BY ROBERT DUMMETT
On any normal weekend in late August, New Orleans would be bustling with activity. The New Orleans Saints would be midway through their preseason schedule, and Tulane University’s Green Wave would be preparing for its season’s opening game. In the French Quarter’s Art District, White Linen Nights would be in full swing. Along Bourbon Street, the sound of New Orleans jazz would be heard coming from the Blues and Boogie Bar, the Cat’s Meow, the Bourbon Pub/Parade, and dozens of other taverns, cafes, and restaurants. Trolley cars would be rolling down Canal Street, and horse-drawn carriages would be touring the French Quarter.
But the weekend of August 27, 2005, was not a normal weekend. Something ominous of mammoth proportion was growing in the Gulf of Mexico and slowly lumbering its way toward New Orleans. It was Hurricane Katrina, packing 145-mph sustained winds and strengthening.
On Saturday, August 27, Hurricane Katrina, located approximately 350 miles south-southwest of the Big Easy, had become a Category 4 hurricane. Traveling at 8 to 10 mph, she had her sights set on New Orleans.
At 0700 hours Sunday, August 28, Hurricane Katrina strengthened to a Category 5 storm with 160-mph sustained winds. By 1300 hours, her winds had increased to 175 mph, with recorded gusts of up to 215 mph.
Flotilla of airboats being trailered down New Orleans street. (Photo by George Lainhart.)
The National Hurricane Center, in Miami, predicted that Hurricane Katrina would make landfall and unleash the full force of her fury on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast early Monday morning, August 29.
AFTER THE STORM
New Orleans is a city existing against the laws of nature. Eighty percent of its land mass lies 10 feet below sea level. Its metropolitan population of 1.3 million people is spread over 4,190 square miles. It is a city surrounded by bodies of water on all sides, protected only by a series of 350 miles of manmade earthen levees.
Levees within the city’s business and residential districts had ruptured in five separate locations. Openings in the levees were up to 300 feet in length and were allowing water from Lake Pontchartrain to enter the city.
Airboats lined up with tow vehicles at staging area. (Photo by Chad Price.)
Amazingly, it was not the levees that protected the city from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the 20-foot storm surge that accompanied Hurricane Katrina that failed. Rather, it was the levees that held back the water of Lake Pontchartrain to the city’s north and those that served as shipping channels that had given way. Those levees failed because of the increased hydraulic pressure placed on them by their elevated water levels.
Normally, the surface level of Lake Pontchartrain is only one foot above the city’s mean elevation. The rains produced by Hurricane Katrina had raised the lake and its associated waterways another five feet.
Airboat picks up patients at hospital. (Photo by George Lainhart.)
During the early morning hours of August 29, prior to the arrival of Hurricane Katrina, the 17th Street Canal levee had ruptured. During the storm, a second failure occurred in the Industrial Canal levee.
By 0300 hours Tuesday, August 30, additional failures had occurred in segments of the 17th Street Canal and London Avenue Canal levees, and water was entering the city at an alarming and uncontrollable rate-a rate so great that water rose 14 feet in 22 minutes.
The city was destined for disaster.
By daylight Tuesday, August 30, New Orleans was 80 percent flooded, with water depths reaching 20 feet in some areas of the city.
Airboats at medical evacuation area. (Photo by Brian Edwards.)
Residents who had not evacuated in the approaching path of the storm retreated to the rooftops of buildings and the attics of their homes. They had climbed trees, poles, and bridges. They had sought high ground anywhere they could to escape the rising floodwater. For many, their place of refuge would become their tomb.
Many thousands of people required rescue and evacuation from 4,190 square miles of toxic, sewage-laden, debris-choked floodwater ranging from three inches to 20 feet in depth. Many of those requiring evacuation were elderly and infirm. Some were confined to wheelchairs and beds. Others were trapped within their place of refuge with no means of escape or communication with the outside world.
Flooded street in front of Tulane Medical Center. (Photo by George Lainhart.)
Three of the city’s major downtown hospitals, occupied by patients too critically ill to have been evacuated prior to Hurricane Katrina’s arrival and their medical personnel, were isolated, surrounded by four to five feet of floodwater that had disabled their generators and life support systems.
