Friday, May 26, 2006

Katrina--what went right?

The answer: quite a lot.

Twenty-five thousand body bags were stockpiled; the latest computer model predicted 60,000 dead. Yet weeks after the storm, fewer than 1,000 bodies have been found in all of Louisiana. Which prompts the question: What went right?
The answer is: something massive. Largely ignored by the agenda-driven national media, one of the largest rescue operations in history saved more than 50,000 people by boat and helicopter. In this Dunkirk on the Mississippi, Coast Guard and other military units, volunteers, and state and local first responders delivered thousands from death by drowning, dehydration, heatstroke, fire, starvation, and disease. The three goats of Katrina — FEMA’s Michael Brown, Gov. Kathleen Blanco, and Mayor Nagin — had little if any role; in fact, because local communication was wiped out by the storm, they may not even have known about the scale and success of the rescue operation. []

[Coast Guard Officer] Huberty deeply resents TV’s characterization of the black residents of New Orleans. “As many bad stories as you hear about looting, there were plenty of people sacrificing for others, regardless of their demographic. I can’t tell you how many times a man would stay behind an extra day or two on the roof and let his wife and kids go first. It broke my heart. We’d go to an apartment building and you’d see that someone was in charge, organizing the survivors. We’d tell him, ‘We can only take five,’ and they’d sort out the worst cases. It happened many times that the guy in charge was the last to leave.”

LOCAL HEROES
At the state level, the Louisiana National Guard’s 1-244th Aviation Battalion and 812th Med-Evac unit moved helicopters — ten Black Hawks and six Hueys — into New Orleans behind the storm. “It was like a scene from a Stephen King movie,” says Capt. Shawn Vaughn, who piloted a Black Hawk. “We just got back from Iraq and saw nothing like this kind of devastation there.”
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The Black Hawk operation was a textbook example of quick-and-dirty improvisation: Lacking rescue hoists, crews adopted the nervy tactic of landing directly on rooftops to take on passengers, while applying power to keep the helicopters light so they wouldn’t collapse the storm-weakened buildings. Some stripped out their seating to increase capacity to 30 passengers standing, or to carry stretchers for the elderly and disabled.

Healthy evacuees were pulled from rooftops and transferred to nearby collection points. When they couldn’t maneuver in for a pickup, National Guardsmen called in the Coast Guard and smaller Hueys with rescue hoists. Individual Black Hawks pulled out as many as 250 people per day when the pressure was on. Vaughn estimates the unit saved up to 4,000 in the first week ....
Also on Monday, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries had 250 agents and their boats in the water, along with volunteers from inside the agency, according to Lt. Col. Keith LaCaze. His operation claimed 20,000 rescues by September 8 — at which point it suspended calls for more volunteers and boats. LaCaze says many of these rescues were of people facing imminent death. “There were a lot of people we rescued on the first night — in houses and in attics where the water was almost over their head. There were still many people the next day in danger of drowning and dehydration.”

It has been reported that two shifts of New Orleans firemen were not on duty, and that up to half of the police department went AWOL. Wrong on both counts: Efforts by these local rescuers were robust. According to Firehouse magazine, firemen had prepared for the emergency, with ample boats and supplies in place. Local first responders were fielding 100 to 200 boats in the first 24 hours, according to officials quoted in the New Orleans Times-Picayune....
SUCCESS STORY
The above account covers the most important responders, but it is by no means exhaustive. The Air Force reported 1,300 rescues and some 14,000 “transported” by September 4. By the end of Tuesday, August 30, the Navy ship Bataan — later slammed for inaction by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman — had five choppers flying rescue missions and had pulled out several hundred people. One Bataan airman, in an e-mail that was reprinted in his local newspaper, casually described how his helicopter had lifted 19 victims from the roof of a burning building. Other units on Day One came from as far away as Wisconsin, which sent two Black Hawks and three Hueys from the 832nd Medical Company and from the 1st Battalion, 147th Aviation unit. Three Hueys from the Georgia National Guard’s 148th Air Ambulance arrived Monday and flew nonstop from sunup to sundown. State Police and sheriffs’ departments operated rescue boats. Civilian search-and-rescue teams from out of state, and as far away as Canada, responded on their own. FEMA also operated search-and-rescue teams. A volunteer squad from Exxon Mobil pulled out 1,500 survivors all by itself. One pilot said he sighted a Chinook helicopter from the Republic of Singapore Air Force; improbably, such a craft was temporarily based in Texas, and, like exotic fauna washed in by a storm, may have become part of the aerial ecosystem.

By Wednesday, August 31, as the media screamed for troops to deal with the over-hyped breakdown.
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“As tragic as every death is, there were less than 1,000 in Louisiana,” Congressman Peter King, a New York Republican and chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, told me after a trip to New Orleans. “Every study beforehand said a hurricane of this kind would kill at least 10,000. Obviously, there were a lot of rescuers; obviously, first responders and the Coast Guard did many, many more rescues than has been reported.” The death toll in New Orleans will rise, but it will never come close to the ghoulish early estimates. That doesn’t absolve authorities from responsibility for some of the deaths; King says that his committee will be looking at the city and state role in failed evacuations and the breakdown of supply to survivors.

But the narrative of Katrina needs wholesale revision, and mainstream news organizations are starting to work on it. There were not 200 murders at the Superdome; there appear to have been exactly zero. Local authorities did not lose control there or at the Convention Center. The more than 30,000 residents at emergency shelters during the first week of Katrina were tired, hungry, miserable, and without proper sanitary facilities — but were in no danger of dying. As for the rest of the city, help was rarely late, delayed, or inadequate. That’s the true story — and there are tens of thousands of rescued people who will testify to it.

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