First came the floodwaters. Next came the helicopters.
US Coast Guard (USCG) Aviation Survival Technician Petty Officer 2nd Class Joel Sayers, suspended beneath a hovering orange USCG rescue helicopter, is lowered to the rooftop of a home. His mission: to save an elderly woman clinging to that roof, the house now surrounded by rising floodwaters. It is Aug. 29, 2005, the first day of Hurricane Katrina rescue operations and mere hours after the flood levees failed, releasing billions of gallons on storm-sieged New Orleans.
As Sayers touches down, the woman anxiously rushes toward him, pointing and shouting to be heard above the roar of the rotors; her husband is trapped in the attic below their feet, unable to escape. Sayers drops down and looks through the small opening in the roof the woman managed to escape through. The face of her trapped husband peers back.
Unable to widen the hole any further using the rescue helicopter’s lightweight crash ax, Sayers realizes he needs something with more weight—and a better plan. He speaks to the man through the ragged opening, shaking his hand, calming him, assuring him, and promising to return soon. He then ties a brightly colored strip of cloth around one of the roof’s visible vent pipes to better identify the house before convincing the woman to leave her husband behind … temporarily.
Recently, we observed the 15-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, widely considered one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the United States. Forming over the Bahamas on Aug. 23, 2005, the storm crossed into southern Florida as a Category 1, gathering strength in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico before wreaking catastrophic damage on parts of south Florida and stretches of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and unleashing mass flooding in the greater New Orleans area.
In A Failure of Initiative, the 2006 federal after action report by the US House of Representatives that examined the response to Hurricane Katrina, both the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center received praise for their forecast efforts. Storm track projections were available nearly 56 hours before Katrina’s arrival, with the landfall prediction off by a mere 15 miles.
In its preparations for Katrina’s arrival, the USCG issued broadcasts to mariners—repeated radio warnings to the offshore recreational and commercial fishing communities—and pre-positioned key rescue assets to safe areas ahead of the storm, thereby ensuring airframe survivability and promoting a rapid response posture as soon as the weather conditions permitted.
Despite all early warnings and preparations—and as it remains today with economically challenged communities where seasonal natural disasters are common—thousands of New Orleanians were simply unable to evacuate ahead of the storm. But Katrina wasn’t just a storm. The extreme rain, surging waters, and high winds stressed the city’s extensive flood protection system to the breaking point.
According to published reports, once the 17th Street Canal levee gave way, just after 9 am the morning of landfall, New Orleans began to flood. One disaster was followed by 28 additional catastrophes as levee after levee burst, releasing billions of gallons of water into the city over the next 24 hours, and turning an already severe hurricane into a disaster of epic proportions. Nearly 80% of all structures in Orleans Parish sustained water damage, with more than 204,000 homes damaged or destroyed, and an estimated 800,000 citizens in the greater New Orleans metropolitan area forced from their homes—the largest displacement of Americans since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
To make matters worse, the primary and secondary power sources for the city of New Orleans—including the pumping stations that might have prevented some of the flooding—were down, as was the local communications infrastructure, making it difficult for state and local responders to effectively evaluate the unfolding disaster, let alone coordinate their actions. Instead, initial communications between responders consisted of limited cell phone availability and satellite phones.
The Coast Guard Launches
Mere hours after Katrina made landfall in Louisiana on Aug. 29, once the winds of the storm had dropped to just below 60 knots, USCG helicopter crews launched their rescue operations. The first happened at around 2:50 that afternoon; they continued long into the night.
The Coast Guard Aviation Training Center (ATC) in Mobile, Alabama, and Coast Guard Air Station New Orleans (the buildings of which suffered considerable damage during the storm) shared tactical control for operations. Helicopter rescue crews from USCG air stations across the country would receive tasking from ATC Mobile. After flying scheduled six-hour mission windows, crews would return to ATC Mobile for mission debriefing. They’d be replaced by rested, briefed, and newly tasked crews who would launch immediately for the flooded New Orleans area while the original crew ate and tried to get a few precious hours of sleep.
Berthing was sparse, and commodities were few. Crews slept on cots on the floor of an administration building with no air-conditioning, their limited electricity provided by an auxiliary generator. For the first week, they subsisted on bottled water and MREs (Meals, Ready-to-Eat) flown in by Coast Guard C-130s. Operations ran 24/7, and briefings were held in a makeshift ops center using whiteboards.
