Guard reflects on massive response to Katrina

By Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy and Tech. Sgt. John Orrel, National Guard BureauSeptember 1, 2015

Guard reflects on massive response to Katrina
1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Taking a break from sorting through the damage left by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Stacey Besselman stands on the front porch of her Jackson Barracks home, Oct. 1, 2005. Besselman's home was one of many buildings on Jackson Barracks. Besselman's hus... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Guard reflects on massive response to Katrina
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

ARLINGTON, Va. (Aug. 28, 2015) -- When Hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in August 2005, Stacey Besselman - the spouse of a Soldier assigned to the Louisiana Army National Guard's 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team - rode out the storm at the home of relatives.

The pounding wind and rain of the storm itself wasn't the most agonizing part for Besselman. That came later, when she and her Family returned to their home on Jackson Barracks in New Orleans.

"The worst part was actually moving through the parishes to get here and seeing the devastation and fearing the worst," she said.

The home survived the storm and the subsequent flooding, though after being inundated with 15 feet of water things would never be the same for the Besselmans.

"Right now, it's mostly just going through what's here in the house and seeing what can be saved, which isn't much," she said in 2005, while sorting through the silt-covered first floor of her home, a ring of dirt on the walls marking the high point of the water.

Besselman and her Family were among the millions affected by Hurricane Katrina, which 10 years ago slammed into the Gulf Coast, leaving a lasting mark on both the people of the area and the landscape itself. Many of those marks can still be felt a decade later.

The immediate aftermath of the storm, however, triggered what many officials say was the largest rescue and relief effort by the National Guard in response to a natural disaster. For many, the Guard response - which included more than 50,000 Guard members from every state, territory and the District of Columbia - has been described as the Guard's "finest hour."

"By any measure, it was the fastest, most massive military response to any natural disaster that has ever happened," said retired Army Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, who as the chief of the National Guard Bureau when Katrina struck, oversaw the Guard response. "Our response was the epitome of what the National Guard is and why it is a national treasure."

The storm emerged in the Caribbean as a tropical depression, Aug. 23, and quickly grew to hurricane strength. While the hurricane churned its way across the Gulf of Mexico, roughly 3,000 Soldiers and airmen of the Louisiana National Guard began preparing for its landfall, said retired Army Maj. Gen. Bennett Landreneau, the adjutant general of the Louisiana Guard at the time.

Equipment and supplies were readied. Vehicles and aircraft were staged in armories and other nearby locations and Guard members prepared for the worst. They finished their prep and went to sleep the night before the storm hit, and many awoke to discover the effects were more than they could imagine.

"The storm was coming in that night and we went to bed and we knew it could be bad, but, who knew how bad," asked Chief Warrant Officer Kevin Dares, the current command chief warrant officer of the Louisiana Army Guard, who played a role in the helicopter response after the storm hit.

On the morning of Aug. 29, Katrina made landfall near Buras-Triumph, Louisiana, pummeling the coast with 125 mph winds. It skipped across Breton Sound, which separates outlying coastal areas of the state with the mainland, before making landfall again near the Louisiana-Mississippi border. The storm lost hurricane strength 150 miles inland and its effects were felt as far away as eastern Canada.

As the storm passed, Guard members in Louisiana and throughout the Gulf Coast began to respond.

"I got a call from one of our pilots saying 'hey, they want us to launch' [to fly rescue missions]," Dares said. "The winds were still strong, but they were really right at the limit of when we could safely fly."

The storm had caused flooding and other destruction, but there was more to come.

"The worst of the hurricane had passed," Landreneau said. "The sun was coming out and then the levees broke."

Water levels in the city would continue to rise over the next four days ending with roughly 80 percent of the city flooded, including Jackson Barracks, located near the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the worst-hit parts of the city.

"The storm surge broke through the levee system in the Industrial Canal and Jackson Barracks was underwater," said Army Brig. Gen. Barry Keeling, the current director of the joint staff with the Louisiana Guard. "Within about a half an hour we had about 10- or 12-feet of water on the parade field."

Jackson Barracks was where many boats and other pieces of rescue equipment had been staged and was home to the Louisiana Guard's Joint Operations Center.

"When it actually came through ... we were watching the water come up," said Army Capt. Lydia Jensen, a Louisiana Guard member, who was working in the operations center that day, during a 2011 interview. "We had lost all power. We lost all communication ... so we were just waiting for it to end so we could evacuate."

The aftermath in Mississippi was just as devastating.

"Everything was a slab," Army Maj. Scott Lippiat said in 2011. "The only thing you saw on the coastline of [Interstate] 90 were slabs and steps. I have been to combat. I've seen stuff in Iraq, but this was totally different from what you experience because of the total destruction."

Despite those setbacks, the Guard response was near immediate. Blum said he knew he couldn't wait for higher command, so he moved forward.

