EAST BATON ROUGE, LOUISIANA, US&R OPERATIONS

BY MARK STEWART AND CHAD ROBERSON

We in Baton Rouge began to prepare to respond to Hurricane Katrina on August 27. The parish of East Baton Rouge, which includes the city of Baton Rouge, operates a 25-member urban search and rescue team. Four East Baton Rouge emergency agencies-the Baton Rouge Fire Department, the St. George Fire Protection District, the Central Fire Protection District, and the East Baton Rouge EMS service-supply personnel for the team. The team was developed to improve the local and regional urban search and rescue capability in the Baton Rouge area following the 9-11 events. Training and equipment purchases began in the spring of 2003. The team was equipped, trained, and placed in service in its current format in March 2005. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the team had been activated only once, for a trench collapse in July 2005.

EBR US&R ACTIVATES

The East Baton Rouge Urban Search & Rescue (EBR US&R) Team was placed on alert on Sunday, August 28, after team leaders attended a briefing with other parish emergency officials at the East Baton Rouge Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness. All equipment was checked for readiness. The team leader reported to the East Baton Rouge Emergency Operations Center at 1600 hours.


A house with markings indicating a completed search. Note the debris at the porch ceiling level, indicating where the water levels had been. (Photo by Paul Pinsonat.)
Click here to enlarge image

As Hurricane Katrina struck along the coast of Louisiana and Mississippi on the morning of Monday, August 29, it appeared that Baton Rouge would miss the worst of the storm. Emergency calls of “trees on houses” and “‘possible trapped victims” began coming into Fire Communications. At approximately 1000 hours, the Central Fire Protection District responded to one of these calls and found on arrival four occupants trapped. A large oak tree had fallen onto the house, collapsing the roof into the living room, pinning the occupants. The incident commander on-scene requested assistance from the EBR US&R team. The team assisted the Central Fire Protection District in removing the four injured victims, who were turned over to East Baton Rouge EMS for treatment.

Early in the afternoon of August 29, the team was activated by the state of Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals to respond to New Orleans to assist with search and rescue efforts. After determining that the team’s resources would no longer be needed in East Baton Rouge Parish, City of Baton Rouge/East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden and all the agencies’ chiefs gave the team permission to respond to New Orleans. We gathered for a briefing at the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals headquarters at 1900 hours; after the briefing, members in need of a booster received tetanus shots. We prepared our gear for an early morning departure to New Orleans on Tuesday, August 30.

NEW ORLEANS DEPLOYMENT

We reported to the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals headquarters on Tuesday morning, August 30, for a 0600 hour departure; we had deployment orders to report to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Command Post located at I-10 and Causeway in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans. The commander assigned us to respond to a major gas leak in Charity Hospital in downtown New Orleans. At the time, we did not know if we could reach the area by vehicle. We arrived in downtown New Orleans at 1030 hours and were led into the area by the Louisiana State Police. Two of our members went with two members of the Bossier City Fire Department in their boats to recon the hospital. The recon team monitored the hospital with gas-detection equipment and found nothing. The hospital command staff was notified of the findings.

During this assignment, we encountered some members of the New Orleans Fire Department, who told of reports of citizens shooting at emergency responders. Also, the rescue truck they were riding had a black streak down the side resulting from a citizen’s throwing a fireball against the truck. At this time we knew we were going to need protection to operate in New Orleans. Once the recon team came back from the staging area, we attempted to contact the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries command post, with no success. We then drove back to the command post to give a status report on Charity Hospital and to get another assignment. The command post notified us that it could not give us a new assignment with our current resources. We returned to Baton Rouge and discussed our plans to deploy water resources the next day with the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.