The following priorities were established.
• Evacuation of hospitals and medical centers. University Hospital alone contained 200 patients, 800 staff members, and 200 relatives of patients and staff. Charity Hospital, the largest public hospital, was refuge to 360 patients and 1,200 staff members. At Memorial Medical Center, there were 256 patients and roughly 1,800 employees and family members who had taken shelter at the facility. Uptown Hospital, near downtown New Orleans, had 300 patients who had to be evacuated.
Evacuation was going to be a difficult and time-consuming task. State and local public services were grossly underequipped to handle the situation, but help came from an unexpected and unlikely source.
Law enforcement officer guards airboats outside hospital. (Photo by Brian Edwards.)
On Tuesday evening, August 30, a much-needed and welcomed resource-rescue boats trailered in by civilian volunteers-began arriving at the Louisiana National Guard Armory, a staging area near the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport. These were not just any type of rescue boats but airboats powered by aircraft-style propellers that were capable of carrying large numbers of people and traveling across dry ground if necessary. The airboats came from as far away as Florida, Texas, Georgia, and Ohio.
Disaster managers on location attempted to establish some sort of organization and lines of communication in the total chaos created by Hurricane Katrina as civilians continued to arrive with their boats in tow. They had come to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. They arrived totally equipped and self-sufficient for 72 hours, each carrying as much as 500 to 1,000 gallons of operational fuel each.
Collapsed building. (Photo by Chad Price.)
By mid-morning on Wednesday, the volunteers and their airboats were assigned and placed under the authority of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Law enforcement escorted the airboats in a convoy approximately 80 miles to the Elmwood Plaza headquarters of the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, near downtown New Orleans.
Immediately on arrival, the airboaters were met by Major Sandy Dares and were given the mission of evacuating critically ill pediatric patients from Memorial Hospital to a helipad that had been established on the top level of a parking garage at the Tulane Medical Center.
Within one hour of the deployment of the airboats, the operation of all other conventional watercraft was discontinued. The airboats provided pickup, transport, and delivery of the patients in a far more efficient manner in the debris-choked floodwater than the conventional submerged-prop or jet-drive boats.
I-10 ramp drop-off. (Photo by Brian Edwards.)
Whereas the propellers of the conventional boats were disabled by submerged obstacles that included downed trees, automobiles, sign posts, fences, and fire hydrants and became entangled in debris, causing the vessels’ engines to overheat, the airboats worked throughout the day undaunted. By the end of the first day, the group of 18 airboats had evacuated more than 300 of the most critically ill patients.
The airboats ranged in size from 12 to 20 feet in length, were powered by engines ranging from 200 to 500 horsepower, and had cargo capacities ranging from 1,200 to 5,000 pounds. Those same boats had the capability of operating from dry ground to 20 feet of water.
For the next two days, the flotilla of airboats worked to complete the evacuation of the patients and medical staff from University Hospital, Charity Hospital, Memorial Medical Center, Tulane Medical Center, and Uptown Hospital.
Occupants await pickup on roof of their home in the 9th Ward. (Photo by Gary Wise.)
The airboats proved invaluable for transporting patients on stretchers, in wheelchairs, and on ventilators and infants in incubators. Some patients were paraplegic, some quadriplegic; others were dialysis patients; most had IVs and feeding tubes.
By Friday evening, September 2, four days after Hurricane Katrina had battered New Orleans, the evacuation of the downtown district hospitals was complete. More than 1,100 patients, 4,000 medical personnel, and family members had been evacuated by airboat or helicopter.
• Evacuation of residential neighborhoods. While one group of airboats was evacuating the medical centers, a second group of smaller airboats performed law-enforcement duties. Each airboat had one operator and two heavily armed law enforcement officers. They patrolled the streets and the neighborhoods of New Orleans maintaining civil order. With their ability to operate in water of any depth, their agility, and their speed, the airboats again proved to be the vessel of choice for the mission.
