On Sept. 2, Illinois law enforcement personnel responded to an Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) request from Louisiana officials for assistance “as soon as possible.” One hundred and fifty officers from agencies throughout the state formed Task Force Illinois and met in the Illinois capital, Springfield, on Sept. 3. The 150 officers were assigned positions in squads and inoculated for hepatitis A and B, and tetanus-diphtheria. A convoy plan was laid out, and the formation headed south in intervals later that day.
With little to no sleep since the warning order, safety demanded a rest overnight in Tennessee courtesy of the Tennessee National Guard. An early start coupled with law enforcement assistance throughout Mississippi and Louisiana to secure hard-to-find fuel, put the task force in Hammond, Louisiana the afternoon of Sept. 4.
The gracious folks at Southeastern Louisiana University provided our housing. Throughout the month-long stay of 300 Illinois officers and hundreds of Customs and Border Patrol agents, the university personnel did everything possible to see to our many needs thank you.
Mission commander Captain Rob Haley of the Illinois State Police set to work with staff to establish our place in the order of events. We were sworn in as special Louisiana state police officers to grant us authority to enforce the law at all places within the state. Initial communications proved challenging, but as time progressed, written operation directives were transmitted to the task force command center and distributed to the teams. In the following days, our teams would work roadside checkpoints, dry land and water search-and-rescue operations, security for reconstruction field teams and street patrol.
Our 10 planned operational days became 14 as a second cycle of Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System (ILEAS) responders came to relieve the first wave. Our sleep was limited and every day was a workday, but the law enforcement personnel from the stricken areas had been working nonstop since the first day. Each ILEAS team was attached to a Louisiana state trooper or FEMA asset, depending on the mission type. At times we worked with the FEMA urban search-and-rescue teams, attempting to respond to locations and residences from which more than 9,000 911 calls remained unanswered. Many thousands of homes remained underwater, and sadly, some contained people who did not survive.
The devastation went beyond anything we could imagine. Anything not blown down or wind damaged was flooded by vile water, which covered thousands of cars, homes and businesses. Every type of chemical car battery acid, pesticides, fertilizer, gasoline, diesel, etc. mixed into a black stew of dead water. Repeatedly we were warned not to fall in, and it took little warning to get our attention. The intense stink of garbage and chemicals was everywhere. We were cautioned about snakes and gators, but again, nothing could live in that water, and we did not see a single one. While conducting entry searches in St. Bernard’s Parish, we found a dead animal. Not a single fly or maggot was on the remains. We looked at one another and asked, “What’s wrong with this picture?” We saw no insects other than dragonflies; was the water killing off the bug population? What other threats did it hold?
Our task force rescued many dozens of people left behind. An evacuation order means nothing to the elderly who have no car, money, family or support. We took out an 89-year-old woman and a 92-year-old man, both living alone and likely to die. We took no one by force regardless of what anyone ordered. The law is the law, and in America, if you want to stay and die, so be it. Yet when those who could have left didn’t, and then ran out of supplies and/or willpower, law enforcement had to find and rescue them. This took precious hours away from our search for people who could not get away.
See “Extended Deployment,” (Tactical Ops, p. 66), for Chudwin’s list of must-have items and tactics for disaster-area responses like the Katrina response.
Before our missions commenced, we reviewed use-of-force issues regarding arrest, looting and deadly force. We obtained a copy of the Louisiana State Criminal Code to ensure we understood local law. We agreed deadly force would only apply to situations involving immediate or imminent threat to life. We were, as author Robert Heinlein once described, strangers in a strange land. A very friendly land where all were most thankful for our presence, but one where the law remained the foundation of our efforts; it was our responsibility to know and follow it.
Troopers, deputies and officers who stood posts for more than 23 hours without relief or aid endured the difficulties and sheer horror of the first days of the disaster. Our troopers told us how they held posts with thousands of people trapped on highway overpasses above the floodwaters. In the intense heat and humidity, with no shelter, sanitation, water, food, medicine or support, the elderly succumbed to death, children fell ill, and life as Americans know it ceased to exist. The fabric of society was torn, and only the law and order provided by these men and women who did not budge held the thin blue line. Much was made of those few officers who did not report, but little was ever said of the great majority who never left.
Large-Scale Mutual Aid Illinois stood ready to answer the call.
The ability to draw together in a matter of hours the extensive resources of the task force resulted from the planning and coordination of the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System (ILEAS), the Illinois State Police, the Illinois Emergency Management Agency and supporting state organizations.
In the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Illinois law enforcement came together to form a statewide mutual-aid organization in which all police agencies were encouraged to join together for aid and assistance. The old turf wars and jurisdictional issues were put to rest with the understanding that no agency, no matter how large, can alone deal with large-scale disasters. The state was divided into regions, and a chief and a sheriff elected from each region by their peers sit on a monthly board-of-directors meeting in the state capital. Legislation was then passed granting full police powers to any officer responding to an emergency mutual-aid request anywhere within the state.