On Wednesday, August 31, we departed Baton Rouge at 0600 hours. We learned that people were trapped in areas east of downtown New Orleans. We responded with seven boats. As we drove into areas east of downtown New Orleans, citizens approached us asking for medical assistance, food, and water. Citizens were also reporting shootings, assaults, and burglaries in nearby buildings. As a US&R team, we were not set up to handle this type of assistance. We decided to continue on to our assigned area and perform the tasks assigned to our team. We placed our boats in the water off the I-10 westbound exit ramp at Elysian Fields. A member of the Baton Rouge Police Department Dive Team was assigned to provide protection for our team. Within this grid, we evacuated four schools: St. Augustine High School, Epiphany Elementary School, Valena C. Jones Elementary School, and McDonogh No. 42 Elementary School. We rescued 550 people, mainly from the schools. During our operations in the area, we did not see any other organized rescue efforts. Rescued victims said we were the first rescuers they had seen. Our boats worked to dark and then returned to Baton Rouge. We were not set up with all the logistics to stay in New Orleans overnight. Seeing the amount of search and rescue needed in New Orleans, we decided to add to our resources for the next day. When we reached Baton Rouge, we checked in with the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, provided a situation update, and discussed plans for the next day.

On Thursday, September 1, we returned to New Orleans with a beefed-up force of 18 boats and 62 personnel. We added personnel from fire departments in East Baton Rouge Parish. These new personnel were briefed on operations and paired with team members. On the way to New Orleans, we learned of a possible tank car explosion near downtown; a cloud of smoke whose content was unknown was drifting over the city. We stopped on the top of the Crescent City Connection crossing the Mississippi River to assess the situation before entering the downtown area. We met two members of the Louisiana State Police Haz-Mat Unit on the bridge. We determined it was not a tank car on fire and entered the city to resume search and rescue operations.

We placed our boats in the water at the same location and started a street-by-street search of the grid on the north side of I-10. We helped remove 250 people from the water. Although our numbers were down from the previous day, we were able to cover more area with our additional resources. During the day, we had a few residents using their boats to help remove people from the water. We worked until dark and returned to Baton Rouge. New Orleans Police personnel had advised us to be out of the city by dark, since the city became more unstable during night hours. After reaching Baton Rouge, we gave the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals a situation update.

On Friday, September 2, we returned to the same location of I-10 at Elysian Fields and entered the water, this time starting to work a grid on the south side of I-10. On this morning, we had 10 medic units with us for patients needing immediate medical care. The Bossier City Fire Department worked alongside us in this area. Within this grid, we checked and evacuated the following schools: John Shaw Elementary, Middle Level Alternative School, and Oretha C. Haley Elementary. The U.S. Coast Guard was also working with us in the area, pointing out people from their helicopters who were flagging them down. New Orleans Police search and rescue personnel met with our command to discuss areas that had been searched and those that would have to be covered on Saturday. We rescued 250 people from this grid area.

Late in the day, we discovered that the military had set up a helipad on I-610 at Elysian Fields. As we rescued people who needed immediate medical care, we sent them to this location. Also late in the day, we met the first rescue team on the water (other than Bossier City) on the north side of the grid. A National Guard unit from Kentucky was working into the area from the north. We worked until dark and returned to Baton Rouge.

On Saturday, September 3, we pushed farther east from our previous locations to recon areas where we believed people were waiting to be evacuated. Once we arrived in the area, other water rescue resources were being placed in the water. We pulled back to the west and placed our boats in service on West I-10 at the Franklin exit. People who had to be rescued from their houses by force were found in a weaker physical condition. More ground and air medical assets were moving into the city so that it would be easy for these patients to receive prompt medical attention once they arrived at the drop area.

In the early afternoon, we met the New Mexico US&R Task Force (NM-TF1), which was operating in the water. We briefed its leaders on our activities over the past few days. Before we ran into this task force, we were still rescuing victims who said we were the first rescuers they had seen since the storm hit five days earlier. We worked until dark and returned to Baton Rouge. We informed the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals that, since there were additional resources in New Orleans, we were going to place our team on inactive status for Sunday, September 4. Most of the team members had worked seven to eight days straight.

On Monday, September 5, we met to clean, restock, and place the equipment used on our deployment back in service. Following this, we attended critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) sessions.

US&R INCIDENT SUPPORT

On Sunday, September 11, the Louisiana State Fire Marshal’s Office Task Force asked our team leader to work with the FEMA US&R team members in the Louisiana Emergency Operation Center (EOC).

