- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Coast Guard has rescued hundreds of Hurricane Katrina victims and is working round-the-clock to reach thousands more, despite the destruction of its own bases in flood-ravaged Mississippi and Louisiana.

“Some of our own people are missing,” said Rear Adm. Robert Duncan, Coast Guard incident commander.

About 4,000 Coast Guardsmen are helping with relief efforts. Adm. Duncan yesterday noted the destruction and challenges faced by the 8th District Coast Guard, but said, “We will be here helping these communities as long as it takes.”

With only a skeletal fleet of 25 rescue helicopters based in Louisiana and Alabama, three-man crews, including rescue swimmers, are flying nonstop and have rescued more than 1,250 victims in the flood-swollen region.

The highly trained swimmers are using axes to break through roofs before pulling soaking wet victims to safety, who are then airlifted to hospitals for medical care or to the closest dry patch of land.

“Unfortunately, in a situation like this, you’re seeing the Coast Guard do what it does best — saving lives,” Petty Officer 3rd Class Larry Chambers said. “The importance of life is job one for us.

“When they see the orange and white bird and those guys in orange uniforms coming down for them, they feel a lot better,” Petty Officer Chambers said.

But every mission, including rushing pregnant women to hospitals, inevitably bypasses others in need.

“Every time they fly over, they see hundreds, if not thousands of people who need to be rescued,” Petty Officer Chambers said.

The Coast Guard’s disaster-assistance team and small boats evacuated to Baton Rouge during the hurricane are assisting in the rescues. Nationwide, the Coast Guard Auxiliary has been activated, and thousands are getting the required typhus, tetanus and hepatitis A and B shots.

The Coast Guard also has activated three national strike teams to help remove hazardous materials.

However, Commodore Jim Vass of the 8th Coast Guard Auxiliary District, says the disaster area is too unstable to deploy forces brought in from across the nation.

“There is no gasoline, communications are limited at best, no place to bed and feed our members and a lack of sanitation,” Commodore Vass said.

The Coast Guard is one of the oldest federal agencies, dating to the 1700s, and was folded into the new Homeland Security Department with an expanded mission from search and rescue to protecting the shores against terrorist attacks.

“The Coast Guard has worked heroically for the last 48 hours, rescuing or assisting well more than 1,000 people who were in distress and held high and dry above the flood waters,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said. “I want to commend their efforts and their willingness to put their lives in danger to help others.”

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