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FRIDAY, 09.16.05: 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 on Friday, September 16, 2005:

Hello friends,

A one day gap in reporting.Sorry for the delay but as the line goes, a funny thing happened on the way to...

Yesterday we were tasked to roadblocks to assist the Louisiana State Troopers who have been working the check points non-stop for the past weeks. The weather seems even hotter and the pavement scorching. As we worked the job, checking for those who had passes to move on the Interstate to New Orleans, I felt a bit out of it. It had been a rough day before so I thought it was just a carry over. Couple hours into it, the Troops and officers with me said I better get back and see to it. I did not want to leave my assignment but Cpl Morgan got in the squad and said, "Let's go."

Off we went to our base. I-55 South was stopped due to a roll over 10-50 and all lanes blocked. This is no surprise as people are rushing back or doing repairs and driving like crazy. We were northbound so we observed and commented on the bizarre driving we had seen. We also had a meeting of the minds among our team as to speed and conditions. We, too, have slowed down.

On return I was not feeling right and had severe muscle pain in my lower back so we got together with our ISP medic. Mike said I need to go get checked out at the hospital. After some twists and turns we arrived at North Oaks Medical facility in Hammond LA. What truly wonderful men and women. They got right to me and I was seen by the nurses and Dr. Stan Smith told me I was still dehydrated and the muscle cramps were part of the issue.

They took blood and urine and ran a big bag of IV fluid into me. My partner, Cpl. Scott Morgan, and I spoke at length with the nurses and were told they had lost power in the hospital but kept everything but the HVAC up. Without air conditioning, the temp went to well over 90 degrees in the ER area. They soldiered on, as have all down here in the face of bad to terrible conditions. Dr. Smith told us he lost his home. He neither complained nor was defeated in any sense. He looked at us and simply said, "I will rebuild".

Nurses Abby Brocato, Lunn Battles and Becky Depaula told us of their experiences and those of friend nurses from the New Orleans area. We compared notes and there seems little doubt that terrible stuff happened in those first few days when the fabric of society was rent. When law and order no longer exist, evil men will do their worst.

All tests came back good and the Doc said that I just need to keep hydrated. The motto of the CamelBack company is not written in jest..."Hydrate or Die".

One of the teams told me last night they were directed to a nursing home. They arrived with two Troopers. As they worked their way inside they were met by stench and refuse. No persons were to be seen. Room by room they searched until they reached a final room with a locked door. One Trooper stood back, head in hand not looking. The team breached the lock and entered, finding nothing further. The Troop's grandmother had been there and he feared the worst. Where she was, no one knew but hope remains.

At another location a team took a police officer to look for his relation. Sadly they found he in the back yard. She had perished in the storm. They recovered her and she will be laid to rest by her loved ones. This will not be possible for many.

We will finish our deployment with stories to be told. Some give us great laughs and others just the shaking of our heads. Humanity has fallen and risen, good has faced evil and triumphed. But the losses are staggering. Again I fear this will soon be old news.

President Theodore Roosevelt is quoted as saying, "Americans learn only by disaster." To that I add, "...and promptly forget." If we forget the misery of this time and place, be assured we will revisit it some other place and time.

Even as we reach the final days of our deployment, hard work is being done by our men. The missions are better communicated and the command and control from my perspective improves daily. This is not an accident but hard work on the part of mission commander Capt. Rob Haley, Lt. Todd Kilby and Lt. Jeff Regan ISP, Captain Tim Lyerla Granite City P.D., and Sgt. Ed Mohn of the Northern Illinois Police Alarm System (NIPAS). Our computer genius (this is no exaggeration) Aaron Kusterman of ISP is the Intel guru.

For those troubled by the issues of communications among those responding and those requesting assistance, I believe the impact of vast scope and numbers is primarily the problem.

My analogy of this matter follows ...You have a household to run and it has serious problems. You then have 1000 of your cousins (who you like) show up to help. In the midst of your problems, they all want attention and direction. It does not happen quickly or orderly. It takes time and patience.

There is much to learn.

Those charged with protecting our communities and the nation must study the Command, Control, Communications, and Coordination of this event. If anything good can come from this disaster, let it be that we learn how to prevent the next. If that cannot happen, let us understand how to best PREVENTATIVELY respond, and if that cannot be, then let us know our best and fastest means of remediation. Nature cannot be defeated. Hurricanes will come as well as other natural calamities. Yet there are measures that can be taken if the will exists.

