Leadership Ideas, Information and News

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Hurricane Katrina response: National Guard's 'finest hour'

By Tech. Sgt. John Orrell
National Guard Bureau

Five years ago, the Wisconsin National Guard played a role in what has been described as the "finest hour" in the National Guard's near 400-year history by the former chief of the National Guard Bureau.

"By any measure, it was the fastest, most massive military response to any natural disaster that has ever happened," said retired Army Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum and former chief of the National Guard Bureau. "Our response was the epitome of what the National Guard is and why it is a national treasure."

Hurricane Katrina, a category 5 storm, caused an estimated $81 billion worth of damage, took more than 1,800 lives and forced nearly 1.2 million Gulf Coast residents to evacuate.

However, the preparation and actions of the more than 50,000 National Guardsmen - including more than 460 from the Wisconsin Army and Air National Guard - made the difference in lives saved and lives lost, said Blum.

"It all converged. It all came together, so that when we were needed, we were there," he said.

Gov. Jim Doyle directed the Wisconsin National Guard to assist the devastated coastal area on Aug. 31, 2005. Maj. Gen. Al Wilkening, then the adjutant general of Wisconsin, named Brig. Gen. Dominic Cariello - at that time a colonel commanding the 57th Field Artillery Brigade - to head up the newly formed Task Force Wisconsin. Wisconsin Army and Air Guard members were activated for the task force as Cariello and a small command cell left for Louisiana on Sept. 1.

On the morning of Aug 25, 2005, Katrina was upgraded from a tropical storm to a category 1 hurricane. It first struck land between Hallandale Beach and Aventura, Fla., causing then Gov. Jeb Bush to declare a state of emergency. It also allowed Air Force Maj. Gen. Douglas Burnett, the adjutant general of the Florida National Guard, to activate 800 personnel, including 75 who prepared high-clearance vehicles for flooding in the southern part of the state.

When it struck Florida, the storm weakened, but it also entered the Gulf of Mexico and regained strength. With wind speeds of about 95-100 miles per hour, it was quickly upgraded to a category 2. The storm's impact area was also growing, which caused Florida to call up about 130 more National Guard troops. At the same time, then Gov. Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana and Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi declared a state of emergency.

With plans changing, Guard officials were forced to look at all their options. Mississippi turned to a disaster response plan set up after Hurricane Camille in 1969 and decided to preposition 3,000 Guardsmen at Camp Shelby in the south and Camp McCain in the northern part of the state. The 2nd Battalion, 128th Infantry of the Wisconsin National Guard's 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team was mobilizing at Camp Shelby during Hurricane Katrina.

"We sheltered people in place where we thought they would be safe to survive the hurricane," Blum said. "Then they and their equipment would be able to immediately respond to the after effects of the hurricane."

As Mississippi was preparing for Katrina to hit, the Louisiana Guard was planning for Katrina's arrival. About 3,000 were positioned throughout New Orleans and the southern parishes. They also moved fuel tankers to Hammond Airport northwest of New Orleans.

By Aug. 29, 2005, Katrina was a category 5 hurricane with winds reaching over 170 mph. Mississippi took the brunt of the storm. The damage was catastrophic with a zone of destruction stretching almost 90 miles long and 20 miles wide.

"The devastation of this hurricane was far greater than anyone expected," said Blum. "The entire electrical grid was gone. The Internet was down, the telephones were down, no cell phones, radio and television ceased to exist."

It took Mississippi Guardsmen about six hours to drive 60 miles to the devastated area.

The adjutants general of Mississippi and Louisiana, now retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Harold A. Cross and Army Maj. Gen. Bennett C. Landreneau, respectively, contacted Blum and initiated the first round of Emergency Management Assistance Compacts (EMACs) with Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Florida. It soon became evident to both adjutants general and Blum that more personnel would be needed to assist with the relief effort.

Within 96 hours of the destruction, an additional 30,000 troops were sent to New Orleans. They assisted in search and rescue, medical treatment, evacuation and security. With every passing minute the situation became worse, and Blum knew he couldn't wait for higher command, so he moved forward.

"We didn't ask for permission, we didn't wait for orders," he said.

