September 07, 2005
Game wardens to the rescue
By Bob Marshall
Outdoors editor, Times-Picayune
Hurricane Katrina was still hitting southeast Louisiana with 50-mph farewell punches on the morning of Aug. 29 when a convoy of some 70 vehicles hauling boats and game wardens from the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries building in Baton Rouge had managed to snake through New Orleans along Tchoupitoulas Street then through the French Quarter to the St. Claude Avenue bridge over the Industrial Canal.
That’s when Maj. Sandy Dares knew he and his game wardens were entering a rescue mission that might dwarf anything he’d seen in 20-odd years of hurricane relief work.
“When we got to the top of the bridge and looked across, everything below there – the lower 9th (Ward) toward St. Bernard Parish - was just one big lake,” Dares said. “There were people sitting on their roofs yelling for help. We could hear others hammering on their roofs from inside their attics. It was just a sight I‘ll never forget.
“We immediately started launching our boats and rescuing the living.”
It was just the start. Within 24 hours the fish and wildlife agency would have more than 200 boats in the water, and within six days would have rescued an estimated 20,000 residents of the metro area, agency officials said.
As the nation is consumed in a heated, often bitter debate over the speed of federal response to the disaster, a look at the actions of the state’s fish and wildlife agency before and after the storm reveals a picture of efficiency that may have saved tens of thousands of lives. Dares and other agency veterans, while heaping praise on the efforts of their staff, are not surprised.
“We have the training, we have the assets, and we have the dedicated employees,” Dares says. “No one expected anything like this; no one has ever seen anything like this, on such a huge scale.
“But, really, this is something we practice for, and a drill we go through several times every year. When a storm comes, our people aren’t asked to come to work, they are required to.”
The DWF, in fact, is the state’s designated initial responder, with a seat at the state’s Office of Emergency Preparedness. The steps it took in the days before and after the storm followed a well-rehearsed script. According to Dares and DWF Secretary Dwight Landreneau, the agency’s participation in the Hurricane Katrina story proceeded on the following schedule:
Friday, Aug. 26. – As Katrina reaches the Gulf after passing over Florida, the state opens its Emergency Operations Center, and all DWF enforcement agents are notified that the agency’s hurricane plan is now operational. Agents and other personnel in coastal parishes must begin moving their boats and other emergency equipment north, many to Baton Rouge. Simultaneously, agents in northern parishes
begin moving their equipment and boats south to Baton Rouge.
“We’re staging our equipment to be ready to respond once we know where landfall is likely to be,” Landreneau explained.
Saturday – By now the storm has grown and presents a serious threat to Louisiana with landfall predicted for Sunday afternoon or night. “Basically, we’re now telling everyone they have to get out of low-lying areas, and all the gear has to be moved here, or in staging areas where we can get to it immediately after the storm,” Dares said. “We have a lot of agents in Baton Rouge now. Many are staying with other employees, but some personnel are staying in our building.”
Sunday – Agency teams continue to arrive in Baton Rouge, prepare equipment and supplies for the post-storm efforts. They use weather reports to chart the storm’s path. “We’re just waiting to go once we think it’s safe enough to stay on the road,” Landreneau said.
Monday – That moment comes around noon Monday. “We left for New Orleans on I-10 with 70 boats and support people,” Dares said. “There were (Department of Transportation) people ahead of us to check all the bridges to make sure the roads were safe. They were also clearing debris.”
Shortly after the convoy left, the agency notified the rest of its 850 employees to be on standby. All other boat operators – whether game wardens or biologists – were reporting to add to the relief effort. Office personnel were used in support capacities working on sending supplies south. An initial staging and communications center was established at the Tangers Outlet Mall near Gonzales. Later that was moved to Elmwood Shopping Center in Jefferson.
By early afternoon the first convoy had rolled through New Orleans, largely on streets with very little flood waters, Dares said. Even the Superdome area was relatively dry, he said. But when his group reached the St. Claude Avenue bridge, the severity of the storm began to sink in.
For the next two days Dares and his fellow game wardens worked without relief, and almost without pause. “There were so many people waiting for help, we didn’t have time to stop,” he said. “It was just constant work. We’d load a boat with people, run to the nearest high ground or road, unload them, and go back out.”
By then the 17th Street Canal levee had broken, and large portions of the city that had been dry began flooding, increasing the urgency of the work. Also by then, the lack of follow-up support began to make itself felt.
“All these poor people who had just been through hell and barely escaped with their lives were now sitting on the interstate or at the Superdome or at the Convention Center in 95 degree heat, no water, no food, no medicine. It was awful. It was the worst kind of human suffering you could imagine.
“And the frustrating thing was we couldn’t do anything about it. We felt some anger, some frustration, but we still had a job to do. Our job wasn’t secondary support. We still had people on roofs, inside attics, in trees. We emptied hospitals and severe care facilities. And they all went to roads to wait for help. And every hour conditions were getting even more dire.”
The nights were the worst, and the most surreal, agents said. By now the water in the city had become a toxic gumbo of human waste, decomposing bodies and hazardous chemicals. Looting had spun out of control in certain parts of the city, and the echo of gunshots in the night had prompted agents to don body armor and begin carrying shotguns. The agency’s communication system, like most others, was inoperable, and agents often found themselves in the dark, following the cries for help through a city that now was illuminated by the hellish glow from fires.
But the game wardens worked on.
“I’m not sure if it’s the adrenalin, or the training or what, but you just keep working and working,” Dares said. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of the people in this agency.
“But, by no means, was this a solo effort. We were not the only agency out there. This was an incredible combined effort from state, local, federal – and volunteers, volunteers from everywhere. Fishermen, crabbers, everyone with a boat.”
Many of the volunteers were game wardens from about 20 other states, Dares said. They came from as close as Texas, and as far away as Canada.
“The great thing about game wardens is that they’re totally self-contained,” Dares said. “They show up with equipment, fuel, food, water. They know how to rough it. Some people volunteer, and then you have to take care of them. Not game wardens. You just point them in a direction, and say go.”
A week later, the agency’s rescue work was largely done, with an estimated 20,000 to 22,000 people removed form the flood. The agency was now turning to begin filling its primary role: protecting fish and wildlife.
“Human life always comes first,” said Landreneau. “We’re just beginning to have meetings to map a strategy for assessing the impact on our natural resources form this storm.
“We’ve got a plan for that, too.”