WILL...it exists in all forms for both good and bad.
The WILL to hold fast to ones property and refuse to move, even in the face of the storm.
The WILL to make the hard decisions to order evacuation; that in itself is dangerous and costly.
The WILL to make decisions that have consequences beyond one's current vision and knowledge.
The WILL to address the difficult and unpopular decisions.

It is easy to be a leader of your household, family, department, city, or nation when all goes well. The real test is leadership under stress and disaster. For those who take on these responsibilities, we are honor and duty bound to study, learn, and practice for the dangerous moments. Having done so, we have done our best to prepare. Failing to do so, we have abdicated our responsibilities.

As it has been taught to me; We do not control events around us, we can only control our response to them. Each of us must make a critical evaluation of what we have done, what we are doing, and what we plan to do regarding disaster planning and critical incident response. We can look at our strengths and find satisfaction, but it is our weaknesses that we must review and correct. That is difficult because it involves hard work, expense, and time. Far easier to put it off for another time.

Sadly, for New Orleans and the South this is the their time.

As we ate lunch amid the devastation in St. Bernards Parish, one Trooper told us why many did not leave. They had heard the warnings before and when the disaster was averted, they took on the mind-set of "crying wolf." This one was the real deal and those who refused--or could not--move paid with their lives.

I have seen very little news reporting but what I saw tells me that the real issues have yet to be discussed. That is all I will say in regards to this as the politics of this event will be taken up by the citizens, and they will cast final judgement.

We are generating our next team to assume the duties of Task Force Illinois. They will come to see first hand what we have seen. They will not see the vast water-filled areas as much has drained. What is left behind is beyond words. The vile black water is in many places gone, leaving behind a lava flow of filth and muck made up of who knows what.

The sights and sounds and smells will be etched in each of our minds. The smell of rotten garbage will put me in a 5 ton military truck transiting 4-five feet of water...filled with chemicals, oil, gasoline, garbage, and in places bodies of animals and persons lost.

Helicopters were constantly above us. That sound will put me on Franklin Street at Dbigney--surely one of the worst we have seen--on a search and rescue mission with the Riverside California Fast Water Team...with daylight fading and the team in water blocks away with Officer Dave Macaluso from Lincolnwood (IL) P.D. their one officer for security on their wave runner, one team member Joe Garret of Oak Lawn (IL) in hip waders a block from me at their launch point in the street (due to lowering water they had to walk the trailer to the deeper water) and myself and Cpl. Scott Morgan and Dep. Chief Mike Liebert of Elk Grove (IL) PD standing security on their backs and with our vehicles.

A Cadillac Escalade drives up with an Assistant Commander of NOPD inside. He says the area is unsafe at night. We thank him, and in discussion he says he is now a full Commander. I congratulate him and they are off. Dogs are around us and the area is a blight. I ask if we have contact with the air units. Not directly. Suddenly two Long Bow's are above us. These are military units with special electronics in an extended vertical bubble. I felt better that they were around. The mission ends. As night falls...no one found. Joe returns from his lonely isolated post and says to me, "That was the weirdest, nastiest place I have been. I don't care to do that again." I agreed. But Joe would do it again if required, as we all would. Not one of use would have it otherwise.

A Dr. friend who was here for over ten days setting up critical medical sites has returned home. He called me, coincidently, as I was visiting the good folks at the e-room. He said that it will take time to decompress when we return. We have faced a lot of bad stuff and are working on low sleep. I am sure he is correct. We will return changed in our thinking from this experience.

We all will have grown and many of the young officers here will go on to assume command roles. They have lived this campaign and will understand leadership and responsibility in a manner not possible from classroom discussion. Each of us sees their experience in a slightly different light. Like a multi-faceted jewel, we see the reflected part if we choose to see it.

To date not a shot has been fired "in anger" by our team and violence has been absent since we arrived. It is our hope that this remains to be the case. We came for the fight but the fight was ended. We did the search and rescue missions and the patrol work. Soon this area will be repopulated. This will be a huge challenge as people return to find their homes and vehicles gone, destroyed, or severely damaged. The mental health toll has been and will be terrible. Into this our second wave arrives.

Duty, Honor, Country. These words sum up this mission.

I am proud to be able to serve as is every man and woman here.

Standing together we will not fail.

We miss you all.

Stay safe.



Chief Jeff Chudwin
Olympia Fields (IL) PD

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