BY DAVID RHODES
It was day 2 after Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast, leaving a trail of destruction more than 300 miles long. Our department, like many in the South, had been in standby mode for two days and seemed to be in a holding pattern waiting for “official” word, mission numbers, and a host of other beauracratic agency (all known by acronyms) approvals before anyone moved. Meanwhile, Gulf Coast residents were trapped in collapsed houses and Coast Guard members were chopping through roofs and airlifting civilians as the closest fire departments were on “standby.”
In this era of the National Incident Management System (NIMS), Homeland Security, Office of Domestic Preparedness, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the like, it would be politically incorrect to “self-deploy.” This would surely get you labeled as a renegade warrior unworthy of the approval of any FEMA form or mission number. In fact, you would be considered as someone hampering the “well-coordinated efforts” being carried out.
Meanwhile, responders were packed and the trucks were full, but phones were silent as affected fire departments were cut off from the rest of the world.
Finally, our department could not stand the wait. Torn between political correctness and moral obligation, our chief conservatively hit the launch button, sending two of us on a recon mission. Our mission was to get to Biloxi, Mississippi, and establish communication between the Biloxi Fire Department and the Atlanta Fire Department. We were to offer equipment, staffing, and command support. Little did we know where the week would lead us.
Our planned route from Atlanta kept us north of the affected area-or so we thought. While making our way through Mississippi, we found the damage to be farther inland than we expected. With half a tank of fuel, we began looking for a gas station to fill up. Several stations had long lines; we finally pulled up to one. We were quickly informed that the owner of the station had gone to buy a generator and was expected back that afternoon. It was only 1000 hours, so we moved westward. We wound up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where the gas line at the only open service station was four hours long. A quick conversation with one of the local law enforcement officers working the traffic nightmare landed us a front-row direct stop at the next available pump for a fill-up. With a full tank and a couple of spare fuel cans we were holding in reserve, we made our way south to Biloxi.
Debris pile on the median wall of I-10 East near I-110 Biloxi. (Photos by author.)
I-10 was open as we passed debris piles, some 10 feet tall, against the concrete median wall. The only bridge over to Biloxi was I-110. As we exited into the Biloxi beach area, we were stunned at the total devastation. Complete blocks of houses were reduced to piles of rubble, and debris piles pushed to the side of the road by front end loaders created mountains on both sides of the road. Remarkably, the fire headquarters and Biloxi Public Safety building were untouched and experienced no flooding despite being only five blocks from the beach.
Our instructions were to find David Roberts, the chief of Biloxi, and offer our department’s assistance. He met us outside the fire station; he was wearing a sweat-laden uniform T-shirt and a Biloxi Fire Department ball cap. His three-day beard was weighing heavy, and his eyes were tired. He quickly began telling us he had lost two fire stations and the water had risen eight feet higher than during Hurricane Camille in the 1960s. He was busy handling business but was somewhat numb to exactly what he had coming in the days ahead.
Four blocks of devastation in Biloxi.
We went over the assistance that the Atlanta Fire Department could provide to him, which included two engines, a command team, and a total of 50 personnel. I think he was afraid to say yes because he didn’t know where he would put us or how he would support the resources as they came in. There was no electricity or running water, and the city facilities were maxed out with people from the local department. He took down the information along with our contact numbers and hurried off to the emergency operations center for a meeting of local officials.
We used this time to get a look at the island to see exactly what we would be sending our people into and what type of tools and equipment we should have them bring. We had gone only a few blocks from the Biloxi headquarters, heading east, when the devastation became real to us. Entire blocks of homes were swept up into debris piles. A house turned sideways on the foundation sat alone on a street. Next door, an elderly man sat in a lawn chair on a porch that was missing the house to which it was once attached. I struck up a conversation and said it was hard to believe that the house sitting sideways on the foundation had survived while the entire block was gone. He replied, “Son, that house does not belong to that foundation. I don’t know whose house that is or where it came from, but it is not my neighbor’s house.” Other houses sat damaged or collapsed, and we saw evidence that firefighters from Florida Task Force 2 had already made their way through the area searching house by house. They had arrived the morning after the storm and quickly went to work searching while a crew began assembling their base camp. Their integration into the Biloxi Fire Department was well established and accepted. This state US&R team was highly mobile and self-sufficient. It got in quick and was making rescues and recoveries while other federal teams were staging awaiting official orders from FEMA on where to go and what to do. Meanwhile, thousands of firefighters remained on “standby.”