From the air, New Orleans resembled an immense flotilla of houseboats, with 10- and 20-block stretches of neighborhoods submerged beneath muddy waters. Many of the storm’s survivors who’d been unable to evacuate had climbed to high points in their homes to escape the flooding.
The stranded were visible everywhere, waving frantically from the roofs of houses, apartment buildings, and isolated high-rise balconies, huddled in trees, or standing atop their submerged vehicles. Thousands were rescued by USCG helicopter pilots hovering “danger close” to active high-power electrical lines, pushing rescue crews to their physical and mental limits.
While the sun was shining, survivors waved anything that would attract the attention of rescue crews, scrawling desperate pleas for help on sheets of plywood or any large surface they could find. When night fell, pilots reported seeing “thousands of twinkling lights” in their night-vision goggles as survivors used flashlights to draw attention to their positions.
Rescue swimmers faced some of the most difficult and challenging conditions during these missions: navigating steep, slippery roofs of flooded houses and buildings and hidden or submerged objects in muddy water, likely contaminated by sewage, chemicals, or fuel oil. The engine roar and the constant downward pressure of the rotors were familiar to the swimmers who had trained to work under these harsh conditions. The flying shingles and other debris added a new level of threat.
Rescues were conducted by lowering a basket or “strop,” a stainless-steel–reinforced web harness that goes under the arms, with a crotch strap to prevent the survivor from slipping out. The rescue swimmer would hook his or her own harness plus the rescue strop to the lowered steel cable and signal for the hoist operator to winch them up. Some evacuees, gripped by sudden fear and panic, would yell and scream as the ground fell away beneath their feet before being delivered to high ground, dry land, or a nearby temporary safe zone.
A Husband Waits
With the rescued wife now safely aboard, the pilot of Sayers’s helicopter flew them directly to a nearby staging area where a local fire truck was waiting. Having radioed their request ahead, Sayers dashed to the fire truck, grabbed a much heavier ax, and darted back to the waiting helicopter, which immediately lifted off and returned to the cloth-marked house, an anxious wife still aboard.
For the second time that day, Sayers was hoisted carefully down to the roof. Looking through the jagged hole once again, he advised the relieved man to stand clear before he began chopping an opening large enough for the man to escape through. Chunks of shingles and wood went flying with each determined whack of the ax, until the hole was wide enough. Once freed, the man was snapped into a harness and hoisted up to the waiting helicopter, where he was happily reunited with his wife.
As soon as the details of this rescue were briefed to crews, USCG responders from ATC Mobile began calling the store managers of every single Lowe’s and Home Depot in the area, buying up every heavy ax and light gas-powered chain saw in stock and equipping each of their rescue helicopters with one or both of the lifesaving tools.
As hot days and dark nights wore on, there was a growing sense of urgency among the crews, a need to reach each one of what felt like an endless succession of desperate survivors. Such sustained rescue efforts were possible because of the USCG’s organizational structure, based on tested operational principles and standardized training.
This training allows a wide mixture of personnel and assets from anywhere in the country to respond quickly, forming competent operational response teams. As one captain commented, a rescue swimmer from Savannah, a pilot from Detroit, and a flight mechanic from San Francisco could crew a helicopter based out of Houston and, despite having never met before, brief for and fly a six-hour mission, “rescue 80 people, and come back without a scratch on the helicopter.”
The Coast Guard Response
Of the 60,000 survivors stranded in New Orleans, the USCG, using both surface and air assets and in coordination with other response agencies, rescued more than 33,500—a figure close to the total active-duty population of the service at that time. And of then–New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s original prediction of 10,000 lives lost, the final count was just 964 directly attributed to the storm.
There are three reasons USCG personnel were able to effect this outcome:
- The rapid response by the USCG, its standardized training model, and literally centuries of experience in lifesaving missions
- The training USCG personnel receive to assess a situation and “act first, ask permission later”
- The proficiency and ability of USCG rescue swimmers.
When rescue swimmers established first contact with evacuees, they instituted a hierarchy of priority for evacuations: the elderly, a person in a wheelchair, or someone with a mobility-limiting condition would go first. Next came mothers with small children. The able-bodied would have to wait, often as long as a day, according to the needs of the situation.
Before departing, the swimmers would designate a group member to be in charge, tasking them with looking after the survivors until a rescue crew could return. This leader would often be the last person to be rescued.
Twelve hours after Katrina’s landfall, a quarter of the entire USCG helicopter fleet was conducting rescue operations across New Orleans and along the Mississippi coast. Just two days later, the USCG had eight fixed-wing aircraft and 43 helicopters conducting operations in the region, leveraging its mix of mission-modified HH/MH-65 Dolphins and HH/MH-60 Jayhawks.