They also performed evacuations. Going door to door or, in many cases, roof to roof, they evacuated those who wished to leave. Unfortunately, many refused to leave in the early days of the flooding. For the holdouts, it was their hope that the water would soon recede and they could start cleaning up and putting their lives back together. That hope proved to be detrimental to their health, and deadly for some.
On Saturday, with the evacuation of the hospitals completed, the flotilla of airboats took on the task of searching and evacuating the residential neighborhoods. It was day five post-Katrina, and the stench generated by the raw sewage, decaying debris, and decomposing bodies floating in and on the water had become nauseating. But still, many holdouts refused to leave their homes. This made an organized search and evacuation operation difficult, as many who refused to be evacuated on Wednesday and Thursday were pleading to be evacuated on Saturday.
Holes in the roof where occupants escaped. (Photo by Chris Whitten.)
The evacuation process was slow and methodical. At first, those who were apparent and wanted to leave were evacuated. After that, the dwelling-by-dwelling search began. The airboat captain would maneuver his vessel up to the door, window, or roof of a building. If a knock on a door or window went unanswered, forcible entry was made and the entire premises was searched. In areas where it was plainly visible that the floodwater had risen to the level of three feet above the building’s floor, the attics were checked for victims.
In heavily flooded neighborhoods, it was not uncommon to find homes that had holes kicked through their roofs from the inside out. Rescuers climbed and checked the roof of each building in those areas. In some cases, it was only a matter of removing a vent in the gable or on the roof peak. In other cases, rescuers pounded on the roof with a sledgehammer or an ax and then listened for a response.
Captain Dick Douse of West Palm Beach, Florida, recalled one incident of knocking on the roof of a home in the 9th Ward and receiving a faint tapping sound back. He pounded again, louder. The return tapping was heard again. Cranking up a chain saw, he cut a three-foot by four-foot hole in the shingled roof. No sooner was the piece of roofing removed than a woman in her 80s appeared through the hole. According to Douse, “Her first words were, ‘Thank you for the daylight.’ It was the most memorable moment of my life,” Douse said. “Seeing the look of appreciation on that woman’s face and hearing her voice made the whole effort worthwhile.”
Other rescuers had similar stories to tell. One group found an elderly woman inside a flooded home; water inside her one-story house was two feet deep. She was there with her grandson, who was a diabetic and confined to a wheelchair. He had been without insulin for five days. She was happy to see the rescuers and was ready to leave.
While searching rooftops and attics, rescuers found evidence of other less fortunate victims. George Lainhart, a police officer and volunteer airboat owner from Fairburn, Georgia, found the body of a man who had ripped his fingers to the bone tearing at the inside of the attic roof. In desperation, the man had gnawed at the rafters with his teeth in an attempt to escape before dying.
In another incident, Lainhart encountered a man sitting near a hole on a rooftop; the man was bleeding from his severely cut and swollen feet. When approached by the rescuers and asked what had happened to him, the man explained that he had injured his feet kicking his way through the roof after he had broken both of his wrists attempting to punch his way out.
As the days passed and the conditions worsened, the situation began to take its toll on the flood victims.
Brian Edwards, chief of the Sandusky County (OH) Dive Team operations and airboat owner, described an incident that occurred while he was transporting a man out of the Garden District on Saturday. He and his crew had just picked up a man who was wading in waist-deep water. They were transporting him to an evacuation area when the man began behaving strangely. According to Edwards, the man began looking around like a scared dog and suddenly jumped out of the boat while it was traveling on a full plane at 30 mph.
Flood victims who refused to leave in the early days of the flooding began asking to be evacuated when they started getting sick. The onset of fever, diarrhea, vomiting, and infection in wounds persuaded many to leave.
Edwards explained the evacuation process: “When out, you had to stop and talk to every person every day, even though you may have talked to them every day for the past four days and asked them if they were ready to leave. They may not have been ready to go yesterday, but they may be ready to go today. When they got sick and couldn’t hold their bowels any longer and were vomiting all day, they knew they needed help and that it was time to get out.”
