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NEWS | Aug. 29, 2006

Katrina remembered: a city of despair and hope

By Chief Master Sgt Gonda Moncada Texas National Guard

CAMP MABRY, Texas - When at night images from space fail to pick up the usual light sources over large parts of Louisiana, the magnitude of the storm becomes clear and the men and women of the National Guard are on their way. Hundreds of Texas Army National Guard vehicles and aircraft are heading toward New Orleans, soon followed by thousands of National Guard Soldiers, Airmen and equipment from around the country.

The city of merriment, gumbo, Chicory coffee, Mardi Gras and Bourbon Street has been plunged into darkness. People are desperately hacking and clawing their way onto roofs or streaming onto highways trying to escape the water flooding into New Orleans. When dawn comes, their senses cannot comprehend the destruction around them. Thoughts of Mardi Gras, blues bands, and singing and dancing in the street are replaced by thoughts of survival. New Orleans and its Super Dome soon become the nation’s symbols of despair.

They sit in clusters of desperation. Their signs read "Help us" or "Leave ice." Others walk in a daze, pushing grocery carts with the few belongings they were able to save. Those who have not found dry ground on the higher elevations of the highway systems push the elderly or children on air mattresses through the filthy water. Others wade through the water holding out their arms stabilize their footing. People break into grocery stores to take food, water and diapers. The police are overwhelmed.

Beautiful homes now bear dirty lines showing the level of water at its highest, leaving more rings as water slowly recedes. The front door of each house will be marked with a symbol – an X within a circle. If the symbol shows a zero in one of the quadrants, there were no bodies found inside. Not all houses show a zero. Overturned cars, trucks and boats sit at crazy angles across the city where the water has dumped them or where bulldozers have pushed them. Sometimes the police and Guardsmen use the vehicles to block highway exits.

The Superdome, with part of its roof ripped off and black pieces of insulation flapping in the wind, is completely surrounded by water. The people, once seeking shelter inside, have been driven out onto the promenade because of the toxic conditions inside. On the horizon are burning buildings and water as far as the eye can see, and in the sky are dozens of helicopters circling in a landing pattern, waiting to land.

Louisiana and Texas National Guard pilots, some of whom have lost their own homes to flood waters, fly with precision and skill, temporarily setting their own sorrow and needs aside to help others. Accidents in the crowded skies seem inevitable but mercifully do not happen. They fly in and pick up the most severely injured patients or bring much needed water, food and ice. The people who have lived in the dome for days are desperate. Tempers flare, voices raise and, at times, fists fly. Makeshift tents have sprung up on the promenade, protecting the elderly and children from the sun. Filth is stacking up around them, trash containers having overflowed days ago. Food containers, plastic water bottles, diapers and uneaten portions of food have been trampled into an unrecognizable stew. Walking across the slippery mess is difficult.

Louisiana and Texas National Guard personnel have erected barricades around the crowd for their own protection and the orderly process of moving 50 at a time onto a bus. Progress is slow because, even at the lowest water crossing, pallets have to be laid in the street to enable safe passage to the bus. Nobody wants to think about what floats in the water.

Thousands are waiting for the bus to take them to high ground. They have formed a wall of bodies in front of the barricades. Many refuse to leave their place in line and pass out from dehydration or succumb to the heat. Some raise their arms to the heavens as if to ask for mercy, others yell and scream, the majority simply stand and stare. When an individual’s knees buckle and only the white of their eyes remain visible, they are held upright by the person standing on either side of them and National Guard personnel rush in. When it is finally their turn to proceed to the bus, people are so exhausted they walk by with a dazed expression, or try to produce a weak smile of gratitude and a quick word of thanks.

Inside the breezeway, exhausted Soldiers and Airmen sleep in dark, stinking walkways, not far from the human stream of despair moving toward the buses. Guardsmen whose faces are usually clean shaven, boots spit-shined and uniforms just so, now sport five-day beards, wrinkled uniforms and an unattractive smell. But they carry the filthy uniforms and beards like badges of honor. They will not leave those left in their charge. They will not give up until the last person gets onto the bus, and only then will they leave and take the first shower in days. Many of these men and women will carry this picture with them for a long time, but for now they celebrate the safe transfer of so many people, and they are proud of what they have accomplished. They leave the empty dome for officials to inspect. What reporters and officials find inside is complete darkness, total destruction, overflowing trash cans, overflowing rest rooms, flooding where the roof has collapsed, and every inch of the floor covered in filth. They walk gingerly putting one foot in front of the other making sure their footing is secure; they try to breath through their mouth, so as not to get a whiff of the unbelievable stench. They try to imagine the dome filled with thousands of people in pitch dark; cold, wet and scared with very little to eat and drink. They do not have to imagine the overflowing restrooms. The evidence leaves many gagging.