The Wisconsin National Guard sent more than 460 Soldiers and Airmen - along with dozens of vehicles, equipment and supplies - as part of Task Force Wisconsin. Guard members came from transportation and combat support units, the civil support team and military police, air security forces and rear operations units, rotary and fixed-wing aviation units and air refueling wings. Three Wisconsin National Guard UH-1 Huey and two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters conducted rescue and transport operations beginning Sept. 4.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Doug Determan, then with the West Bend-based 832nd Medical Company, recounted one rescue in the December 2005 issue of At Ease, the Wisconsin National Guard official publication:

"We were out on a typical search and rescue mission in our UH-1 helicopter when we came across a man in a boat," Determan said. "Upon seeing us, the man signaled that he wanted to get out and immediately began tying the boat to a telephone pole."

However, the wires connected to the telephone pole made a rescue hoist operation practically impossible. The man in the boat misunderstood hand signals from the helicopter, and tethered the boat to another telephone pole. Determan decided to place medic Staff Sgt. Patrick Deuberry on top of a stranded SUV about one and a half blocks away, and the man in the boat made his way toward the medic.

"Sensing how exhausted the survivor was, [Crew Chief Sgt. Eric Leukert] and I decided we would fly behind the man and use the rotor wash to push him over to the Tahoe," Determan said. "With some difficulty, Pat was able to help the man get on top of the Tahoe and Eric hoisted first the survivor and then Pat back into the helicopter. Chief Warrant Officer 3 William Richey [the pilot in command] and I then flew the man to Louis Armstrong International Airport to the triage center."

Water levels in the city continued to rise and would not stop until four days later.

"The flood control walls started failing, and the city of New Orleans basically filled up and flooded," said Blum. "It was not the hurricane - it was the aftermath of the standing water in Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River that overran the flood control walls."

The Milwaukee-based 128th Air Refueling Wing welcomed nearly 180 New Orleans refugees, transported by chartered airliners, on Sept. 8. One of those refugees, Joshua Lozier, saw Wisconsin National Guard Soldiers in the airport as he waited to board the plane that would bring him to the Tommy G. Thompson Center at the Wisconsin State Fairgrounds. A prior service active component Soldier, Lozier had an appointment with a recruiter in New Orleans to rejoin the Army - the day after Hurricane Katrina made landfall. He said that the hurricane hampered the ability of recruiters to conduct a background check, so he banked on his prior active duty time to help him get into the National Guard.

Lozier enlisted with the Wisconsin Army National Guard March 15, 2006. About one month later, the prior service Soldier was notified he would deploy with the 1st Battalion, 121st Field Artillery to Iraq. He volunteered to serve a second tour in Iraq when the 121st returned to Wisconsin.

"It's fun," he said at the time. "It's easy. I like what I'm doing.

"I told my wife I married the Army before I married her," he continued. "Plus, my daughter's too young to remember all this, so I figure I'll get it out of my system now."

There was another reason for extending his tour in theater, he admitted.

"It's too cold in Wisconsin," he said. "So I moved to Iraq."

After the storm, thousands of New Orleans residents, who decided to ride out the storm, made their way through flooded neighborhoods to the Superdome, where about 200 Louisiana Guard members provided medical care, security and transportation. National Guard helicopters kept those inside the Superdome supplied with bottled water and packaged "meals ready to eat."

The focus was on downtown New Orleans and the Superdome, but another situation was brewing at the New Orleans Convention Center. With no food and no water, and the situation becoming more desperate, Army Lt. Col. Jacques Thibodeaux was directed to immediately secure the complex.

Because of the lack of communication and the rumors about the conditions being violent at the convention center, Thibodeaux prepared his team of about 1,000 Guardsmen for the worst. As they advanced with weapons, flak jackets and Kevlar helmets, the troops prepared for a three-prong surprise approach. As they marched into the center, they were greeted with a hero's welcome and were able to stabilize the center in less than 30 minutes without firing a single shot.

By the end of September, the Army and Air Guard had flown over 10,200 missions, airlifted over 88,000 passengers to safety, moved over 18,000 tons of supplies and relief aid and saved more than 17,000 lives.

"The Guard did, what the Guard does best," Blum said. "It answered the call, it saw the need, it prepared so that when it was needed it was ready and it was there."

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