ELMORE, Ala. — Five years ago, I spent two weeks helping to evacuate the residents of the shattered city of New Orleans. The images that flooded the airwaves showed the nation the wrecked lives and demolished buildings that remained after Hurricane Katrina.
Yet as traumatic as that was, to this day, it’s not the wreckage and loss that stands out most in my memory. What changed my life then was how those who suffered through the catastrophe were joined by those who rushed in to the service of their countrymen. More than 23,000 people were evacuated through New Orleans International Airport at that time, and that experience followed me through the rest of my time in the service and into civilian life. I treasure the memory of the small part that I was privileged to play in helping the residents of New Orleans.
It was Labor Day weekend, nearly a week since Katrina passed through, when our C-130 Hercules transport aircraft rumbled to a halt at the desolate New Orleans International Airport. My unit, the 822d Security Forces Squadron, hefted our equipment and disembarked the aircraft. My commander, who led our advance team two days prior to assess the situation and prepare for the main unit’s arrival, met us on the tarmac. He looked as tired as I’d ever seen him, and that includes when we were deployed to Iraq the previous winter. Now that we had arrived, we climbed the stairs to the terminal, and walked into chaos.
The airport was choked with the homeless. It appeared that every available space overflowed with haggard, distraught and emotionally spent people. There were so many that the terminal seemed to vibrate and move under the weight. Families huddled together, some with bags and suitcases containing their remaining possessions, and some with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing. Like the scene from an old war movie, the bodies of the sick and injured lay everywhere as emergency medical staff rushed to treat them.
Days earlier, we watched with the same disbelief as the rest of the nation when Katrina ripped across the city and devastated it. Then, to our surprise, we got the call: “Prepare your bags for New Orleans.” Normally, our mission was to provide security for military installations in “austere” (read “Iraq”) locations. But after the magnitude of the damage that Katrina had inflicted on New Orleans and the surrounding towns became clear, we knew why we had to go.
In addition to providing security for the terminal and the airfield, our efforts were spent trying to establish routines with the other organizations present to help. Although admittedly slow at first, once in motion, dozens of agencies descended upon New Orleans. So much capability had set up so rapidly at the airport that there was no clear order of who should do what. The airmen in my unit, though, were experts in bringing order to chaos, and rapidly helped established security, checkpoints and crowd-control.
I remember walking the halls, from gate to gate, passing the victims of Katrina. What stands out most in my mind is how little they asked for. These were not beggars nor were they demanding handouts with some sense of entitlement. They had been robbed of almost everything they had in the world, including for some their loved ones. And yet, they were grateful for the help, and with sincere gratitude accepted the food, water, medical care and other relief supplies that we distributed. Even the most contentious of people said “thank you” when we addressed their needs as best we could.
It wasn’t long before the airfield surged to life. Military helicopters, loaded with rescue teams, were dispatched incessantly to pull stranded residents from flooded zones. In addition, the process of evacuating the people who were crammed into the airport had begun. At first, every aircraft that was made available was packed with those displaced from their homes. But as the days moved on, the numbers began dropping, and the planes began to have extra room. This was a good thing. It was a sign that most of the people who needed to be evacuated had been moved.
At times we traveled north and west to see if we could buy supplies. We drove through the parishes, finding a mix of demolished and abandoned houses, as well as some areas that looked nearly untouched and almost out of place amidst the devastation. And yet, I found it astonishing that the establishments we visited, despite being deprived of a great deal of business in the wake of the mass evacuations and power outages, would insist that we take what we needed. Sometimes we went out and local residents would offer to pay for us. When we politely declined, they would find the proprietor of the place and pay before we knew what was happening. It was humbling that the people most impacted by the hurricane were still so generous, so outgoing.
Now, five year later, It was this strength of character of those who we encountered that stands out to me more than the despair and destruction. In my former line of work, it’s easy to become jaded. While deployed overseas in combat zones, one sees a lot of misery. But the spirit that I saw in New Orleans, from the residents and from those that strove to rescue them, inspires me to this day.