From Monday, September 12, to Tuesday, September 20, the team leader worked as a liaison to the FEMA US&R team. Our team briefed the Louisiana State Fire Marshal’s Office Task Force every morning and then flew to the New Orleans area. Some days, the group would stop at the New Orleans Saints practice facility in Metairie to check in with the FEMA US&R Incident Support Team (IST). The group would then go out and check in with St. Bernard and Plaquemine Parishes search and rescue efforts and offer assistance to these local governments.

ST. BERNARD DEPLOYMENT: SEPTEMBER 14-SEPTEMBER 19

Wednesday, September 14
Our team was activated on the morning of September 14 for deployment to St. Bernard Parish at the request of the St. Bernard Fire Department. The focus of this deployment was to conduct secondary searches in buildings that had not been searched since the floodwaters had receded, to verify no victims or human remains had been left behind. We were alerted by the East Baton Rouge Community Alert System.

Thursday, September 15

We assembled at Blue Bayou Water Park at 0530 hours. We were en route to St. Bernard Parish at 0645 hours and arrived at 1015 hours at the temporary St. Bernard Fire Headquarters (Exxon-Mobil Refinery Fire Station). After checking in with the St. Bernard Fire Command and receiving a grid (134) to search, we left the fire station at 1030 hours. A field command post was established on East St. Bernard Highway at Rodriguez. By 1130 hours, the team was performing secondary searches in houses and completed grid 134 at 1400 hours, after searching 110 homes. After checking in with St. Bernard Fire Command, the team was assigned grid 135. By the end of the day, we had searched another 90 homes. Team members suffered two minor feet injuries during the day; both members were treated by EBR EMS. The team returned to the St. Bernard Fire Headquarters, where all units went through decontamination.

There were 22 personnel working under East Baton Rouge US&R Command: 20 members of the EBR US&R Team and two EBR EMS.

Friday, September 16

Our team arrived at the St. Bernard Fire Headquarters at 0700 hours and arrived at East St. Bernard Highway at Rodriguez to set up a command post and continued search operations in grid 135, as the previous day. At 1230 hours, search team “B” found a body. We notified St. Bernard Fire Command. At 1430 hours, search team “A” found a body. We notified St. Bernard Fire Command. All three search teams concluded search operations after clearing approximately 250 homes. One team member was treated by EBR EMS for dehydration. The team returned to the St. Bernard Fire Headquarters, where all units went through decontamination.

Saturday, September 17

The team arrived at the St. Bernard Fire Headquarters at 0700 hours and at East St. Bernard Highway at Rodriguez to set up a command post. We continued search operations in the same grid as the previous day. At 0820 hours, team “A” found a body. We notified St. Bernard Fire Command. The team continued to search, clearing another 250 homes in the area. One team member was treated by EBR EMS for a foot injury. The team returned to the St. Bernard Fire Headquarters, where all units went through decontamination.

Sunday, September 18

The EBR US&R Team arrived at the St. Bernard Fire Headquarters at 0700 hours and went to East St. Bernard Highway at Rodriguez and set up a command post. The team continued search operations in the same grid as the previous day (135). At 1130 hours, a civilian came to the command post for medical treatment. The minor injury was treated by EBR EMS; the patient was referred to the Red Cross command post. The EBR US&R team continued to search, clearing approximately another 250 homes in grid 135. The team finished clearing grid 135. EBR EMS treated two team members with minor lacerations and one member for dehydration. The team returned to the St. Bernard Fire Headquarters, where all units went through decontamination.

The team received a request for an interview with the London Times.

Monday, September 19

We arrived at the St. Bernard Fire Headquarters at 0700 hours and were assigned grid 136 by St. Bernard Fire Command. After checking the area, we found that the grid was almost completely searched; members completed the final few houses. We were assigned a small grid (137) along St. Bernard Highway, which was cleared by 1030 hours. We returned to St. Bernard Fire Command and then departed Holy Cross College in New Orleans to begin the demobilization process. All vehicles went through decontamination at 1130 hours at Holy Cross College. We then cleaned equipment and packed for our return to Camp Colorado (LSP Complex in BR) for the medical demobilization; we arrived in Baton Rouge at 1700 hours and began the medical demobilization process.

In retrospect, we undertook a monumental task the likes of which we had never thought possible. Through the hard work and dedication of our members, we achieved and accomplished each goal we were given.

