It has been nearly two years since Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and much of the Mississippi and Alabama Gulf coasts. Some U.S. federal agencies came under harsh criticism for their slow response to the disaster, however there was one government operation that earned high praise for moving quickly to help hurricane victims -- the U.S. Coast Guard. Coast Guard personnel in boats and helicopters saved thousands of people from flood waters in and around New Orleans. This year's hurricane season officially begins June first and the Coast Guard is getting ready for what may come. VOA's Greg Flakus has more from New Orleans.
For thousands of people left stranded by flood waters in New Orleans following Katrina, U.S. Coast Guard boats and helicopters were a welcome sight. But why was the Coast Guard so quick to respond while other agencies, notably the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, stumbled?
New Orleans sector Coast Guard Captain Robert Mueller credits the training given to every Guardsman. "Nobody calls the Coast Guard when it is a nice, sunny day. We get the call when the weather is bad and somebody is in trouble. So we train our people to that standard, to handle the worst cases. That is what we do."
The intensive training results in personnel who are capable of acting independently, making decisions on the spot, without seeking approval up the chain of command. Captain Mueller says experience is also important. Thousands of Guardsmen came to assist in New Orleans and he says some of them applied critical experience gained elsewhere. "We had several people help us out who had been through 9/11 in New York. So they understood massive operations quickly and they were invaluable. I am sure people who cycled through here will be invaluable the next time there is a big disaster somewhere because they have been there before."
The other important ingredient is preparation, and Captain Mueller says the Coast Guard has boats and helicopters at staging areas and bases all along the Gulf Coast, ready to respond to whatever comes this season. Mueller says Coast Guard teams have the equipment, food and water they need to go into action and stay at work for many days.
"So if a really bad hurricane hit Texas or Mobile or Alabama, we could send a team that would be self supporting, ready to operate for up to a week at a time, without any re-supply and they can do that."
One lesson learned during Katrina was the need to reach people trapped in flooded houses, sometimes by cutting into the roofs. Mueller says each boat now carries a chain saw for that purpose.
The other lesson Captain Mueller says is to never give up looking for people who may be trapped. "At the end of the second week, the doctors were saying nobody could have survived longer and our guys found an 87-year-old woman sitting in her chair with water up to her neck and she was still alive. She had been sitting there for two weeks. There were no signs on the outside of anything wrong, but the guys thought there was something about that house and they went into that house and found her. Her first words were, 'I knew if I stayed in the house long enough, my boys would come and get me'," he recounted.
The men and women of the Coast Guard stand ready to carry out such rescues again if disaster should strike anywhere along the Gulf coast.