On the sidewalk in front of and inside the convention center, trash competes with people for space. Without sanitation service, the best the Soldiers and Airmen can do is to push the garbage into piles that grow as days go by. National Guard men and women have moved onto the loading docks and warehouse and, after scrubbing the floors repeatedly, have erected living and sleeping quarters for the men and women working around the clock. Although utterly exhausted, they push on.

Loyola University also becomes a temporary military facility. Most of the Soldiers or Airmen sleep inside the library, but some escape the unbearable heat inside by moving cots on top of the roof where the wind brings relief and the only thing disturbing sleep might be the ever-circling aircraft with their bright search lights.

Shower tents are erected in the parking lot and, with the flaps covering the windows for privacy, even during the day it is dark inside. Light sticks are used to illuminate the shower and dressing areas. They emit a faint yellow or green glow, but no real light. Soldiers and Airmen take quick showers holding the light sticks between their teeth while lathering up with soap. Mere minutes later, they are sweat-soaked again.

Not too far away from Loyola University is a Wal-Mart completely stripped of anything of value. Inside, the rotting meat discourages anybody from entering. Neighboring residents, too afraid to leave their home, finally emerge, emboldened by the presence of armed National Guard men and women. One family, all dressed in the same color T-shirts to find each other in the crowd, slowly make their way to the convention center, hoping for a quick evacuation out of the ruined city.

Hospitals are waiting for patients to be evacuated. Bed linens hang outside the windows indicating the most urgent needs. Local radio stations turn into 24-hour emergency management centers. They transmit messages from people outside New Orleans with pertinent information for the first responders inside the city. The messages are simple and heart breaking; they are worried about their elderly grandmother or their handicapped relative and please send somebody to check on them. People lucky enough to have battery operated radios know that the rest of the world is listening and is sending help. Across the street from the Convention Center, the Texas Air National Guard Aero Medical Rapid Response Team functions as the primary medical resource in the area. Under heavy security and using the triage system, they stabilize and evacuate those needing urgent medical care, provide on-the-spot treatment, and deliver babies under unimaginable circumstances. The Airmen work around the clock and are exhausted, but like their counterparts in the Dome, they too will not give up until the last patient has been seen or evacuated to the make-shift hospital at Louis Armstrong Airport.

At Belle Chasse Reserve Center north of New Orleans, C-130s, Chinooks and Black Hawks converge from throughout the country to supply military personnel with food, water, ice and much needed equipment. The otherwise relatively quiet base transforms overnight into a major hub for all things needed in a hurricane ravaged area. Aircraft land and take-off around the clock and communications tents equipped with satellites are erected in hours.

Personnel sleep on the flight line and in the open hangar. Cots are lined up in rows with barely enough space to maneuver. Exhausted men and women sleep through the noise of aircraft taking off and landing sometimes only feet away from their cots. In the meantime, pilots keep flying rescue helicopters from Baton Rouge. They fly from dawn to dusk, sleep, shave and eat on loading docks. Other pilots fly over the levees and dump bags of rock into the gushing water. The holes swallow the enormous bags of rocks as if to mock the efforts of men, but after days of dumping the enormous boulders, the tops of most are visible above the water line, and they form a temporary barrier against the water. The pumps are working overtime and, as the levees are restored, the remaining water slowly is pumped out of the city. What is left behind is total devastation, mud and stench.

With the levees temporarily patched and everybody evacuated from the Super Dome and Convention Center, journalists and fresh troops walk through the dome one last time, and suddenly through the damaged roof of the Super Dome a beam of sun light pierces through the dark interior as if God sends a message of renewal to those who are beginning to lose hope that this city can ever be restored to its former splendor.

Nobody knows what the future will bring. There is much suffering, but for now, those who survived Katrina are safe. National Guard men and women rest.