Markings indicate searches by US&R teams.
We made our notes and drove back to headquarters, where Roberts was still meeting with officials. The day was quickly slipping away, so we left word for the chief to call or e-mail us if he needed our resources and that we would check back in. Meanwhile, we headed out of Biloxi toward Baton Rouge to try to get a phone signal so we could report back to our chief in Atlanta what the situation and needs were.
This fire station was not in service but was used to store the police rescue boat seen. A newer station sits on a higher elevation just to the west of this one.
About one hour out of Baton Rouge on I-10 west, we got a signal. We checked in, and I made a call to the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) in Washington, D.C., to see if they knew of any needs. That phone call directed us to Baton Rouge, where the IAFF was about to set up a command center to address the members’ needs.
We arrived around 1800 hours that evening. All we had to go on was that we were looking for the AFL-CIO Baton Rouge office. We made a quick stop at the Sheraton Hotel in Baton Rouge off College Drive. The hotel was packed with evacuees who had taken over the parking lots, lobbies, and any empty space they could find. Cell phone coverage was spotty, but the landlines were functional. We struck out on trying to find an address for the AFL-CIO office, so we set out to find the nearest fire station. We happened upon a Baton Rouge station that sat on the southeast side of town. It was without power; firefighters were congregated around an outside picnic table holding court. We were able to get in contact with the individuals for whom we were looking and got directions to our destination.
It was dark by the time we pulled up to the AFL-CIO office. Two vehicles were in the parking lot; it looked like we may not find the individuals we were looking for. I knocked on the door, and someone opened up. I said, “Are there any firefighters here?” The door swung open wider, and a handful of tired guys said, “Yeah, us.” This was the first meeting of what would become a close group of firefighters doing anything and everything to help the firefighters affected by the storm. The group was waiting word from two guys who were delivering supplies by boat to St. Bernard Parish firefighters, who reportedly were sheltered in a sugar mill on the third floor. Word came that the supplies had been delivered and that the situation there was grim. The IAFF crew members, who hooked up with a local push boat captain, were the first outsiders to make it into the devastated area with any type of supplies.
WITH NO COMMUNICATIONS, THERE IS NO COMMAND
We spent the night on the floor of the Baton Rouge firefighters’ living room. The next morning, we met the entire 10-member team that included IAFF members from Tennessee, Shreveport, Baton Rouge, and now Atlanta. The laundry list of requests for assistance was written on the back of an envelope that showed water stains from the trip to St. Bernard Parish. Several of the teams’ cell phones were ringing off the hook, and several different conversations quickly revealed to me that the unofficial line of communication of firefighters to firefighters was outrunning every EOC and command center in the area. Firefighters who had no radio communication with their departments were making contact with friends and relatives on personal cell phones trying to get help and relaying information on their whereabouts and needs.
We set up a type 3 command center in a nearby building and began organizing requests and resources and planning for a long operation. With the command structure in place, we were able to assign missions to crews and match resources with requests. Our advantage was that we had no bureaucracy to answer to. Relief supplies were dispatched to local fire departments in which no communications had been established. The teams went out in search of fellow firefighters in the most devastated areas and brought back assessments to our command team. We were running 15 to 20 missions a day with about 20 individuals. We were all “unofficial” in the grand scheme of the emergency management structure, but we were probably receiving better intelligence and getting better assessments of the areas than any official responders who were still on “standby.”
Our communications were primitive; basically, the only way to find out what the needs were was to go to the area and have face-to-face conversations with the firefighters. When we tried to order five satellite phones, we were informed by all companies that the government had taken possession of everything in the country and that they had nothing to sell and that if they did, it would have to go to the government. With a quick call to one of the IAFF members in Canada, we purchased the phones and had them shipped to us next day air.
LOCAL RELATIONSHIPS = RESOURCES
There were two missions that really defined what we were doing there. A call came in from a New Orleans fire captain who told us that 12 of his members were trapped at the fairgrounds. They said they had no communications with their command and citizens were surrounding their sheltered area. They felt that they were in danger of being mobbed for their limited supplies. Chad Jones, the Louisiana IAFF state president, started making phone calls and hooked up with a state police helicopter through contacts at the Governor’s office. The state police helicopter went in and got the New Orleans firefighters out. We had vehicles waiting to pick them up and bring them back to our shelter.
