Thursday, October 06, 2005

My Louisiana Tour

Two weeks ago I was enjoying a Mountain Warfare Sustainment in Utah with the National Guard paying for me to do some mountain climbing. I could not participate fully due to my recent accident but the short hikes into our climbing areas were very therapeutic and helped my ankle progress. The views from the Wasatch Front are always impressive, but in the autumn they are breathtaking. So, I had mixed feelings when our team was selected to help in the hurricane Rita relief effort.

Since we were already there, the Utah National Guard selected my team to travel south to Louisiana on a search and rescue mission. We were notified Saturday night that we needed to be on a noon flight on Sunday. None of us had the opportunity for much if any sleep that night as we packed personal and team gear for an extremely short notice deployment. I was very surprised when we packed, palletized, performed a readiness review (frequently a three day process itself), and traveled to Alexandria, Louisiana in less than 24 hours.

My brother is a Major in the reserve, he volunteered post Katrina and has been stationed at Ft. Polk. Since the Alexandria airport services nearby Ft. Polk, I contacted my brother and he was at the airport when we landed. Although I saw no signs of direct hurricane damage in Alexandria, my brother reported that the eye of Rita had passed next to Ft. Polk and had knocked out their power. Since he was there with transportation, we were able to avoid the staging area with thousands of soldiers packed in like sardines and stayed the night at the airfield with pizza and sodas.

We had established contact with a 20th Special Forces Group element in Lake Charles and left Monday morning to link up with them. The first sign of hurricane damage we saw was approximately 50 miles Northeast of LC and progressively worsened as we traveled closer. The city was officially closed and all the freeway exits were guarded by law enforcement or soldiers but there were still many people driving around town. It was obvious that if it wasn’t tied down and anchored it blew somewhere else; we even noticed some concrete benches blown over. Most of the buildings in LC were missing roofing tiles and a very small few had sections of their roofs torn off. Mobile homes in the area also faired pretty well with only an occasional one with a wall blown away. We drove out of town along highway 14 and had to avoid power lines as many of the poles had been knocked over. Even with the hundreds of utility repair vehicles parked at the local convention center, it will be a long time before they have power in much of the area.

Our work in LC wrapped up pretty quickly so we traveled to New Orleans in search of more work but didn’t find any. What we did find was a city struggling to come back to life. Relief workers in NO outnumbered residents and the ratio was even more extreme on Bourbon St. Friday night. On a street normally over crowded with pedestrians, there were vehicles from every imaginable relief or government agency parked along both sides despite signs saying no parking during the night time hours. I would estimate that a fourth of the Bourbon St. businesses were open and their customers were almost exclusively middle aged men. SF guys typically shy away from cameras so it was entertaining to watch what we did when confronted by three or four news cameras at one intersection; we were dodging and weaving with heads ducked from one camera after another as the seemed to appear from nowhere.

Although we saw little damage outside of the areas where the two hurricanes came ashore, the entire state of Louisiana is a disaster area. Any hotels not rendered uninhabitable were filled to capacity. Stores and restaurants were short on supplies and you often had to search to find a gas station with gas. We talked with one member of the Coast Guard with a home outside NO. He said his home was not damaged but would likely have to sell and move. All of his neighbors were selling their homes as twice their pre-Katrina values and he didn’t think he could afford next years taxes. Many of the evacuees have indicated no desire to return to NO and rightfully should not. So, my prediction is that Bourbon St. and the French Quarter will continue to be what it has always been and NO will continue to host Mardi-Gras, but NO will never return to what it was before Katrina.

Update: SPC Van T. at Camp Katrina is compiling a list of blogs and stories relating to Hurricane Katrina. He has a great sense of humor so drop in and see what he has to say.

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