TOP STORY >> Guard helps victims
Leader staff writer
NEW ORLEANS — Unimaginable, un-thinkable and chaotic are just a few words used by Col. Richard Swan, commander for Joint Task Force Arkansas in New Orleans, to describe the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina.
Swan, the chief of staff for operations at Camp Robinson in North Little Rock, is commanding a workforce of troops from the Arkansas National Guard’s 189th Airlift Wing, the 188th Fighter Wing, the 35th Aviation Brigade, the 39th Infantry Brigade and the 142nd Field Artillery Brigade.
“The level of destruction is unimaginable, and the amount of human suffering is unthinkable,” Swan said.
Upon his arrival in New Orleans on Sept. 1, Swan oversaw the evacuation of about 16,000 people from the New Orleans Convention Center.
“It was heartbreaking to see people, pregnant women, elderly in wheelchairs, in those cramped, squalid conditions without food, water and toilets,” said Lt. Col. John Edwards of the 39th Infantry Brigade. “We had no problems from the people at the convention center and that’s more people than are in most Arkansas towns.”
In addition to evacuating the masses at the convention center, the troops provided medical attention.
“We had to patch up a few people there,” said Spc. Jason Mote of Searcy, in New Orleans with the 153rd Infantry Battalion. “We got out 15 dead. There were two decomposing bodies right there when we arrived. I was standing in a puddle from their bodies and didn’t even know it.”
New Orleans has been divided up into sectors patrolled by National Guard units from across the country. Currently, Joint Task Force Arkansas personnel patrol Metairie, La., in Jefferson Parish, enforcing a 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. curfew. So far, troops have only confiscated one pistol. The Guardsmen are also handing out food, water, ice and supplies such as toilet paper and diapers at the Operation Lifeline Depot inside the Robert Wallace Memorial Volunteer Fire Department in nearby Avondale. Ten other Operation Lifeline Depot sites are open across the parish.
“People are finding out about us by word of mouth,” said Lt. Col. Chris Rowzee of Jacksonville, who serves as the officer in charge of all Arkansas Air Guard operations for the task force.
Like many troops, Rowzee has visited New Orleans before.
“I’ll miss the culture and history in downtown. You can’t rebuild from something like this and keep that flavor,” she said.
Task Force Arkansas personnel are camped out at the Grace King School in Metairie. Electricity was restored to the building last week.
The damage from Hurricane Katrina will serve as the benchmark for natural disasters from now on, Swan told a group of reporters from Arkansas visiting the area on Wednesday.
“I think the amount of damage will be studied for a long time as how to respond to a superdisaster,” Swan said.
The work ahead for the military in New Orleans promises to be hot and tiring, but not without reward, the group said.
“What gives me hope is the resilience of the people in this area. Today people are moving around, cleaning up,” Swan said, adding that there is still much to do in other parts of the sprawling coastal city.
“The folks in Orleans Parish are just now seeing the roofs of their homes,” Swan said.
The military air traffic over the city is being handled by Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base in New Orleans. The 35th Aviation Brigade has been coordinating the helicopter traffic over the area. At any given time, there can be 50 helicopters over the city.
“We have everything out here, Marine Hueys, Army Blackhawks and Chinooks,” said Lt. Col. Mark Smedley of the 35th Aviation Brigade at Camp Robinson.
There are four remote air traffic control towers set up throughout the city. Smedley said there are more than 500 helicopter flights each day in the airspace over New Orleans. Elsewhere in Metairie, many homes were spared from looting simply because the houses were underwater until just two days ago. Troops like Staff Sgt. Bill Catton of Cabot suited up in white biohazard suits in the parking lot of a looted McDonald’s before conducting a “meet and greet” in the upper-class Metairie Club Estates neighborhood.
The “meet and greets” are quick preliminary searches of homes the military feel are already evacuated.
“Our biggest challenge is just keeping the contaminates off us,” Catton said.
For example, each searcher had a Camelback canteen backpack on. The mouthpieces have to be meticulously wiped after each drink taken from the canteens in the contaminated area. The receding floodwaters have left behind a dried layer of toxins over everything they touched. The floodwaters turned once lush golf greens into a gray wasteland. Each home in the Metairie Club Estates bore brown stripes left by the receding floodwaters.
Staff Sgt. Anthony Francis of the 189th Medical Group has been busy giving out thousands of inoculations for hepatitis A, B and tetanus. These are the mostly contagious diseases in the area right now.
As the biohazard-clad troops began knocking on doors a resident, wearing a surgical mask, hugged Francis and wept.
Along Rue Chardonnay in the Avondale community, troops cleared trees from the street. Other than the dead limbs, the upper middle-class neighborhood adjacent to Lake Pontchartrain simply looked like it had weathered a bad storm.
On Esplanade Avenue, people stood in line for 30 minutes to receive inoculations for Hepatitis A, B and tetanus at the East Jefferson After Hours Clinic.
“Our parish is more secure today than it ever has been thanks to Arkansas,” said Barry Bordlun, who identified himself simply as a “born and raised coonass,” a slang, sometimes derogatory, term for Cajun.
“We’re going to get our parish up and going again once we get our citizens back.”