"We didn't ask for permission, we didn't wait for orders," he said. Within 96 hours of Katrina's destruction, an additional 30,000 troops were sent to New Orleans, where they assisted in search and rescue, medical treatment, evacuation and security. Others made their way to assist in Mississippi and Alabama.

"We rescued some 30,000 people and these were first-time rescues," said Landreneau of the initial response to the hurricane by Louisiana Guard members. "And we rescued another 29,000 that had been placed on high ground that we then moved again to a better location."

For many members of the Louisiana Guard, it was a difficult situation, including troops from the 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team - like Besselman's husband - who had returned from a yearlong deployment to Iraq just days before Katrina made landfall.

"It was a tough time, I think, for all Soldiers in Louisiana, but especially for those who lived and worked in the New Orleans area," said Army Brig. Gen. Joanna Sheridan, the current assistant adjutant general for Army with the Louisiana Guard. "Not only were they responding to an emergency, they also had been affected by the emergency."

The Guard response to the disaster was multi-faceted.

"We were not only tasked with search and rescue but there were citizens in the city of New Orleans that chose to stay and they had no water; they had no food," said Army Maj. Gen. Myles Deering, who commanded Task Force Orleans, which coordinated much of the response efforts in New Orleans. "In the execution of our other duties, we delivered water to those citizens who chose to stay and ensured their security in the area too."

That included in and around the Superdome, New Orleans' football stadium, which became an overcrowded shelter from the storm.

"We were running search and rescue operations out of the Superdome," Keeling said. "Within the first three days we picked up about 10,000 citizens that needed rescuing."

Heavily damaged, the Superdome needed to be evacuated soon after the storm. "It was hot. It was stressful, it was nasty," Keeling said. "It was probably one of the worst environments I've ever been in, but it was not unlawful."

Guard members provided security at other locations throughout the city as well.

"The Guard did, what the Guard does best," Blum said. "It answered the call; it saw the need; it prepared so that when it was needed, it was ready and it was there."

As troops from other states flooded into the area, they worked to distribute food, ice and water as well as plug broken levies, prevent looting and search through thousands of damaged and destroyed buildings.

"In some cases, we were removing homes from streets so emergency crews could get back in there and make assessments," said Army Lt. Col. Mark Turner of the Louisiana Army Guard.

For Turner, one of the items he remembers most vividly is the number of Guard troops that responded.

"Watching the vehicles come down, that's probably the biggest thing," he said. "Seeing the hundreds of Humvees that were coming down into [the area] to try and get ready for [the response]."

Guard members continued on duty along the Gulf Coast well into October running relief operations.

While overall response operations wound down after a few months, members of Task Force Gator continued on duty for more than three years providing law enforcement support in New Orleans while the New Orleans Police Department worked to recruit new officers and rebuild the department.

Other rebuilding needed to be done as well. Jackson Barracks, the historic installation that was home to a number of Louisiana Guard units, stood heavily damaged.

There were two schools of thought on Jackson Barracks, said Army Col. Daniel Bordelon of the Louisiana Army Guard. The first was said to be rebuilt while the second was said to find a new home.

"The secretary of the Army came down and said we're going to rebuild here," Bordelon said. "So, we have to find a way to rebuild so that if any hurricanes or flooding came again we wouldn't be as affected."

Major changes included splitting up the Joint Force Headquarters in two locations.

"It seemed smart to not have all our eggs in one basket," Bordelon said. "We rebuilt half the Joint Force Headquarters here [at Jackson Barracks] and half in Alexandria."

Some buildings on Jackson Barracks were beyond repair and torn down, including the Besselman's home, and new construction mimicked the classic architecture of the post.

"You could build it back very contemporary, very modern looking buildings, but it didn't really make sense when you look at the beauty of the historic area of Jackson Barracks," said Bordelon, adding that air operations facilities that once stood on Lake Pontchartrain were rebuilt in other areas away from potential flood areas.

The storm also brought out other lessons.

"Katrina taught us a lot about how we were organized, or, probably, how we were not organized," said Army Maj. Gen. Glenn Curtis, current adjutant general of the Louisiana Guard.

Changes have been made to address those issues, Curtis said, and other efforts have been made to ensure greater communication ability across not only Guard elements, but also with other civilian agencies that may respond.

Looking back a decade since the storm, many take great pride in the Guard's response.

"They were heroes," Landreneau said.

Blum said he has especially strong feelings about the Guard's response.

"If I sound a little proud about the Guard, I am," he said. "I couldn't be more proud."

Related Links:

Army News Service

Engineers take protecting New Orleans personally

Soldiers remember Hurricane Katrina on 10th anniversary Humanitarian Relief - Hurricanes Human Interest News

National Guard Katrina site