Thursday, September 8, 2005

The Coast Guard faced many of the same challenges as other government agencies in responding swiftly to Hurricane Katrina — and yet it was able to outperform all of them. It too was forced to move its aircraft and vessels out of the storm’s path. Its staging station Gulfport, Mississippi, was completely destroyed by the storm. The Guard was also operating outside of its regular functions, which are to patrol waterways and assist commercial and recreational boaters in trouble — not launch search and rescue missions in flooded urban areas, with all the attendant hazards and challenges, including fallen telephone and electrical lines. Yet, the Coast Guard has rescued more than 22,000 people in the areas affected by Katrina.

Coast Guard search-and-rescue missions were deployed in New Orleans and other areas by about midday Monday, while gale force winds were still in force, buffeting helicopters and skiffs. By Tuesday, Aug. 30, the day after Katrina made landfall, the Guard had already rescued about 1,200 people stranded by high water. As captured on news footage, the Guard was able to rescue families trapped in attics by axing through rooftops. The question remains, though, just how were the crews able to find those trapped individuals?

In part, the Guard improvised. Crews would turn the motors off their skiffs and other vessels to hear if people were trapped inside their homes. Sometimes households left clues that they were trapped, by hanging items on windows. Also, the Guard had a Web site where relatives of people still in New Orleans could go to report their whereabouts.

“We’re flexible, we’ll modify and we’ll do whatever we can to help people in need,” said Lt. Rob Wyman, information officer for the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard’s relative independence may have also facilitated its agile deployments. The Coast Guard is a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, but it does not have to await orders from Washington to carry out missions. It has not suffered from low morale and early retirement of experienced personnel. Also, the Coast Guard has multiple levels of chain of command. The Guard’s eighth district commander, Adm. Robert Duncan, oversaw the post-Katrina operations on the Gulf Coast, but operational commanders have the ability to act relatively autonomously in the field. Each individual Coast Guard member is highly versatile, having been trained in a wide range of functions. The Coast Guard has 45,000 uniformed and civilian employees.

Given the Coast Guard’s institutional efficiency, Homeland Security head Michael Chertoff was wise in assigning Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, the Coast Guard’s chief of staff, to be the deputy of the embattled Michael Brown, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In that capacity, Adm. Allen on Monday took over Monday operational control of the search-and-rescue and recovery efforts along the Gulf Coast and worked with Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore to oversee and lead all military and civilian recovery efforts.

The Coast Guard is now focusing on restoring the Gulf Coast ports hit by Katrina, clearing waterways and assessing the extent of the environmental damage caused by the storm. Already, the Coast Guard has allowed tug and barge traffic to move on the Gulf Intercoastal Waterway.

For the Coast Guard, there was no quiet before the storm. Its members were busy before the storm hit preparing for deployments and have been working around the clock since. Its service in the hours after Katrina descended on New Orleans has been the one bright spot to an otherwise dismal early government response.

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