While the two airframes are suited for similar missions, the MH-65 Dolphin, manufactured by Eurocopter, is the service’s primary rescue helicopter. Crewed by two pilots, one flight mechanic, and one rescue swimmer, the Dolphin is driven by twin 853 hp Turbomeca Arriel 2C2-CG turbine engines, providing a top speed of 175 knots and a range of 290 nautical miles for all-weather and nighttime operations.
The Sikorsky-made MH-60 Jayhawk, also ideal for search-and-recovery missions, is closer in design to the US Navy’s MH-60R or MH-60S Seahawk. With a similar crew complement, the Jayhawk is powered by a pair of GE T700-401C turboshaft engines that push the all-weather, medium-range helicopter to a maximum speed of 180 knots but with a range nearly double that of the Dolphin.
Katrina was an all-hands operation; military response to the disaster brought a wave of aviation assets from all services across the country. The Department of Defense had over 350 helicopters and more than 70 fixed-wing aircraft involved in relief efforts. National Guard helicopter crews in UH-1 Hueys were hoisting one or two survivors up at a time. The US Army’s III Corps and two US Air Force rescue wings also brought in at least 30 helicopters with crews.
The civil industry also stepped up, eager to put the unique abilities of their aircraft into service. Some were summoned as part of the government disaster response, and others volunteered aircraft, pilots, and ground crews to help the beleaguered city. Bell, Sikorsky, and Eurocopter (now Airbus) all sent aircraft and crews, joined by operators from around the country. You can read about the Eurocopter team’s experiences.
Working for Bell Helicopter at the time, Randy Rowles, now president of the Helicopter Institute and vice chair of the HAI Board of Directors, was part of a crew the OEM dispatched for Katrina relief. “Having grown up in south Florida, I was quite familiar with hurricanes—at least, that was my thought,” Rowles says. “But, once we arrived in New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina’s departure, I was amazed at the scope of damage and devastation.
“We were dispatched at the end of our workday and sent to Lafayette [Louisiana] for staging into New Orleans. We flew four flights into New Orleans that first night, since we were equipped with night-vision goggles. Initial air traffic control was provided by an overwatch government aircraft, call sign Omaha 44 and then Omaha 45.
“The following days were more organized, with our Bell 407 designated MED16,” Rowles says. “People were moved from I-10 and the Intracoastal Highway interchange to the New Orleans International Airport [KMSY]. At one point, three lines of helicopters were waiting to deliver hurricane victims to the terminal building.”
Like other responders, Rowles remembers both the people who were saved and the ones who couldn’t be helped, not in the midst of so much overwhelming need.
“On one of the flights that first night, we flew a physician who was literally performing surgical procedures in the middle of I-10. When we extracted him back to Lafayette, his eyes were deep and empty with a face that reflected the pain and sorrow he was feeling. I remember his words in the helicopter: ‘I took an oath to save lives. Today, I condemned many to death, as I could not help them.’ ”
At the apex of operations, the skies above the city were a dense swarm of rotorcraft activity. The tandem-rotor Chinook, the S-64 Skycrane, and the immense Sikorsky CH-53 could be seen flying overhead, along with most every other rotary-wing workhorse.
The sheer scope of airborne operations required assets to fly dangerously close to one another. Air traffic control was at first self-service; pilots had only their eyes and a common radio frequency with which to coordinate their efforts, similar to small aircraft at airports that lack a control tower. Communications with personnel on the ground and at staging areas were largely nonexistent.
USCG Lieutenant Beth McNamara, a C-130 pilot on an environmental evaluation flight during the initial response, recognized this problem and redirected her mission within the scope of her authority, creating the first airborne communication platform in the area. USCG C-130s continued to provide this service until the third day of rescue operations, when the task was assumed by US Navy E-2C Hawkeyes and US Customs and Border Protection P-3B Orions. Strategic decisions like these, made by personnel of both aviation and surface forces, contributed significantly to the effectiveness of USCG operations and made the effort a success.
Disasters of such scope and scale represent more than widespread disruption of life, interruption of livelihood, and untold property damage. They bring about suffering and far-reaching catastrophe to communities literally overnight and represent an erasure of personal infrastructure, a profound loss of security, and the introduction of long-term psychological trauma.
But disasters like Katrina also bring out the best in those who train for them, knowing that someday they’ll be called on to place their own lives in peril so that others may live.