The guys arrived late in the afternoon. All were tired and showed the stress of the past five days on their faces. One was sick and needed medical attention; the others needed a shower, clean clothes, a hot meal, and a good night’s sleep. The past five days had them commandeering boats, making rescues, and evacuating citizens to safety-not just a few, but hundreds of them. As most Americans watched, the National Guard and Coast Guard evacuated citizens from the roofs of New Orleans buildings. The cameras did not show the firefighters who brought the citizens to safety in those buildings and maintained order inside the buildings as evacuees were lifted out two and three at a time with hundreds waiting below. This scene was playing out in buildings all over New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish and every other affected community. The firefighters were on the ground in areas where no cameras, no troops, and no supplies would be for days. During this time, some didn’t know if their families were safe; some didn’t know if their homes had survived. Meanwhile, they worked feverishly saving life after life and maintaining order. We also removed New Orleans firefighters who were facing a similar situation from the Bell South building the following day.
MISSION OF DESPERATION
The second mission was one of desperation. It was day 8 and the firefighters in St. Bernard Parish were physically and mentally exhausted. We received word that there were actually 60 firefighters now cut off from the rest of the world surviving on the third floor of the sugar mill. Their chief was concerned that they could not leave the town without replacements. We knew the physical and psychological toll these individuals were facing, and we knew we had to get them out. The chief said we could get out however many we could replace. With the help of the Baton Rouge chief, who was quick on action, we provided the relief forces needed to give the St. Bernard guys a break. This was part of no official “mission number” but an act of mercy and a moral obligation. (Meanwhile thousands of firefighters around the South were on standby.) Our team again worked with local push boat operators, planned the mission to get the firefighters out, and then departed for St. Bernard Parish. As the mission was underway, the other teams continued working on getting supplies to other affected firefighters in several East Louisiana departments.
Author’s note: All of the appropriate (those with acronyms) centers were notified of all the firefighters we rescued so they could notify the local departments with whom we could not communicate.
By this time, our operation had grown and we had moved to a local church campus where we could now shelter more than 100 firefighters if necessary. The move to the Zion Baptist Church in East Baton Rouge proved to be one of the best moves we could have made. As we transferred our equipment and supplies to the new command center, we were all focused on the mission of rescuing our fellow firefighters. Word quickly spread to the church members that we were using their facility to shelter firefighters who were being rescued from the most devastated areas. The church members mobilized. Before we knew it, we had more than 40 of them working to organize donations of food, clothing, and other supplies that were now streaming in from the community. Never underestimate the power of the American people. One individual stopped by and said that he had been trying for days through official channels to donate three generators and wanted to know what else we need. He said money was no object. That afternoon, we delivered the generators to fire stations that had no power.
Other members of the church began to work on building outside showers to supplement the two showers located in the church. The church kitchen was opened, and three meals a day were provided for all the command staff, the New Orleans firefighters who were still sheltered, and the church volunteers. We had requested the Red Cross, but it could not assist us because we were not an official shelter. However, because of personal relationships (the power of the brotherhood), we were able to get an “unofficial” supply of food from them to keep the shelter open.
Word of our rescue missions quickly spread among the evacuated family members of the firefighters. Many of them had evacuated to the Baton Rouge area in the days before the storm, leaving their loved ones there staffing the fire stations. As the day gave way to night, the first signs of the psychological toll local firefighters were going to face became apparent. A New Orleans firefighter had heard of our shelter and came to find out if we had had any contact with her station members or any of her several family members who were on duty when the storm hit. She patiently hung out all day at the shelter talking with the other firefighter from New Orleans, but still no word. She came in the command center once again to see if we had made contact. When we told her we still had no information, she totally broke down and said she didn’t even know if they were alive. She sobbed uncontrollably as Atlanta Deputy Chief John McNeil took her to another area of the church and provided support and reassurance. Another emotional firefighter arrived soon after this. Although none of us were officially trained in this area, we were able to help just by being there to talk with them with provide some comfort. [We had requested several critical incident stress management (CISM) teams the day before; and they were en route from Texas and would arrive the following day.]
