we returned to the ramp, there were 50 people there. We drove to the Superdome on the elevated highway because the water continued to rise. An 8-day-old baby was placed in a plastic container and floated down the street to us. People were walking through chest-high water. An 80-year-old woman was carried in a wheelchair by two individuals and she was dry when they put her on dry ground.

The sounds of the screams I'll never get out of my head. I quit counting after we removed about 250 people. We were sent to the Trene area. It was an all-day excursion. We didn't have any security. We dropped off food and water to those who didn't want to leave. Some people came back out with us. One lady was complaining of chest pains. Food and water were left with her family. There wasn't any food or water where we could have taken her, so we convinced her to stay where she was.

Wildlife and Fisheries boats being transported on trailers passed us on the interstate coming into the city. We saw other individuals in their own boats. Shots fired from the area of the housing projects were heard. Apparently, there were shots fired at Charity Hospital when personnel were trying to move patients because they had no electricity. There were numerous fires during the second week. The hydrant system was out. Helicopters were used to drop water on the fires. That was the main reason we were able to hold the fires. The helicopters slowed the fires.

The most unusual thing I saw was a Corvette stuck up in an oak tree. I was really glad the FDNY came. They gave me hope and cheered me up when I needed it.

Captain PAt Sullivan
Gulfport, MS, Fire Department

Gulfport has 12 stations, 175 personnel, 15 engines of which three have aerial devices and covers 26 square miles. The department covers 10 additional square miles outside the city. There are four paramedic units, no transport, another agency transports patients.

The threat of hurricanes are nothing new. In 1969, Camille devastated us. The storm surge from Hurricane Camille didn't travel inland this far. We went on television early and requested people to leave the area. Many people said they didn't leave for Camille 36 years ago, so they weren't going to leave for this storm.

We begged the people to leave. We told them we will not be able to get out of the fire stations to get to them, or we will be late. The 911 system will not function. There may be military personnel coming to assist you. Afterward, the people replied, we were told, we chose to stay. As chief, you are dealing with the politicians and other agencies. The mayor was on the job for only two months.

As the storm approached, we watched its path, maybe not preparing for it just yet. When the storm hit the Gulf, we prepared for something you can't prepare for. Prior to the storm, you are pulled in many directions, meeting and planning. I thought, do I bring in the oncoming shift, or the offgoing shift, asking the firefighters to leave their families? I had to work within the budget. If I order overtime, what if the storm misses us? Extra personnel were hired. Additional apparatus were prepared and placed in service. Depending on the water, wind and rain, we locked down the stations and told the units they couldn't go out. I leave the decision on when not to respond to the individual officers. Conditions could be quite different across the city.

Calls for flooding and possible tornados were received. A call reporting a building collapse with 18 people trapped was received. I responded in my chief's car. Two blocks from the station, I determined I was on a suicide mission. As I was driving, I had to dodge pieces of roofs, debris and power lines. Visibility was down to the front of the car. Twice, the car seemed to go airborne. Just because you're a fire chief, the storm doesn't acknowledge rank. I returned to the station. The people broke into a house and took refuge. The roof of the fire station was going up and down. A homeless person was seen walking in front of the fire station. Billboards were flying by. We grabbed the person and brought him inside. A friend called and said they had water up to their ankles inside their house. Soon, it was up to their shins and then up to their knees. Outside they said the water was now as high as the first-floor windows.

I had the entire city to worry about. I couldn't worry about one family at that time. The next contact I had was 18 to 20 hours later. They saw a skiff floating by and with their animals rode out the storm in a garage. One person called during the height of the storm. The caller said they are going to die there. He was told we can't get to you. We know, we just wanted to tell you. Firefighters wanted to go. They were told, you can't go. It was the hardest, most frustrating to people you serve that you're not coming to help them. Two days later, an 80-year-old was found alive under debris. A child was killed and found near the beach. Later, the other members of the family were located in the remains of an apartment house.

Every time you hear a story and escape, they are more amazing and unbelievable than the next. Hurricane Camille was not as widespread. During this storm, you were fighting for survival. As the flooding spread, your home disintegrated and collapsed around you. Almost every building south of the railroad tracks collapsed or was destroyed.

About 80 people were killed in Harrison County. Ten or 11 were killed in Gulfport. One is too many. If the storm came in at night, the death toll could have been three times higher. We warned the people to leave many times.