ILEAS became an operational reality in the following year with funding from the Illinois Terrorism Task Force. Numerous projects came on line, including the statewide Terrorism Intelligence Center, regional WMD/SRT teams, interoperable communications and mobile command posts.
ILEAS thus stood ready when the EMAC request came in. On Sept. 2, through the use of Internet and fax communications, the ILEAS office sent a request for officers for a 14-day deployment to all agency members. Within hours, agencies dedicated both SWAT and patrol resources. In a typical response, Sheriff John Zaruba of Dupage County, the cochair of ILEAS Region 4, dedicated his deputies and included his agency’s V100 armored car and Humvee.
The Riverside (Calif.) USAR team was one of many FEMA teams, and my team worked with these top professionals. They landed soon after the storm, flown in by a C-5A cargo plane. On arrival in New Orleans, the teams were given 10 minutes to gear up and go out into the night to rescue hundreds of trapped victims. Later, they recounted to us a rescue of a 40-year-old woman trapped on an attic ladder for 12 days. They did not stop so long as daylight existed. They wanted to work at night, but after the first days it was deemed too dangerous.
Resourcefulness was key. Example: Two troopers we met explained that in the first desperate night their training as licensed ship captains enabled them to make use of a large tugboat to rescue countless trapped citizens.
Many truly heroic deeds occurred during the Katrina response that we’ll never know about. Every police officer, firefighter and first responder can stand proud of their work and dedication. Those who held the line and suffered with their neighbors will not receive a dollar more or receive more than a thank you, if that. But they know that when the test came, they measured up to the challenge.
Those of us who came after those terrible first days are proud of what we accomplished. We are not heroes, as some so often use the word, just fellow Americans trained to help and be there when needed. We did so and stand ready to go again. For in every emergency, the call will go out and we must ask: If not us, then whom, and if not now, when?
This article is dedicated to the memory of our Louisiana teammate, Riverside (Calif.) firefighter Ed Teran, a member of the fast water rescue team. Ed was lost on duty Nov. 5.
Bill Wright City of Bethlehem (Pa.) Police Department
I arrived in Houston to meet members of Cypress Creek (Texas) EMS. Members of the team had already deployed to New Orleans and were in place providing tactical medical support to federal law enforcement agencies operating in the area. We gathered supplies and were advised to prepare to be self-sufficient for several days. After arriving in New Orleans the evening of Sept. 5, I was briefed by Wren Nealy, director of special operations for Cypress Creek EMS. The only hospital partially open was West Jefferson Hospital. It was only handling minor emergencies and limiting treatment to emergency workers. Utilities within the city were non-existent no water, sewage, phone or electricity.
We arrived at the headquarters for the New Orleans Police Department’s 6th District on the morning of Sept. 6. Driven out of his headquarters by flooding, the district’s commander had taken over a Wal-Mart, which had sustained heavy looting. He established a command and control point and utilized the resources in the store to sustain his officers.
Upon my arrival at the Wal-Mart, the severity of the lawlessness that ensued after the levee failed was clear. The officers had fortified their position with cars abandoned in the parking lot by pushing them into blocking positions around the store. They placed vehicles at the inner and outer perimeter positions, and placed pallets of crushed cardboard boxes in front of the glass windows and doors to form bunkers. Several officers from the 6th District ran low on ammo and had not seen EMS since the storm came ashore.
Once operational, we understood the magnitude of the looting. Most, if not all of the businesses within the city were looted. Many rescuers took direct gunfire while attempting to perform their jobs.
All disasters produce some form of criminal element, but in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans experienced an extreme level of criminal activity, which proved to be the single biggest obstacle to the rescue and recovery efforts. I think of it as the layers of a circle: The outer circle represents the recovery assets, the next layer represents a layer of rescue assets, the next layer represents law enforcement and the inner core represents the crisis site. The thickness of each layer will affect how quickly and effectively assets reach the crisis site.
- Preplan an alternate command post within your area.
- Set up mutual-aid agreements with agencies far outside your area that probably won’t be affected by a regional event, such as natural disasters or terrorist attacks. Bill Wright
Mike Scarry Master patrolman, Village of Deerfield (Ill.) Police Department
I was deployed to Louisiana Sept. 15 as a member of the Northern Illinois Police Alarm System, Emergency Service Team (NIPAS EST). ILEAS assigned us to relieve 12 other NIPAS EST members who had worked the New Orleans region the prior two weeks.
