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OSU Fire Service Training staffer among initial responders into New Orleans

Friday, September 9, 2005

This weekend, the nation will observe the four-year commemoration of an unprecedented incident in which hundreds of New York City’s finest lost their lives answering the call. Still, first responders charge into extremely perilous situations daily to preserve life.

Outside the unspeakable carnage of 9/11, no domestic scenarios compare to the incomprehensible and nightmarish scenes that awaited the responders who went into New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

“Take the total devastation from the movie, ‘The Day After Tomorrow,’ add a little ‘Night of the Living Dead,’ and that’s basically what you had in New Orleans,” OSU Fire Service Training staff member Jason Louthan said. “When you consider 9/11 or even the Oklahoma City bombing, those were also major incidents with thousands of responders, but they had the support of the surrounding city.

“New Orleans was nothing like that.”

Louthan, the OSU-FST rescue curriculum coordinator, and three part-time instructors for the College of Engineering, Architecture and Technology outreach unit from the Edmond Fire Department were in Shreveport, Louisiana, for an 80-hour training course Aug. 27-30.

The structural collapse school was cut short on Aug. 29 when its Louisiana State University Fire and Emergency Training Institute instructors were activated through the state emergency management system ahead of the hurricane and called back to Baton Rouge. Well-equipped but short on personnel, the LSU instructors asked several students, including the Oklahoma group and firefighters from Bossier City and Jefferson Parish, for assistance.

“On Sunday, we packed our bags, checked out of the hotel, met back at the training center to assemble the manpower and trailers and convoyed to the LSU Fire and Emergency Training Institute in Baton Rouge to wait out the storm,” Louthan said. “Monday morning, after the worst part of the storm had hit, we set out for New Orleans.”

The team members from the area went despite knowing their homes had been destroyed.

“The Jefferson Parish firefighters and one of the LSU instructors had learned their homes were lost,” he said. “But their families had gotten out ahead of time, so they went along anyway, hoping to help others.”

Deployed in the city just before noon by the Louisiana National Guard 62 and Civil Support Team, the LSU team was initially charged with finding and clearing a route from I-10 to the Superdome. Removing power lines, tree limbs and debris from flooded but passable streets, the team and its five-vehicle convoy arrived at the Superdome six hours later. There was no time for rest, however.

“Ultimately, the plan was for the Superdome to be the staging area for all teams entering the city,” Louthan said. “It was to be the command center from where all teams would be deployed throughout the city.

“We waited for other teams to show up, and then command sent us out to assist the rescue recovery effort."

The LSU task force convoy included two pickups pulling 40-foot equipment trailers and an OSU-FST van towing a boat. Other rescuers and medics joined the team and began the retrieval effort from an I-610 onramp serving as a boat launch. Approximately 15 boats fanned out across neighborhoods in search of residents.

“It was so dark we basically had to stop the motor and yell, and if anybody yelled back, we’d go find them,” Louthan said. “We’d take them back to the interstate where our trailers and equipment were set up and leave them.

“When we were deployed from the Superdome, we were told to start rescuing people and the logistics, as far as food, water and transportation for them, would be taken care of. None of it ever came."

Tempers flared, and violence erupted within an hour of the operation’s start, as residents transplanted from their flooded homes to the raised expressway began to turn on each other. Without law enforcement support to provide security, the first responders were powerless.

“We stopped the boats around 4 a.m. because we had more than 400 people on the interstate demanding to know why no help was coming,” Louthan said. “They were fighting mad, and it got so bad a lot of the guys unhooked trailers and began taking people to the Superdome in their own vehicles.”

While some responders began transporting victims, others napped on the interstate. At dawn Tuesday, they renewed the rescue operation, but only after returning some residents to their homes.

“Daylight revealed to us that we were in the middle of a low-income housing project and retrieving residents from one-story, single-family houses as well as three-story buildings,” Louthan said. “And from the time we had begun the previous evening, the water had risen another 6 feet.”

“We made the decision to concentrate on the single story homes because people in the three-story buildings were actually better off where they were."

Throughout Tuesday, the responders found themselves transplanting evacuees from a hopeless situation to another only slightly better, all the while enduring threats from other despairing residents.

“We just moved people to the interstate, hoping buses would be sent,” Louthan said. “By late afternoon, we had a crowd of more than 600 extremely mad people. They thought we were taking them out of their homes somewhere to get help, and all we could do was put them on the interstate.”

“The residents we were bypassing didn’t realize they were better off in their homes, and after a while they started threatening to shoot us. They just saw boat after boat after boat go by, and no one’s stopping to help.”

The team radioed for assistance in the late afternoon, and four Blackhawk helicopters landed and retrieved the sick and injured. No more assistance came, and the team eventually had to call for a security escort out of the area.

Louthan attributed the escalating rage to a lack of communication and the growing hopelessness of people trapped amid disaster.

“If you see your family — your children — dying, you don’t get any news to know what’s happening, and you begin to believe nobody cares about your situation, I think most of us would be prepared to do just about anything,” Louthan said.

The team was sent to a section of the French Quarter the morning of Aug. 31. Unable to reach it due to flooding, they learned Wildlife and Fisheries Department boat crews were already canvassing the area. The responders were subsequently ordered to renew their rescue and retrieval at the I-610 on-ramp.

“On Wednesday, we were accompanied by a S.W.A.T. team providing security, but as soon as we got back to where we had been on the interstate the day before, they left,” Louthan said. “At that time, we made the decision that it wasn’t safe for us to be there, so we came home to Oklahoma.”

Louthan said logistics will be an emphasis of any emergency response courses he instructs in the future.

“Everybody thinks about operations when you hear ‘search and rescue,’ but you’ve got to have a strong logistics aspect,” Louthan said. “You need food, water, medical help and transportation for the people you’re trying to get out, as well as accommodations for your rescue workers.

“You want to help people, but it was very frustrating. You’ve got an elderly person getting off the boat and he says, ‘I have to have oxygen and my bottle’s empty,’ and all you can say is, ‘Sit here, sir.' Or you’ve got 600 people on a bridge for hours and hours and not a bathroom anywhere.”

Louthan found a reprieve from the din in most Louisianans' warm and appreciative spirit. He said the worst displays of human nature were countered constantly, from the fire department in Gonzales, Louisiana, where members of the LSU taskforce were afforded hot meals, showers and soft beds between forays into New Orleans, to the Crescent City residents themselves.

“We picked up a guy, and as soon as he was in the boat, he told us he was a certified lifeguard and a good mechanic and said he’d do anything we needed,” Louthan said. “We picked up 14 more people after him, and he was right up front helping everybody on.

“When we got back to the ramp and started to let people off, he set his dog off the boat and was ready to go back out with us, but we told him we could bring back more people if he’d get off, too. Everywhere, there were people desperate to join in and provide help.”

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