Undercover officers embark on new mission: search & rescue

 By Michael Perlstein, Staff writer

Copyright 2005 The Times-Picayune Publishing Company

They shaved their heads, all 45 narcotics and vice cops, even the three female detectives. They positioned a sharpshooter on each of their boats to protect from holed-up, whacked-out people firing potshots from distant windows. And before each rescue mission, they jotted down their Social Security numbers, just in case.

In normal times, the New Orleans Police Department's narcotics-vice squad would be making undercover drug buys, serving warrants and testifying in court. But the days and weeks after Hurricane Katrina were far from normal, and suddenly the officers became the city's busiest floating rescue squad.

There was no grand plan to hit the water, Capt. Timothy Bayard said, it just happened.

"Things were going to hell in a handbasket," Bayard said, "so we did what needed to be done. We knew people were going to die, so we made a decision to save as many lives as possible."

As Katrina bore down on the Gulf coast, Bayard positioned his officers at a couple of downtown hotels, ready to jump into a support role as soon as the wind and rain passed. But when the levees broke and the city began filling with water, the hard-charging, streetwise Bayard ordered his troops into the heart of the action.

With storm-blown debris still flying, Bayard and Lt. Mike Montalbano made their first foray the afternoon of Aug. 29. They rushed toward Bywater Hospital, where 5th District officers reported that the electricity was out and some patients were barely hanging on. Along the way, their car got stuck in high water, so they siphoned the remaining gas and carried it to the hospital in waist-deep water.

The hospital is a stone's throw from the St. Claude Avenue bridge, where streams of people already were huddling after wading out of the instant inundation of the Lower 9th Ward. Bayard assessed the scene and ordered his officers to round up some boats.

"We didn't have any boats of our own, so we commandeered some," he said. "We found them in yards, on the side of the road. That's how it all started."

For the next month, Bayard was one of the Police Department's most visible commanders. From the valet parking apron at Harrah's New Orleans Casino, he coordinated search-and-rescue missions throughout the city, from eastern New Orleans to Hollygrove. Bayard estimated that his officers helped pluck more than 10,000 people from peril, but it was not, he conceded, a well-oiled operation.

"Our command post got set up on the trunk of a police car. That's how organized we were," he said.

In addition to the scrounged boats, Bayard's squad jumped on vessels operated by the Harbor Police and Coast Guard. But after an exhausting but fruitful first day of rescues, Harbor Police officers inexplicably were ordered to leave and some Coast Guard operators got spooked by gunfire. A flotilla of private boats from throughout coastal Louisiana also threatened to pull back after confronting drunk or unruly residents.

"If you're not from here and you're not accustomed to some of the people, you go into shell shock," Bayard said.

Eventually, the military rolled in with large pontoon boats and helped Bayard plot rescue missions on a gridded map. With 80 percent of the city under water, more than a dozen major intersections were transformed into boat launches. Even after the Federal Emergency Management Agency kicked in with professional search-and-rescue squads from across the country, Bayard said, he frequently found himself entangled in government red tape.

"You saw people out there on rooftops trying to hang on, in some cases dying right in front of us, but we couldn't get any help," he said. "We'd be begging and pleading with the military, and they'd tell us, 'We don't have orders.' "

At one point, Montalbano, a former Army soldier, almost lost his cool when a group of military commanders refused to retrieve two of his cops stranded on Interstate 10. A private who saw the exchange fetched the cops by sneaking behind the backs of his superiors with a 2½-ton truck, he said.

To supplement the sometimes heroic, sometimes spotty help from outside agencies, Bayard said, his officers relied heavily on their own guile. They siphoned gas from flooded vehicles, commandeered high-water trucks, removed car batteries for electricity. At night, they gathered at their temporary sleeping quarters, the clubhouse of the English Turn golf club in Algiers.

"Everyone sat in the dining room with a hot meal and -- I'm not going to lie -- unloaded over a couple of beers," Bayard said. "It was therapy. After passing floaters (bodies) so we could get to people who were still on their roofs, we needed to decompress. They saw some horrible sights."

Bayard said his unit stayed largely intact: one officer was a no-show, one resigned after the storm hit, and two went AWOL during the days of crisis. When one of the deserters tried to rejoin the squad, the remaining officers were unforgiving. "The other men in the platoon said they'd rather not have him," he said.

About 10 days into the chaos, city officials offered quick Las Vegas getaways to officers who needed to recharge their batteries. Bayard told his cops they were free to leave.

"Not one of them did," he said. "That's what kind of heart they had. There were still people out there who needed to be saved, so we still had a job to do."

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Michael Perlstein can be reached at mperlstein@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3316. 

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