Thirty firefighters lost everything. Each firefighter was asked to determine their loss. Some described it as roof or sheetrock, total loss, clothes and contents were lost. I had six feet of water in my house. One of the deputy chiefs had his roof blow off. In the first 24 to 48 hours, we did damage assessment. Some of our firefighters were missing for a time. Since the storm, four firefighters have resigned. One firefighter had 24 years of service and needed one more year for retirement. He couldn't stay. Fire headquarters was damaged and flooded. The front doors blew in and hit three rigs. One station had no damage. Three stations needed to be rebuilt. Three stations had major roof damage. Four stations are using trailers as temporary quarters.

I can't say enough about the firefighters and what they did individually. The department is only as good as the people in it. That's the main ingredient for success. They knew they lost everything they owned. Their homes were destroyed and no insurance to cover the loss. It's a long-haul deal. It was not going to be over in 24 hours or two days to get over this life-changing event. Federal guidelines require 48 to 72 hours to be self sufficient. State guidelines are 24 to 48.

As the state was pre-staging equipment, they asked how many rescues I needed before the storm. I said I didn't know, maybe three or four. After the storm, I figured they didn't have enough rescues in the state to do what we had to do. The cavalry was going south on State Route 49. The route was almost impassable due to downed trees. Units had to literally cut their way through every tree and move debris before they got to us. Communications were cut off from other units. There wasn't enough fuel, food, water or ice. We were in such dire straits, especially with the water system gone.

After the storm, we were not in a firefighting mode. Search and rescue was the order of the day. I ordered units to cut every tree to open up vital arteries, especially direct access to the hospital. The 800 MHz radio system never went down. Cell service was lost. The ability to communicate via cell phone and manage with private communications was impaired. There wasn't a center of operations; when you don't have that, you revert back to what you do every day. In the future, we will work to get an emergency center and a backup site. The fire department can normally handle numerous incidents. How do you do that when the landscape is destroyed? Street signs ceased to exist. Fifteen hotels and 10 restaurants were destroyed on the beachfront. All that remained were concrete slabs. Two casinos, one on land and the other a barge, were damaged. The barge broke its moorings and landed several hundred yards from the water on land. It had to be imploded.

As time went on, the need for operations continued. Fire and EMS calls were received. We couldn't throw up our hands and give up. People finally called me from around the country when the cell service came back up and said, did you hear what is happening in New Orleans and other places? I thought, is the world coming to an end? I was only capable of handling our own problems. When FEMA USAR teams came in, they asked what is the task, what can we accomplish and how can we help you? I can't say enough about the job they did.

As a lesson learned, I found out I didn't have enough management personnel. I should have called in an Incident Management Team. We may invite a team in to train us.

Freelancing was a big problem. We initially didn't know these people were here. Many were not self sufficient. Some groups didn't want to be broken apart. It was important to us to have some people just to clean the firehouses. All wanted to do search and rescue, but it wasn't necessary. We didn't know what their capabilities were.

Sixteen vehicles were damaged or destroyed. This included support vehicles, chiefs' cars, fire prevention and the dive rescue unit. The damage to hose stored in one station cost $100,000. Gear was also lost.

The Department of Public Works shouldn't be forgotten. We get a lot of praise, but the DPW helps us in returning services vital to the fire department, including water, sewer and fire hydrants. Spray paint was used to place street names on street corners after the street signs were lost. One of the problems we had before the hurricane hit was the traffic from people evacuating New Orleans along I-10. Traffic was at a standstill and we had to respond to accidents and EMS calls on the highway. This traffic was passing through our area enroute to Florida.

This disaster is not over - today, tomorrow or two years from now. How are firefighters going to survive? How will they pay for their mortgages and keep their families employed with the devastation here? What is the financial standpoint that firefighters will be under in three to five years? It might take 10 to 15 years to get back to the condition of the city prior to Katrina. Each city has to have tax base to employ people.

We will try everything to not lose firefighters. There should be a database or website with certified veteran firefighters who are willing to relocate and be hired before people with no experience. The federal government needs to step in and help individual firefighters or fire departments. The military should be involved in disaster response because they have the personnel to assist. Six personnel were called up to the National Guard. It would seem to be better to call up personnel from other areas, other than the areas that were impacted.