The following organizations greatly assisted our team in its deployment to St. Bernard Parish:

  • Baton Rouge, Mayor Kip Holden and staff;
  • East Baton Rouge Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, Director JoAnne Moreau and staff;
  • Baton Rouge Fire Chief Ed Smith and staff;
  • St. George Fire Chief Gerry Tarleton and staff;
  • East Baton Rouge EMS;
  • Central Fire Department;
  • Roco Rescue;
  • Blue Bayou Water Park; and
  • The families of team members Robert Campbell and Wade Hartman, who made their homes available to team members during this deployment.

KATRINA LESSONS LEARNED

• The EBR US&R team, a regional team, was set up to operate approximately two to three days at the longest. This response had the team operating for as long as five days. This caused a tremendous logistics problem for us. Fortunately, several members on the team were originally from the New Orleans area and were able to stay at the homes of their families, who had evacuated for the storm. We are currently working on future shelter needs as well as on the issue of how best to obtain needed supplies while deployed.

• Being equipped for trench and building collapse proved to be of no help during our rescue efforts. What we needed most, but were not equipped with, was boats. We were hampered greatly in the first days by a lack of available boats. The word was relayed back to the EBR EOC that we needed boats. The Baton Rouge Fire Department placed a call for firefighters with boats. This response, along with the fact that some US&R team members brought their own boats, allowed operations to continue. The BRFD also placed an emergency order for three pontoon rescue boats; they were received and placed in operation on our last two days in New Orleans.

• Security and force protection were not in place for our team prior to the storm. During our efforts, we teamed with several local law enforcement agencies and our own arson investigators to provide us with security, as our team was operating in close proximity to much of the lawlessness. We have since added three additional team members to serve as security.

• Communication, as usual, was a problem. We, along with most other agencies, were using the Louisiana State emergency frequency. At the least, communications were difficult or nonexistent. Situational status, one of the most critical and pressing needs, was hard to obtain and resulted in inefficient use of resources and duplication of efforts. This, combined with the almost complete destruction of area cell phone service, made operations hazardous.

• When operating on water, the fewer tools carried the better. Most of the operations were carried out in boats, making it very difficult to carry a substantial amount of tools and equipment. Since most of the operations involved removing persons trapped in buildings by water, the team carried primarily only personal protective equipment.

• During the second deployment to St. Bernard Parish, large geographical areas were to be covered, necessitating the use of all-terrain type vehicles. The use of these vehicles made our job more manageable and productive.

• During both operations, multiple US&R markings were encountered, making it difficult to interpret what had actually been searched and what had not. With the uncertainty, many buildings were searched multiple times, slowing overall progress. Markings among all types of teams need to be standardized to the FEMA marking system.

• Because of the tremendous amount of debris both inside and outside of buildings, it was very difficult to confirm the absence of deceased persons. Some heavy equipment would have been helpful during some of these operations. Most of the houses in our search area had been flooded for several days, with an average water height of eight to 12 feet. This amount of water and the force behind it had moved all furnishings throughout the houses, making operations difficult and hazardous.

• Having our own on-scene EMS capabilities proved invaluable, as several of our team members suffered injuries ranging from minor to moderate. Along with team members, several citizens working nearby were also treated by our EMS personnel for minor injuries. In this area of operations, EMS was a necessity because all of the New Orleans area hospitals were closed because of the storm. This meant the closet working hospital was some 80 to 90 miles away. We found that it is also important in this type of scenario to work out arrangements beforehand for medevac chopper services.

• Because of the unknown and known contaminants, decontamination was a necessity each day. It would be very beneficial for a team to have its own decontamination capabilities.

MARK STEWART, a 24-year veteran of the fire service, is a training officer with the Baton Rouge (LA) Fire Department, deputy team commander of the East Baton Rouge Parish US&R team, and assistant chief of the Prairieville (LA) Volunteer Fire Department. He is a US&R rescue specialist, a fire instructor II, and a fire officer III.

CHAD ROBERSON, an 18-year veteran of the fire service, is a district chief with the St. George Fire Protection District and team leader for the East Baton Rouge US&R Team.

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