With Hurricane Isaac looming off the coast of New Orleans, memories of another August in 2005 float back like a makeshift raft. I was an eager National Guard troop and spent my days working part time in a retail store. I remember watching the families on television waving for help from their rooftops as the news helicopters strafed the worst areas hit by the disaster. I wanted to help, we all did—but what could we do? Your average troop doesn’t have a rescue helicopter locked away in his apartment storage closet. After hours of anxiously waiting by the phone, I got the call during the middle of my civilian workday. The familiar voice on the other end was our deployment manager, “This is an official recall, pack for a 30 day deployment, and bring plenty of socks. This is not a drill.”
My boss knew what I was going to say before I finished my sentence. He gave me nod as I blew past waiting customers and darted out the door. I raced home and grabbed my go-bag. A quick inventory and few extra pair of socks later, I was on my way to the base to await deployment orders. We scrambled to get our gear organized. We packed food, medical supplies, personal equipment, pallets of drinking water, weapons, ammunition, hazmat gear, shelter, and just about everything else you can imagine into the back of that C-130. Normally our deployments go slowly and smoothly, this one played out a little differently. The goal was to get into the air, and fast. We tossed gear and supplies into every crevice we could find and were wheels up in record time. I think this is where the postal service got the idea for their If it Fits, it Ships! slogan. On the flight to Louisiana, I remember thinking how quickly my week went from a typical one, to the mess we were all in now. I had no idea I would end up being on a plane headed into one of the worst disasters in U.S. history. My head was reeling with the news reports of people stranded on their rooftops, the rampant looting, shootouts with authorities, and general chaos. I remember thinking how nice it would have been if everyone would have just packed up and left New Orleans ahead of the storm.
Of course, this is not realistic. Non-ambulatory patients, elderly, the destitute, and those who rely on public transportation had no chance to get out and there was no quick way to evacuate an entire city. A Louisiana State University Civil Engineer said that in 2005, an estimated 50,000 New Orleans households had no access to cars. City officials had 550 municipal buses and hundreds of additional school buses at their disposal but made no plans to use them to get people out of New Orleans before the storm. Instead, local buses ferried people from 12 pick-up points to poorly supplied shelters of last resort in the city. The Superdome was the most infamous of these shelters, and with good reason.
Our command tasked us to assist in evacuating local hospitals. We set up shop on an airstrip and the ambulances started rolling in. The patients came 10 to 20 at a time, most of them could not stand or walk. Our job was to get the patients loaded onto planes, then get the planes out of the region. The gurneys the patients were on could not go with them, since they belonged to the medical companies and were too expensive to replace. We had to transfer the patients who could not walk to old canvas litters we brought with us. You might remember seeing these old stretchers on every World War II and Vietnam movie ever made. This process of transferring patients to different litters took time, patients were dying on the pavement while waiting for hospitals to process their information and transfer them to military care. I never felt so helpless.
We worked in rotating 12-hour shifts, sometimes longer. We stopped to shove food down our throats from MREs that we didn’t have time to heat up. Room temperature noodles and wheat snack bread managed to fuel our energy levels enough to keep going. Most of us ended up giving away half our food rations to people who needed them. I don’t know how many people drank out of my personal Camelback, but it was probably way too many.
Days later, the water began to recede and it was time to start bringing back some of the city’s infrastructure. We checked houses for survivors and tried to evacuate those we could. Many survived their time on the rooftops and retreated to their ruined homes below. As we searched the houses, we left markings on the outside of the homes so authorities could see them from the street. We sprayed an X on the houses that notated who searched it, the date, number of bodies inside, and other pertinent findings, such as natural gas and water leaks.
The destruction in the homes was overwhelming. Seeing that much damage day after day in your own country can be disheartening. I remember thinking that some warzones look nicer than post Katrina New Orleans. The sweltering hot weather and long hours of burning every calorie from those terrible MREs had us ground down to exhaustion. Finding bodies became commonplace, and we felt relieved when we entered homes and only smelled mold. The news reports made things seemed even more grim. They focused more on the looting and shooting than acts of heroism. As bad as the experience was, I saw a great deal of human compassion and generosity during my time there. Survivors would hand food to people they didn’t know, and families shared what they could with their neighbors. The outpouring of aid from the rest of the country was equally impressive. Aid and workers came in from virtually every state, and we had little trouble finding volunteers to handle even the most difficult jobs.
The struggle that the victims of Hurricane Katrina went through were many, but this year, with storms like Isaac threatening the gulf, better preparation and planning by the government as well as civilians would mitigate much of the damage caused by these storm systems. Keeping your home stocked with supplies is not expensive, and it could your save your life. Remember that in most cases, it will take the government days to get to you and render aid—don’t rely on them. The fewer individuals the authorities have to take care of, the quicker they can help the people who really need it.