On Sunday, September 4, the first wave of civilian volunteers and members of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries was relieved by a new group of airboaters. The majority of the relief group was, again, from Florida, but there were also airboaters from Texas, Georgia, and Oklahoma. This new group was placed under the authority of Chief Deputy David Linthicum of the Bernalillo County (NM) Sheriff’s Department. This second wave of civilian airboaters and law enforcement personnel worked for another nine days conducting security patrols and rescuing people from New Orleans.
In the Garden District area, local officials told rescuers there was no access to the community by boat. The airboaters, knowing the capabilities of their vessels, unloaded them on dry ground, started the engines of their boats, and piloted them toward a newly erected dike. To the amazement of all observers, they then proceeded to maneuver their boats up, over, and down the six-foot-high embankment. Once on the other side, the airboaters, with law enforcement officers onboard, searched the Garden District and evacuated residents who had not seen a single sign of outside help since the onset of the storm.
Pete after arrival at medical evacuation area. (Photo by Gary Wise.)
On the 14th day following the arrival of Hurricane Katrina, airboaters Chad Price and Gary Wise, of Lakeland, Florida, encountered a man, known only as Pete, wading in the chest-deep water of New Orleans’ Garden District, who was persuaded to board Price’s vessel. He was emaciated, sporting a long white beard, and shirtless; his pants were tattered, ripped to shreds by debris in the water. Pete, covered with oozing infected sores, was running a high fever. According to Price, he had not had any water in 12 days. He told the airboat crew that he had plenty to eat back home but no fresh water and that he was afraid to drink anything out of a faucet. Pete was transported to the evacuation area, where he was handed over to emergency medical personnel. Price said he didn’t know what happened to Pete, but he didn’t think Pete made it.
In a three-day period, more than 1,100 patients, many critically ill intensive care unit patients, and more than 4,000 medical personnel and family members were evacuated from downtown hospitals. In a White House press briefing conducted September 19, three weeks post-Katrina, it was announced that 48,000 people and 8,000 pets had been rescued from New Orleans. According to the Louisiana Department of Health, as of March 22, 2006, the official human death toll caused by the flooding of New Orleans stood at 1,287.
It was learned that airboats and helicopters do not work well together. There was one reported incident of an airboat’s being capsized by the rotor-wash from a military helicopter. In other incidents, low-flying helicopters rotor-washed boats and blew them into the sides of buildings, standing utility poles, and bridge pilings.
Some found the operation of the airboats noisy. However, the boat’s propeller generated only a small fraction of the noise produced by a hovering helicopter. Likewise, the prop-wash produced by an airboat in no way compared with that of a hovering helicopter. It was reported that the rotor-wash from one helicopter blew the covering off a roof of a building and victims into the water while attempting to evacuate flood victims.
One civilian helicopter was destroyed when it was forced to make an “unscheduled landing” in an open area near the Danziger Bridge, northeast of New Orleans, because of what was believed to be mechanical failure. There were no fatalities in the incident, and all crew members were able to walk away from the wreckage with only minor injuries.
Although not appropriate for all evacuation and rescue operations, the airboats proved to be the watercraft of choice for getting the job done. In New Orleans, the airboats moved more people in the least amount of time and with the least amount of fuel and expended effort than any other vessel or aircraft.
Many of the airboats used in the evacuation of New Orleans were provided by civilian volunteers who self-deployed out of a sense of patriotism and a desire to help those in need. Without their help, the suffering and the death toll would have been much greater.
ROBERT DUMMETT is a 26-year fire service veteran, with 19 years as a firefighter/paramedic for Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue. Now retired, during his career with the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department, he was coordinator of the department’s Marine Services Bureau Airboat Rescue. He is coordinator of the Miami-Dade Marine Services Bureau Airboat Rescue Program. Following the 1996 Valu-Jet crash in the Florida Everglades, he was given the responsibility of developing an airboat rescue and response program for the department. Dummett has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a graduate certificate in EMS management from Florida International University in Miami. He was a member of the department’s Air-Deployable SCBA Dive Rescue Team and held certifications as a marine shipboard firefighter, a fire service instructor, an ACLS instructor, and a safe boating instructor.