Along with 11 other members of the NIPAS EST team, I departed from a training site in Glenview, Ill., to travel to Springfield, Ill., and meet up with approximately 140 other Illinois law enforcement officers. Once in Springfield, the processing was slow, but we all received shots and signed miscellaneous forms. Then, at 20-minute intervals, we departed in several groups until all 150 of us were on the road to Memphis, Tenn., our first stop. When we arrived at a National Guard base in Memphis, a young Army private opened up an airplane hangar and informed us that was where we were staying for the night. No cots, no fans or air conditioning, and the hangar was located under the final approach of a major Federal Express processing center, so aircraft flew over low and loud approximately every three minutes. Most of the Illinois officers drove around Memphis looking for local hotels to spend the night to get a decent night’s sleep. This unforeseen circumstance caught some officers off guard, and they had to foot their hotel bill on their own and hope their departments would reimburse them later. We left the next morning for Louisiana.
When we arrived in Louisiana, the heat, humidity and black bugs overwhelmed our senses. We had been told to expect the heat, but it was more than 100 degrees, and the humidity hit 89 percent most days. It literally rained black bugs. I honestly had never seen this kind of bug before, and we asked locals if the bugs were the result of the hurricane. We were told they come around a couple of times a year and their stay is short-lived. Well, it was too long for me; they were everywhere. You couldn’t use the windshield wipers without sliming the windshield. They smelled once you squished them, and they stuck to your sweat and were impossible to get off unless you power-washed them.
That first night, we slept on cots on a gymnasium basketball court at the Southeastern Louisiana University. We were sworn in as Louisiana State Police officers, and, after a few hours of sleep, we relieved the NIPAS team and were deployed to the FEMA site at Zephyr Field in New Orleans. Our first assignment was task-force protection and convoy escort for Task Force Texas Suburban Search and Rescue. This assignment lasted for the first couple of days. Task Force Texas included a company contracted to do victim removal from houses once the victims were located.
Pictures on television did not prepare us for what we were to see, smell and feel. The stench of three-week-old dead bodies and standing water containing feces, animal carcasses and canal muck was indescribable. Unfortunately, the smell is probably the thing I will remember the most. In the course of my law enforcement career, I’ve smelled burnt bodies and other unfortunate smells, but nothing compares to the stench I experienced during those two weeks.
For our next assignment, we worked with Task Force Nebraska Urban Search and Rescue to answer old 911 calls. During this assignment, we breached houses that were not previously marked, and we located 10 dead bodies that had to be recovered. During one of these search days, Hurricane Rita blew in, and we left the 6th District as the previously broken levee started to overflow. After that hurricane passed, we returned to work and continued our house-to-house searches.
We had a 24-hour break and started patrol duties in the 4th and 6th Districts of New Orleans from 1800 hrs 0600 hrs with Louisiana state troopers. We did this for a few days and, on Sept. 28, NIPAS EST members headed home.
1. On the personal packing list, we were told to bring PowerBars because meals were not guaranteed. However, in the Louisiana heat, all our PowerBars melted and we ended up licking our dinner instead of chewing it. If you head to a hot environment, carry granola bars, Nutrigrain bars or other non-melting bars.
2. Police departments that do not have SUVs should get at least one. In New Orleans, squads were absolutely useless where debris remained from Katrina.
3. Be prepared for long days with little sleep.
4. In our area, Nextel phones proved unreliable and often did not work at all. I have a Cingular One cell phone, and for whatever reason it was one of the very few cell phones that worked consistently. I allowed some of my NIPAS EST colleagues to use my phone to keep in touch with their loved ones when their Nextels were not working.
5. Communication was an issue, as is in any critical incident involving multijurisdictional entities.
6. During our 24-hour break, we decided to do a weapons check and found that due to the humidity, a lot of our guns (handguns and .223 rifles) had started to show rust. We learned we had to keep our guns well lubed because the humidity took its toll on anything metal.
7. Officers should train to decontaminate their own unit and remain self-sufficient. Bring water/bleach solutions, scrub brushes, heavy-duty plastic bags for contaminated clothing, sufficient rubber gloves, boots and face masks. To my surprise, not all task force units were adequately supplied or prepared for mass decontamination.
8. On a personal note, I’m glad I answered the call to assist during a national disaster, but I couldn’t have gone on this assignment without the support of my family, friends, school teachers and other community members. This disaster of course affected people in the Gulf the most, but answering the call for help affected the rest of the nation as well.
In order for me to assist in New Orleans, my family had to make huge adjustments to life’s normal routine, and I was amazed at how my absence over a two-week period of time affected my wife and two sons, 8 and 11 years old). My wife and I wanted to keep things normal, but in order to do that, we literally had to enlist the help of the community. I’m sure this situation replayed itself with responders across the nation. Mike Scarry
Stacey Pearsonn Trooper First Class, Louisiana State Police
This story first appeared in the Illinois Tactical Officers Association’s newsletter.
