Front Line Reports from Hurricane Ground Zero
with Jeff Chudwin
TUESDAY, 09.13.05: P-1 Member special report from hurricane ground zero
PoliceOne member Chief Jeff Chudwin of Olympia Fields (IL) PD has been dispatched as part of a team of Illinois-based first responders to the epicenter of Hurricane Katrina. Their mission is to aid in rescue, recovery and clean-up efforts. Jeff shares first-hand accounts of his team's monumental challenges and poignant experiences in frequent reports from the field. PoliceOne received the following message the evening of Tuesday, September 13, 2005:
We left for our mission yesterday and ultimately were driven in a five ton military truck to Slidel, east of New Orleans.
It is in terrible condition and we were told a levy break occurred nearby. The water level has dropped several feet, yet the houses are still surrounded by water at least by 4-5 feet. This area got hit hard and many vehicles could be seen under water with open trunk lids indicating that people tried to load up but did not make it.
We off loaded a Trooper to an airboat and he checked an address for a listed 911 call, either called in from the location or called in for the location by a loved one or friend worried about the resident(s). He reported on his return that there was a body in the home. Looking at the condition of the homes and the height of the water (up to the eaves as the high water mark showed) we all fear there will be others.
It happened very fast in the areas where the levy breeches occured. Some said it took no more than five minutes before water was up to their ceilings. It is hard to know for sure but it was fast and unforgiving. One of the rescue specialists said that some who were saved were simply in the right place at the wrong time.
The damage in this area is extreme. We were brought back out and ended the day. Fatigue and heat are ever present but we have acclimated and make sure we hydrate at every chance. We were issued CamelBacks and fill them with ice in the morning. We carry a large cooler in the truck along with a ladder as it's a very high step and reach into the bed of the truck. Us vertically challenged lads would rather climb the ladder than be hoisted up.
U.S Senator Vitter's (Louisiana) aide came to meet us in the first days and asked if we needed anything. We thanked him and said we would let him know. Not long afterward large coolers and other needed items were delivered to us and I was told it was from Senator Vitter. Those large coolers are doing great work for us. Thank you Senator and staff and all the good people of the South who have been so kind to us in their time of great need.
This is another thing that needs to be repeated. You cannot find a better group of upstanding individuals that the Louisiana State Police. We have worked side by side with them since our arrival and they have done everything they can to make us welcome. Many have lost all and many more have suffered storm damage to their homes. They work non-stop and only get one day in many to return to their families to sort out their lives. You do not hear any complaining or grumbling from them.
Their Troop B (station) is a meeting place for beginning missions but it is also a chow hall and rest area. Different church groups have come to cook for us each day. I told the good folks from Arkansas this morning that if we go home weighing more than when we came down no one will believe we did any work. They laughed and gave me more food.
No matter where you travel or what you require, the good people down here thank you for being with them. They keep the laundrymat open late hours for police needing to clean clothes, and let us in McDonald's late at night (McDonald's in Hammond Louisiana, where we are, refuses to accept money for the food.) Officers are appreciative and ask what we could do for them. Turned out that they have trees down and problems clearing them. As I hear it, a group of officers went to the employees' homes and cleared the trees for them. Help given and help returned.
Today we again went to our staging area in downtown New Orleans and were assigned a Trooper to lead our group. We had the good fortune to link up with Trooper First Class Stacey Pearson. She met us at our truck and explained that our mission was to go to the French Quarter and clear buildings. This means we check each doorway or structure for forced entry or damage. Off we drove into the streets and arrived in the area of Canal and Bourbon (the famous street). The water had gone down and much was dry again. Nasty stuff lined the gutters and we really tried to watch where we stepped. Garbage is everywhere and the giant dumpsters are filled to capacity. STENCH, my friends, is abundant and they need to clear that out ASAP. When the garbage finally is removed, the city will breath again.
Trooper Pearson got us into formation as we disembarked the truck. As in all operations, we take the basics seriously. We have two long guns for security and the rest of the team has handguns and hand tools. We took orange spray paint to mark each building or store. The marking goes like this: in an area out front where it can be seen from the air, a large "X" is sprayed. In the upper left quadrant the date. In the lower left our identifier "LSP" (Louisiana State Police. On the right upper comments such as "brk glass" (broken glass). In the lower right, anyone inside ("0 P" means no one inside, "1 DB" means one dead body).
We progressed along Canal and the odd thing is that the media and others, private security and utility workers and tradesmen of all kinds were there. This as opposed to but days ago when no one was present.
We went about our work as if no one was there and started to check the stores and businesses. Many were broken into, looted and trashed, Sprinkler systems in some still ran and the inside areas were growing large amounts of nasty mold. We wore our face masks to protect us from all the crud and stench.
The media was all over us. It must have been a slow news day. They asked us questions and I spoke to a couple of them. "What is it like in there? they asked. "Find any bodies?" Gladly we did not find bodies and we hope to find no more. Sadly, this will not be the case but I hope when it happens they are looked upon with diginity and caring, not as a sensational piece for the news. In life they were loved and cared for. In death they should know the same.