During this time, family members of the St. Bernard Parish firefighters began arriving at the church in hopes that their loved ones were there. The numbers grew to around 100 family members by 2000 hours that night. Our guys finally got word back to us that they were successful in getting the 60 St. Bernard firefighters and they were headed upriver to the bus that would bring them back. They estimated their arrival was going to be 0100 hours, some five hours away. With the anxious crowd waiting, we decided to take the opportunity to brief them on what we were doing and give them some advice on what to expect and what the needs of these firefighters would be over the next few days.
We began the briefing by outlining the timeline and details of how we were getting the firefighters out and what time we expected to have them back. Most of them had not seen or spoken to their loved ones in more than a week. We then explained how we would decontaminate them on their arrival and that it would take about an hour after arrival before they could be with them. We advised them that during the bus ride back that our EMTs and paramedics were evaluating all of them and that those needing immediate medical attention would be seen by our medical staff at the shelter. If anyone needed hospital care, an ambulance would be here standing by. We continued to talk about the psychological challenges many of them may face in the coming days and months. We distributed phone numbers to our command center for 24-hour support. We also explained the process for the $500 checks we were issuing to every firefighter who needed assistance. They asked numerous questions about “why” the officials had not provided them with any information and “why” their loved ones had not been allowed to leave. All of these were questions we could not answer; again, just letting them talk and being there to help them provided some comfort.
DID ALL THE SHELTERS DECON?
Our first priority on the arrival of the firefighters was to completely decontaminate them. We planned everything out right down to parking the arriving bus. Metal chairs were set up outside for the firefighters to stage and receive instructions on the decon process. As they began to exit the bus, I felt as if I was seeing prisoners of war stepping on free ground for the first time. They looked bad; the military term “shell shocked” is the closest description of their condition. They had “survived” for eight days in a flooded sugar mill, living on the supplies we dropped to them the first night of my arrival. They continued to work in small boats retrieving floating bodies and searching for missing persons.
I began briefing them on the decon procedures, giving them a step-by-step process to follow. About a minute into it, I realized that they were so tired, weary, and “shell shocked” that they didn’t even know I was talking. So I just stopped and told them we were going to get them clean and to their families as soon as possible. An older firefighter in the front row nodded his approval.
We lined up three firefighters at a time. They were given a plastic trash bag to place their clothes in and a clear Ziploc® bag for their wallets, cell phones, and other items. We told them to keep their underclothes on but to place everything else in the bags. When they had removed their contaminated clothing, the two engines opened the valves supplying nozzles attached directly to the outlets, and the individuals got their first shower in a week. The next step was to move from the gross decon to the outside showers. They were given a plastic bag for their underclothes and washcloth. Inside the outside showers were antibacterial soap, shampoo, and washcloths. Once they were finished with their shower, they wrapped up in a towel and moved into the building where we had new clothes and dressing rooms. One of our guys would then spray the shower with a bleach and water mix, rinse it out, and remove the bags of clothing. After receiving new clothes and shoes, the firefighters who needed them were assigned a bed in the shelter and then released to the Youth Center where their families were waiting.
Because we were organized and ready, our system allowed us to completely decon all 60 firefighters in a dignified manner in one hour. After completing this task, I thought about all of the shelters and the number of individuals who had been exposed to the floodwaters and who knows what else and wondered if they had a similar process. Some of the clothes removed from the firefighters were in various states of decay from being wet and contaminated for more than a week. Most all of the individuals were wearing the clothes they had on when the storm hit some seven days ago. One firefighter in his early 60s called one of our staff over while standing between the two engines. He stated that he understood he was supposed to remove his clothes and keep underclothes on, but he didn’t think he had any underclothes anymore. We provided him with a towel. As he removed his clothing, pieces of degraded fabric fell to the ground. This was all that remained of his underclothes.
THE HUMAN TOLL
About 30 of the 60 firefighters stayed in the shelter; others went to relatives’ houses or a hotel with their families. Early that morning, around 0430 hours, I was wakened by a loud scream. The scream was coming from the gym floor where the 60-plus firefighters were bunked down on air mattresses. I saw one of the guys get up and run outside with one of our command team guys following him. Several others shouted out in their sleep as the morning went by. The nightmares had started for some. As the tired firefighters cherished a warm bed, food, and being clean, they now began to relive the horrors they had seen and dealt with while on duty.