During Hurricane Katrina relief operations, I was fortunate enough to be paired with Village of Olympia Fields Chief of Police Jeff Chudwin and his group from Illinois. Our team drew the short straw and had the unpleasant task of clearing businesses along Canal Street in the Uptown section of New Orleans. I guess wading through the muck and stench of looted and vandalized stores forms a bond between officers because Chief Chudwin and I have stayed in touch via e-mail since he and his group returned home. When Jeff asked me if I would write an article about my deployment during Hurricane Katrina, I didn’t hesitate. I told him I was a writer wanna-be and would love to share my experiences little did I know how difficult, yet cathartic, it would be.
When I first arrived in New Orleans, it was the evening of August 31, two days after Katrina made landfall. A small group of us from the Troop I (Lafayette) area were briefed at Troop B in Kenner. We were told we were going to I-10 at Causeway Boulevard to an evacuation staging area set up under the overpass. Our mission: Load as many people as possible on buses for transport to shelters. We traveled a few miles east in complete darkness and parked behind concrete barriers that normally divided east and west-bound traffic.
Beyond that barrier, I thought I had stepped into a war zone. The sky was filled with Coast Guard and Army helicopters landing one right after another, providing a steady stream of exhausted, bewildered and traumatized persons rescued from rooftops or out of hospitals.
We had to carefully navigate through a makeshift medical facility set up in the west-bound lanes of I-10 directly under the overpass the overpass provided the only cover from the searing Louisiana sun. We weaved in and out of critical patients lying on cots or on the ground. I looked at them as I passed, and their eyes held that blank, 1,000-yard stare. Some looked like they were vacillating between life and death. Some were so frail; some had open wounds; some I’m ashamed to say I couldn’t bear to look at. Doctors and medics worked frantically in an obviously non-sterile environment to save as many as possible.
A concrete median ran between the medical area and the thousands of evacuees waiting for buses. In the evacuee area, metal barricades typically used to separate crowds from Mardi Gras floats divided the non-critical but relatively immobile people from the relatively healthy people. Behind the metal barricades we met up with a young Troop B trooper, who filled us in on the procedure for loading the buses. He told us to never go in the crowd alone; load women, children and elderly first; and to not allow pushing. I found out later the young trooper’s new house in New Orleans East had been destroyed when the levees broke, and his wife and two small children were staying with relatives in another state.
Loading the buses proved tense. Young men unencumbered by a family tried to push their way onto the bus, while women with babies fought to maintain their position in line. Families were separated. Their clothing was soiled with urine and feces and, for some, menstrual flow. They waited for hours, even days, in filth and litter only to miss the bus and find out there would be no more buses that evening. A man walked up to me and handed me a loaded ammo magazine, and I wondered who had the weapon and if they would use it against me. I saw women carrying babies limp from dehydration, and I saw a boy vomit continuously. I saw a girl of about 10 go into seizures. There were no portable toilets; we walked in human waste.
A bus driver told a young man whose only possession was a dappled dachshund, “No dogs allowed.” I hoped he would wait for another bus and hide the small dog under his shirt, but he made the heartbreaking and tearful decision to let the dog loose and get on the bus. The frightened dog narrowly avoided being run over and ran off through the crowd. Since rescuers had told victims they could bring their pets, most bus drivers were more sympathetic and chose not to further traumatize these people and allowed the pets on board.
As I’m writing, I realize it’s impossible to describe the chaos. There were so many people thousands. Helicopters were bringing in more than we could get out. The medical personnel eventually pulled out, and we were left in a disaster zone with no medics, no medical equipment nothing but sick, injured, traumatized people who believed they would go home in a couple days. We watched a chemical plant explode in the distance.
My second day on the Causeway, I helped load special-needs patients on buses. These were not specially equipped buses with electric lifts. Makeshift stretchers wouldn’t fit. If the person could not walk or be carried, they had to wait. One man sticks out in my memory. His mother weighed well over 300 lbs. and was confined to a wheelchair. We asked him if she could walk at all, and he said she could not. He was adamant when he said he was going to carry her onto the bus, and I thought to myself, “No way.” But he did it he hooked his arms under her armpits and locked his hands in front of her chest and literally dragged her onto the bus and into a seat. Then he gave up his seat so someone else could use it. I watched tears well up in his eyes and run down his cheeks as he tried to maintain eye contact with his mother through the bus windshield.
I have to stop here because I can’t put into words all that happened. But throughout my initial month-long deployment, I witnessed many incredible feats of emotional and physical strength, and incredible human weakness. I heard racial comments directed towards me. I saw people sleeping and eating in indescribable, deplorable conditions. I saw body bags containing those who didn’t survive the Causeway. I learned I couldn’t help everyone; I could only help individuals or small groups of people.
It was an impossible situation. There was, and is, no training for this; no tactics to follow. This comes from your heart and you just have to do the best you can. You have to forgive yourself for what you couldn’t do, and I’m still working on that.