We worked the streets and met up with regular Army troops. Very good men and women. We compared notes and wished each other well. As we worked, a fire truck drove up and I flagged the driver asking for decon liquid as we got slimed bad on our boots. As we spoke I asked where he is from because was in a New Iberia (if I remember correctly) fire truck. He says from St. Charles...not Louisiana but ILLINOIS. I laugh out loud when I tell him I am from Olympia Fields and that the St. Charles Police are good friends. We both considered the unlikely prospect, but again understand that it is indeed a small world, just as I met Col. Smith of the 33rd Support Group of Chicago in the street two days ago.
Trooper Pearson worked hard along side us in the hot and smelly buildings and she is typical of the Troops...not asking us to do anything they do not do. At one point we found a jewelry strore broken into and only a small window broken out to get through. She was the only one who could fit and she climbed right through and cleared the building alone.
We made it through the clearing operation and were directed back to Troop B. We arrived at the staging area downtown to get our cars and we had a group picture taken at the request of Trp. Pearson. Our team asked her if we could get another mission with her...high praise from us. She did not know but lead us all back to the Troop B for food. As she is a PoliceOne member, I told her I would surely write about her good work and leadership.
At the Post we discovered that an order had gone out that ALL law enforcement must have special credentials made and worn to be armed and in the city. There are so many armed law enforcement and military in the area, no one knows who is who and whether they belong there or if they are real. But the rub is, how do you get all officers to the area where the credentials are being made and then have the officers identified and vouched for. It is a long, involved story but I will say this...we were directed from the Post where the Secret Service had set up the credentialling station to the City (35 minuted away) to go to City Hall and meet with the people in charge there. We went, it was a pain as we were tired. We got there, wandered around and finally by good fortune found the person doing this work, a Police Lt. from Virginia on loan to the Gov. We told him who we were, why we were there and he asked us if we had our EMAC agreement with us. We said no, but explained we had it at our base. He said the fact that we knew what an EMAC request was showed we were the real thing as many have no idea as they self deployed under no reciprocal agreement. They will not get credentials. Then he tells us we need to return to the Post...but he greatly assisted us and we thanked him and returned.
On arrival I met Secrect Service Agents Ashely Moore, Alan Ryan, Sean Connor, and Scott Gibson. These gentlemen organized with staff, a credentialling process that was outstanding. One minute and it's done. The Secret Service is a top organizaton and this example certainly proved again their value and committment. These men made it happen and amid the confusion of this requirement, did so with a smile and helping hand. Thank you.
Stuff is breaking and our teams need to take some time to make repairs. We have run non-stop for eleven days. Stuff has been contaminated. Dep. Chief Chuck Redpath of the Illinois Dept. of Natural Resources and his team have trashed boots and uniforms. They do tough work in their boats, traveling in the worst areas looking for survivors and locating the lost. The water is foul beyond anything you have seen. Warnings are repeated...stay out of and avoid the water. Yet so much of our work is in and around the water it is not easy to comply.
In Slidel an air boat operator reved his fan and started throwing a plume of water. We were at a house in the truck checking on a resident. As he drew closer we all started shouting (many profanities) as he was about to drench us with funk water. It would not be an exageration to say rifles were being turned towards the engine. We were mightily agreived that this yahoo would even think of acting in such a dangerous manner.
Then there was the moment we looked up to see a Chinook helocopter carrying a very large water bag to drop on a fire. Problem was as he flew the water poured out. This is high up and the water was the same foul stuff...at least we figured so. He flew towards, then over us as the shower comes down. I saw it coming and shouted to my partner, Corporal Scott Morgan, and the others. I ran at high speed (for an old and slow man) and jumped into the protection of the squad car. Everyone laughed at my relocating as the shower never hit us. They did acknowledge that I could scoot pretty good.
The serious side of this is that you have to pay attention to everything as there is some bad stuff here and it is not always up front.
Stood by until 1900 hrs to get as many of our folks through the credentialing as possible. We begin the work again tomorrow.
All of us believe in what we are doing and we are lead by top men. It is not easy but neither is it so hard. The truly hard work was done by the Troops and Officers in the first days when we were not here to assist. They took on the unimagineable tasks of protecting people who lost everything at a time when they themsleves could not go home to check on their homes or families. While I do not in any way denegrate what we are doing and have accomplished, the real heros are these men and women.
I am proud to be here and serve. God willing, I never see another catastrophy of this magnitude again. Yet if it is to happen, the lesson we have learned here will make a vast difference.
I question that anyone could plan successfully or adequately prepare for an event of this size. Now that it has happened, we will study the core issues and direct our efforts to ways and means of addressing them. Ultimately, I feel all issues can be broken down into subtasks that are manageable. The trick, of course, is to know what you can do, when you can do it, and to be prepared to do it immediately. Fail any part of this equation and all fails.
Time to get to sleep as we will start very early.
Keep well and safe and hold all affected close in your thoughts and prayers.
Chief Jeff Chudwin
Olympia Fields (IL) PD
Hurricane Help & Information Center
Read the rest of Chief Chudwin’s front line reports