The Coast Guard’s motto Semper Paratus means always ready. It is a motto hard-earned and time-proven over two centuries of meeting the nation’s maritime imperatives. Since the tiny service was formed in 1790, it has honored the Semper Paratus commitment countless times. It’s as if Semper Paratus has been genetically coded into the very fabric of those who wear Coast Guard blue.
When Katrina struck an awful blow, Coast Guard personnel furiously fought back as if it were business as usual. So often they have dealt with the worst that nature can deliver. No gale, no hurricane, no arctic blast, not even the “Perfect Storm” has dampened their will to serve. When Katrina’s waters rose over the land as if it were Atlantis, the “Storm Warriors” once again responded as if it were business as usual.
But it was not business as usual, not by any stretch of the imagination, in what has been hailed as America’s worst natural disaster. The following e-mail written by two Coast Guard Captains—commanding officers responsible for air facilities in the heart of the storm ravished region—provides a glimpse into their Herculean rescue effort. Coastie or not, you can’t help but swell with pride over America’s “Storm Warriors.” And I might add: shame, shame on the finger-pointing media who seemed obsessed with accusations of federal government betrayal. Jabber on as the “talking heads” did—the fact is the nation’s federal Storm Warriors were casting a life-saving rainbow over New Orleans even before Katrina blew out of town. Now an up-lifting story worthy of telling.
The following e-mail from Captain David Callahan, Commanding Officer, Coast Guard Aviation Training Center, Mobile, Alabama, and Captain Bruce Jones, Commanding Officer Coast Guard Air Station New Orleans provides a firsthand account of the ordeals their crews dealt with during and after Katrina ripped across New Orleans.
In tropical storm conditions, every available helicopter immediately began hoisting survivors while performing the difficult task of triaging the neediest from the throngs of victims. Then delivering those recovered to the nearest dry land or overpass.
All Air Station New Orleans’s berthing and most shop spaces were rendered uninhabitable by flooding after Katrina’s Category 4 winds peeled back the hangar roof. Consequently, during the intense first four days of the operation, until temporary tent cities and other shelters began to arrive, all aircrew and support personnel bunked head to toe on floors or on cots in the air station’s crowded administration building. For much of the time the administration building and operations center was without power, air conditioning, running water, and all but one working cellular phone. The Coast Guard Training Center at Mobile encountered challenges with their own hangar roof, losing all of their operations spaces, operation center, and many maintenance shops, along with a loss of base-wide power and phone communications.
Despite these hardships, the extraordinary Coast Guard men and women, who gathered from all over the Coast Guard to join the fight, worked ceaselessly and cheerfully. They worked around the clock providing search and rescue and maintenance operations at an unprecedented level. The dogged determination, enthusiasm and eagerness to serve in any capacity was awesome to behold. Many members of the embedded media commented frequently and with wonder at the superb quality, dedication and camaraderie of the entire crew.
In around-the-clock flight operations over a seven day period, Coast Guard helicopters operating over New Orleans saved an astonishing 6,470 lives. They also saved or assisted thousands of others by delivering tons of food and water to those who could not be moved immediately.
Challenging each pilot and flight mechanic to his or her limits, most hoists were completed in obstacle-strewn environments, often on night vision goggles, over power lines and downed trees with daytime conditions near 100 degrees. The conditions encountered by aircrew rescue swimmers included flooded houses and buildings, steep slippery roofs, foul and contaminated water, and the need to hack through attics with axes or break out windows to free survivors. Add to this the urgency felt by all crew to continue rescuing a seemingly endless supply of increasingly desperate survivors as the hot days wore on.
Aircrew returned from missions with dozens of rescues on a single sortie. One HH-60 helicopter crew completed its day’s work with 150 lives saved. Another helicopter crew saved 110 lives in one day. At times, Air Station Mobile had 37 Coast Guard aircraft on its ramp and in its hangar.
The generous and unwavering support of our fixed-wing shipmates in ferrying vital equipment, supplies and many generous care packages, often paid for with personal funds donated by unit civilians and military personnel, was essential to the continued operations and it was greatly appreciated. It is hard to describe the gratitude felt by those working for days without air conditioning or showers upon the arrival of crates of new underwear, deodorant, toothpaste and other amenities. Steps were taken to procure needed equipment and supplies by whatever means possible. There are many “Radar O’Reilly’s” in the Coast Guard and God bless them.
That this complex operation could be so overwhelmingly successful despite a nearly complete loss of connectivity between Air Station New Orleans and the outside world and chain of command for extended periods of time is a testament to the value of on-scene initiative and flexibility. In short, if you turn highly trained and properly equipped Coasties loose on an objective, they will tackle it, and let you know when it is done.
God bless our incomparable Coast Guard men and women. Semper Paratus!
Signed Captain B.C. Jones, Captain D.R. Callahan.
I needn’t say more.
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