Within 12 hr. of Katrina passing the Gulf Coast, U.S. Coast Guard aircraft began to converge on the devastated region from all over the country, with units from Cape Cod, Mass.; Atlantic City, N.J., Elizabeth City, N.C. and Clearwater, Fla. among the first to arrive. They supplemented HH-60s and HH-65s and fixed-wing HU-25s from the Mississippi coastal areas and New Orleans. For two weeks, the Coast Guard crews operated around the clock, with personnel from every air station in the Coast Guard. Among the hundreds of "Coasties" mounting that effort was Rescue Swimmer Rady.
I am based at CGAS Clearwater, Florida. With such an active hurricane season, the air station was in go-mode. Each HH-60 Jayhawk (Big Iron, as we affectionately call it) was prepped and at the ready. Next of kin to the Army Black Hawk, Navy Seahawk, and Air Force Pave Hawk, it has a hoist on the right side of the aircraft with the ability to lift 600 lb. and the capacity to put multiple survivors in the cabin.
For us, it’s the right tool for the job. It is like a sport utility of the helicopter world.
I got the call Monday afternoon, Aug. 29. Petty officer Steve Garcia said, "Be at the air station at 3:00 a.m. Tuesday morning, and bring enough gear for two weeks minimum." Being a rescue swimmer during hurricane season, you got used to those calls–most of us still had our bags packed from the last hurricane.
I got to the air station Tuesday morning and the hangar was alive with personnel getting the aircraft ready. The HH-60, tail number 6017, was the helo I would be flying in. We had two crews flying to Coast Guard Aviation Training Center, Mobile, Ala.
My crew consisted of Lt. Cmdr. Jess McGinnis, the pilot; Lt. Iain McConnell, the co-pilot, and Petty Officer Shawn Beaty, our flight mechanic. This air station would be one of the staging points for what turned out to be one of the largest airlift operations in history.
[Aviation Training Center Mobile was designated the Coast Guard’s primary aviation forward operating base for the Katrina relief and recovery operations. In the course of those operations, it would become effectively the largest air station in Coast Guard history, with well over 40 aircraft and a threefold increase in its normal complement of personnel. As Rady and his crew illustrate, the air station became temporary home to aircraft from nearly everywhere Coast Guard aviation operated. "Maintenance and operational crews often were made up of teams from four or five different air stations," said Capt. David Callahan, commander of the Aviation Training Center. "For example, an HH-65 crew might be made up of a pilot from ATC Mobile, a copilot from Air Station Miami, a flight mechanic from Air Station Kodiak, Alaska, and a rescue swimmer from Air Station Atlantic City, N.J." At the peak of operations, ATC Mobile was operating 19 HH-60Js and 14 HH-65B/Cs, placing them into mission cycles over in New Orleans.]
[The Aviation Training Center’s role in the operation started inauspiciously. When its personnel emerged from the base hurricane shelter, they found the operations and communications centers had been completely destroyed and part of the hangar roof had peeled back. "Deaf, dumb and blind was not the way we wanted to start the largest rescue operation in our service’s history," Callahan said. "But the mission was pretty clear to us–we needed to send aircrews into Mississippi and New Orleans, so we cracked a few chem lights, pulled together some whiteboards, set up makeshift communications and began operating. Information was coming in in fragments from New Orleans and Mississippi, but at times during the first night, the center was handling more than 500 separate reports of distress.]
Rady continues: We lifted off around 5:30 a.m. and headed northwest. Upon touching down in Mobile, that air station was abuzz. My crew and I went to get some breakfast and get our tasking for the day.
At this point, no one knew the extent of what was happening in New Orleans. Most communications were down and not much information was coming back from aircrews already involved. We received our tasking: `Go to Slidell, La. and pick up a Federal Emergency Management Agency representative and survey damage.’
We were a little disappointed, hearing some of the stories coming from aircrews about the sheer number of people who needed help. We wanted to be more involved in the rescue effort. We departed Mobile and started west toward Slidell.
I was working the radios in the back and could hear all the radio traffic coming from the High Bird (a Custom’s P-3 Orion). They were requesting any hoist-capable helicopter in the vicinity of the Pearl River Bridge for a diabetic patient needing evacuation from a vessel. That was us.
The pilot swung the helicopter to the left, and we started following the river south. Unable to locate the vessel or receive updated information (communications were sporadic and difficult) we started flying around the devastated area of Slidell. We were flagged down by a man walking down a road that had trees, parts of houses and a few boats strung along it. He pointed to a house boat that was now parked on the road and signaled with two fingers. We found a spot to land which was very tight and I ran down to the vessel to investigate.
Upon reaching the vessel, I found three people inside badly injured. We carried the most critical about a quarter of a mile down the road to the helicopter. That started one of the longest days of my career.
Over the course of that day, we rescued a total of 22 people from scenes that looked like some Hollywood movie. Never could I imagine the devastation that I saw that day and for the next five days of rescues.
The helicopter, as many saw on the television, proved to be the best asset for the job. The ability of the helicopter to access areas, drop food and water to areas that had impassable roads and to get critical patients to care facilities proved invaluable. With the help of the U.S. Coast Guard’s orange helicopters, the men and women that I serve with were proud to be there to help.