One firefighter had the same recurring dream several times that night, reliving the traumatic experience detail by detail. He had heard individuals blowing whistles in their attics as he took a boatload of citizens from another area to safety. The water level had risen to the bottom of the roofs in this neighborhood, forcing the occupants to attics. After unloading his boat, he returned to the neighborhood to find the water had risen to within a couple of feet of the rooftops. He and other firefighters heard calls for help at one house and began cutting open the roof. As the hole was opening, the occupant reached up to try and escape, but the hole was not big enough. As they frantically continued cutting, the individual fell into the flooded attic, and they never saw him again. Within minutes, the water completely covered all the houses, the whistles went silent, and there was no hope for any survivors.
These types of stories continued when the CISM team arrived. Several of the firefighters asked to speak with the church pastor, who also had church members assisting the CISM team. The amount of suffering these individuals endured probably never will be known to anyone other than their families.
The IAFF command center and response teams accomplished the following:
- Coordinated and distributed supplies to more than 30 departments in the Gulf Coast area within the first three days, the only supplies many communities received during the first several weeks.
- Distributed more than $1.2 million to affected firefighters.
- Sheltered more than 1,000 firefighters at various times for the weeks after the storm.
- Continued operations through Hurricane Rita, assisting West Louisiana and Texas departments.
All of this was done “unofficially” and outside the confines of any EOC. The IAFF CISM teams were still on-scene at the time this was written.
The Atlanta Fire Rescue Department accomplished the following:
- Sent three engines and 42 personnel to Biloxi after receiving a mission number on day 6 after the storm; they remained for 25 days. They provided relief crews so the local firefighters could have off days to take care of their personal properties.
- Sent six Urban Search & Rescue members with the Central Georgia Search & Rescue Team to St. Bernard Parish for 14 days.
There were numerous great deeds accomplished by many in official and nonofficial capacities. The slow response of government resources forces us to examine our system and question whether we are in the rescue or recovery business. Literally thousands of firefighters within a one- to five-hour drive of the area remained on standby with engines, trucks, boats, and ambulances as firefighters were brought in days into the incident from New York and California. Those resources that got in within hours after the storm made a difference and saved lives; those that had to wait on “mission numbers” and arrived a week or more later helped clean up and search for bodies. Changes must be made in the official deployment of resources, state to state and at the federal level, if we want to have an impact on the rescue aspect of the incident.
When there is no communication, there is no command. When this happens, we know our firefighters will be resourceful and will do whatever it takes to help the communities and each other. They will naturally attempt to contact their family and friends, who are usually other firefighters. No command system in the world will ever be able to compete with this when there is no functioning radio system. Personal cell phones saved the day for many stranded on-duty firefighters who had no way to contact their command. The fire service must have communications systems that can function in the worst of conditions if we are going to command these incidents.
Hurricanes are forecasted events; we cannot wait until after they hit to start getting approvals and agreements signed for rescue personnel to respond. The fire service has used automatic and mutual-aid agreements for years. This model must be expanded on the largest of scales and across the many different public safety and other disaster discipline lines. We had more than a week to prepare for this, and the system failed. How much worse could it have been if we had no warning? The closest responders must be used to get in quickly and make the rescues.
We cannot expect our firefighters to be superhuman. We can’t have a “go down with the ship” policy when these events take place. After the first couple of days, our people need relief if they are going to continue to function and have productive lives and careers. If not, the mental aspects may be career ending. CISM teams are needed early in the event and will be needed long after the event is over.
If those in power wish to maintain order and control, they must address these issues because the brotherhood is much stronger than the bureaucracy. If not, the thousands of firefighters who showed restraint and did not self-deploy despite their proximity and frustration may not wait on the mission number next time.
DAVID RHODES is a 20-year fire service veteran and a battalion chief for the Atlanta (GA) Fire Department. He also serves as the department’s task force leader for Urban Search and Rescue. He is the chief elder for the Georgia Smoke Diver Program and an adjunct instructor for the Georgia Fire Academy. He was voted president emeritus by the Atlanta Professional Fire Fighters, Local 134. Rhodes serves as a member of the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) Executive Advisory Board, a Hands-on Training coordinator for FDIC, and an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering. He has several published articles and the video Marketing the Mission (PennWell).