NEW ORLEANS — With floodwaters receding, revealing damaged neighborhoods emptied of the living, the 148th Medical Company Air Ambulance of the D.C. Army National Guard has turned its helicopter flights over New Orleans into a grim search for the dead.
“I’ve seen five dead bodies,” said Sgt. Dennis Hamm, 42, one the unit’s medics. “That’s something I wish I hadn’t seen.”
When the crew spots a body, its location is plotted on a Global Positioning System (GPS) for ground forces to pick up.
The crew of five spent about seven hours yesterday hovering above submerged homes in the low-lying areas looking for bodies — while still hoping to find some signs of life.
“We look for people hanging out of eaves, anything,” said Chief Warrant Officer Ed Hadaway, 41. “For the first week, it was like the Wild West out there. We were rescuing people all over the place. Now things have slowed down a lot.”
But the crew said it’s when things seem the slowest that they pick up again.
Last week, toward the end of a two-hour mission, the crew spotted a group of eight persons stranded near the Six Flags amusement park.
“Three of them were blind, and two were in a wheelchair,” said Chief Warrant Officer Chris Rindal, 34. “They were elderly. … We got them.”
Even from high above the city, the stench of the sometimes pea-green, sometimes blackish-green toxic soup is nauseating. Although the water has gone down several feet in some areas, other parts still are submerged to the roofs.
“You can see where the people were by the holes in the roofs,” said Sgt. Richard Sellner, 43, the mission’s crew chief. “There’s one spot where someone put a giant ‘Help’ on their roof. They must’ve been really desperate.”
In neighborhoods where the rescue teams have done preliminary searches, houses are marked with a half “X” and the date the search was conducted. Later, said Sgt. Sellner, a second group will do a more thorough search and mark the second half of the “X,” the date, what the search team found and any hazards inside, such as rats or gas leaks.
From above the city, the poor neighborhoods under water can be distinguished from the wealthy areas, also under water, by the way the houses have held together.
In some dried-out areas, all that is left of homes are pieces of wood, scattered like toothpicks on the ground.
“When you look at the city, you think, ‘Oh, my gosh, what were they thinking by living here?’ It’s like a giant bowl,” said Officer Hadaway, the helicopter pilot.
On recent flights, the team has spent more time trying to feed and rescue abandoned animals.
“There’s another one down there, a pit-bull-type fella,” said Sgt. Sellner as the helicopter hovered above a white-and-tan dog pacing on a driveway surrounded by the toxic water. Another dog, dead, lay in the sun on the pavement just behind him.
Hoping to feed the dog, Sgt. Sellner opened a beef-and-mushroom meal ready to eat meant for soldiers, and tossed it out of the helicopter. It fluttered down and landed in the surrounding water.
“Well, he’ll smell it, I hope,” said Officer Hadaway. “He’s probably not going to make it, either. I doubt he’ll ever get out.”
Chief Warrant Officer Dan Moore, 42, the mission’s co-pilot, acknowledged that the crew’s main mission is to help people.
“But if you can help a dog, why not?” Officer Moore asked. “It doesn’t take much time.”
Almost two weeks since Hurricane Katrina blew through the region, the crew members are still awestruck by the destruction that surrounds New Orleans.
Water encircles buildings as far as the eye can see. Spending hour upon hour scanning the water, the helicopter crew wonders if New Orleans ever can be restored.
“It’s unbelievable. When we came in … you could smell the stench from 20 miles away, and as you got closer, you could see the fires from the gas leaks,” Sgt. Sellner said.
Officer Hadaway said what the crew sees is surprising.
“There are a whole bunch of critters out there that need help,” Officer Hadaway said. “The other day there was a horse there in the middle of the city, just eating grass. It was the oddest thing.”
The 148th Medical Company has 10 pilots, seven crew chiefs and two medics. The company runs at least two search-and-rescue missions daily out of Naval Air Station Belle Chase, where they are stationed with much of the National Guard force.
The company left for the disaster area Sept. 5 and ran rescue missions for two days while stationed in Baton Rouge before moving on to Belle Chase.