|About this article
It originally appeared Sept. 15 in an abbreviated form on Tom Bevan's Real Clear Politics, and as the lead item of the New York Post's op-ed page. Rich Lowry at National Review wanted more reporting to hear what the rescuers themselves had to say, The article at right ran in their Oct. 10 issue.
If you want to learn more about what really happened, required viewing is SOS: Coast Guard Rescue on the Discovery Channel, which features dramatic rescue footage of the New Orleans operations. Also take a look at the current issue of Popular Mechanics, an old favorite of mine that's turned into a serious red-state journal of science, technology, and technopolitics.
The Usual Stuff
Revive an old PC
Super rescue disc
Sound cards and IRQs
Optimizing & repairs
All the technical details you need to get the most from digital music for your home and your earbuds.
Sound cards and IRQs
Optimizing & repairs
AV system hookup
Windows vs. Apple
How compression works
Codecs for dummies
LPs to MP3
iPod survival skills
Wisdom of Fonts
We explain why Dan Rather fell flat on his typeface, so you don't have to.
How to buy fonts
|Katrina: What went right
By Lou Dolinar
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.
THE RIGHT STUFF
Others did know. Orleans Parish civil sheriff Paul Valteau saw a part of this massive effort close up, when he pulled off the Franklin Ave. interstate exit at 3 p.m. on Monday, August 29, shortly after the storm had passed and levees had broken. “They were screaming and hollering everywhere,” he recalls. Submerged homes and businesses stretched into the distance. Survivors stood on rooftops, water up to their waists and rising. Desperate pounding and shrieking came from attics. One man, a double amputee, clung to a tree as water surged around him. “I saw things I never saw in 23 years as sheriff,” Valteau says. “I saw things I never want to see again.” But he also saw Coast Guard helicopters dodge power lines to winch the endangered to safety. He joined one of the ad hoc rescue crews launching boats from the off-ramp. “We weren’t alone. Hundreds of people who had boats showed up at interstate exits and launched their boats Monday afternoon.”
Meanwhile, at least three dozen helicopters from the Coast Guard and the Louisiana National Guard had already swarmed into the city, tracking right behind the storm and fighting 60 m.p.h. winds. Unlike befuddled city and state officials, the Coast Guard’s man in charge, Rear Admiral Bob Duncan, was literally on top of the situation: He flew in with the first crews, watched the first rescue himself, and spent the day in the air observing and directing operations. “People are most in need right after the storm goes through,” he explains. “When they feel comfortable going up on the roofs of their houses, we hope a big orange helicopter is waiting.”
Absent those early rescues, thousands would in fact have died, in line with the mayor’s prediction. With all communications knocked out, says Sheriff Valteau, “it was a reasonable estimation. . . . The mayor didn’t know what was going on in the field. It was impossible for him to know how many hundreds of citizens were out there saving people.”
It was impossible, as well, for the media, which were getting most of their information from City Hall. What audiences across the country saw as a breakdown of relief efforts was in fact a breakdown of media relations. Instead of marveling at the courage and endurance of rescuers, television spread lurid rumors of near-parodic depravity: gang violence (with AK-47s!), murder (200 slain, stacked, and frozen!), rape (women, children, babies!), sniping at helicopters, and rampage at the Superdome. Mainstream publications have since shown these reports to be false; since most of what the media did report was dead wrong, no one should be surprised that there was a parallel failure to report what went right.
On this score, the biggest lie — worse than the urban legends haunting the Superdome — was that help was slow to arrive. Rescuers say that on Monday, when the levees failed and water surged through the city, they saved thousands who were in danger of drowning — and that they simply could not have arrived any sooner. Not enough resources? Admiral Duncan says one of his biggest problems was that so many helicopters were operating, they risked crashing into one another.
As yet, there is no official hard count of how many were saved, nor has any central authority spoon-fed definitive numbers to the media. But clearly, success left a deep statistical footprint. The Washington Post, in a poll of survivors who relocated to Houston after staying through the storm, said 40 percent — roughly 40,000 to 50,000 people, if the sample is representative — reported that they had been rescued by the Coast Guard, Air National Guard units, or local police and firemen in boats.
The Coast Guard — a branch of the much-maligned Homeland Security Department — was far and away the main player. It claimed more than 24,000 rescues, and evacuated another 9,000 from hospitals and nursing homes. The Coasties got there first with the most — 16 search-and-rescue helicopters. Equipped with night-vision gear and hoists, these first units, joined by many more, ran 24 hours a day, every day, for a week. Preliminary reports showed that on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, the Coast Guard rescued 3,000 to 5,000 people from rooftops. The operation grew to hundreds of boats and 50 helicopters. Even barges were commandeered to load hundreds of survivors at a time who were stranded on broken levees.
According to Coast Guard Lt. Chris Huberty, who flew a Dolphin chopper on the night shift almost from the beginning, another reason relatively few lives were lost was that crews carefully selected who was brought to safety first. “We’d put a rescue swimmer down to determine who needed to be taken away,” he recalls. “I’d see three women, all healthy adults, and a guy in a wheelchair who was a diabetic; I’d say he needs insulin, let’s get him out of here first. The others might have to wait.” He says that by setting these priorities, the Coast Guard teams were able to get “a pretty good handle” on the stranded sick, injured, and elderly in just a couple of days.
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.”
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.” Most of the crews were from New Orleans, and knew the city well — a boon for rescue operations. (The regrettable underside of this familiarity was that most lost everything they had in Katrina. One pilot was plucked from his sunken home by his own unit, and began flying again a few hours later.) 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 before switching to tasks, like sandbagging, for which its brawny copters were better suited. Not bad for a unit that wasn’t equipped for search and rescue.
Not everyone flew multimillion-dollar helicopters. 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. When Sheriff Valteau reported for impromptu duty, he joined a pair of retired cops, a regular New Orleans policeman, a contractor, and a couple of volunteers. This illustrates the improvised nature of the successful local response to the crisis.
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 in public order, more than 100 helicopters were flying rescue missions. Air traffic was so heavy that one pilot said the city looked like a hornets’ nest. Another, flying at night, compared helicopter ops to swarming fireflies. By the end of the week, crews had virtually run out of victims, and were shifting operations to dropping sandbags, evacuating the city, and assisting door-to-door searches by boat crews.
“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.
Mr. Dolinar (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired reporter from Newsday.
The Superdome: What went right
By Lou Dolinar
Remember the dozens, maybe hundreds of rapes, murders, stabbings and deaths from official neglect at the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina? The ones that never happened, as even the national media later admitted?
Sure, we all remember the original reporting, if not the back-pedaling.
Here's another one: Do you remember the dramatic TV footage of National Guard helicopter landings at the Superdome, as soon as Katrina passed, to drop off tens of thousands saved from certain death? The corpsmen running, in an echo of M*A*S*H, with stretchers to carry the survivors to ambulances and the medical center? About how the operation, which also included Coast Guard, regular military units, and local first responders, continued for more than a week?
Me neither. Except that it did happen, and got at best an occasional parenthetical mention in the national media. The National Guard had its headquarters for Katrina, not just a few peacekeeping troops, in what the media was portraying as the pit of Hell. Hell was one of the safest place to be in New Orleans, smelly as it was. The situation was always under control, not surprisingly because the people in control were always there.