September 19, 2005
Dog of a mission
Marines’ long hours in Katrina rescue effort net few victories
By Christian Lowe
Times staff writer
NEW ORLEANS —- As the Marines motored their AAV7 Amphibious Assault Vehicle past the Best Western hotel on the corner of Read Boulevard and the Interstate 10 access road, something caught the platoon commander’s eye.
He ordered the amtrac to pull up to the roof overhanging the entrance of the hotel, wedging the vehicle’s bulky nose just underneath to hold it fast as it floated in the black floodwaters.
“Let’s go up there and check it out to see if there’s anyone else still inside,” said 1st Lt. Andy Eckert, Weapons Platoon commander with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, to the amtrackers. “I see some white flags up there.”
Eckert ambled onto the roof and up a construction ladder that had been propped against the open window of room 203, cocking his M9 pistol as he disappeared into the unlit space.
“OK, we’re going to go room-to-room to see if there’s anyone here,” Eckert told the small clutch of Marines assembled with him in a darkened hallway strewn with empty potato chip bags and soft drink cans, with the stale smell of mildew wafting through the air.
Turning toward the stairs, someone broke the purposeful silence.
“We’ve already checked this one,” said Ryan Johnson, an officer with the New Orleans Police Department who’d been assigned to go with the Marines on the Sept. 7 patrol.
Eckert ordered the search anyway. Johnson said he wasn’t sure if he’d seen the white flag hanging out a window on the fifth floor when he and his fellow police officers searched the hotel several days earlier. So better safe than sorry, Eckert thought.
After about 15 minutes of knocking on doors and jiggling handles with a stern call of: “U.S. Marines, is anybody in there?” Eckert’s leathernecks came up empty.
The Marines squirmed their way out the window amid the still-packed luggage and unmade beds of room 203 and mounted back on their amtrac. Off to another New Orleans neighborhood.
Eckert’s patrol went like so many others during the first week of the Corps’ massive relief effort in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The Marines rushed across the country on a mission to save the region’s citizens from the catastrophic destruction of one of the worst natural disasters in the nation’s history, only to find that someone else had already been there to do the work before them.
Sometimes they were asked by the police to take people out of their homes by force, while at the same time the Marines’ commanders were telling them they weren’t authorized to use force — that was local law enforcement’s job, the Marines reasoned.
The Marines motored through inundated communities, taking their amtracs — and themselves — nearly to the point of exhaustion, only to find orange spray-painted “X”s that signified houses that had already been searched by other rescue teams.
“I want to help out and all, but this is kind of a waste of time,” said Cpl. Greg Humphrey, 2nd Squad leader with Weapons Company, Bravo, 1/8. “It seems like they’ve got everybody already.”
In response to the hasty call for a federal response to the destruction and chaos Katrina left in its wake, the Corps mobilized more than 2,200 troops to assist an already bulging group of military units pitching in to restore order, pluck survivors from their besieged homes and deliver much-needed supplies to citizens of the region who’d been cut off from power and communications for days.
Dubbed “Joint Task Force Katrina,” the effort got off to a fitful start. Troops poured into the region with little guidance on what they were supposed to do, often improving as they went along.
The effort was led by the charismatic 1st Army commander, Lt. Gen. Russell Honore, whose straight talk and attack-dog manner whipped the military into frenzied action.
“General Honore put his fist on my chest and said ‘send the Marines down there,’ so we’re here,” said Maj. Gen. Douglas O’Dell, commander of the 4th Marine Division, who’s been assigned to lead all Marine forces helping in the Katrina relief mission.
Early on, detachments from 4th Assault Amphibian Battalion took the initiative to bring their specialized vehicles and skills to rescue victims in the flooded, debris-choked towns flanking the northern Gulf of Mexico coast. Just a few days after the storm, Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based logistics Marines and their gear loaded aboard Navy ships, while reservists with 4th Battalion, 14th Marines, based in Alabama, mounted onto convoys. In the air, aviators from Marine Corps Air Station New River, N.C., to Atlanta, winged in to lend a hand.
Once the Marines arrived here, they found a patchwork of command and control, confusing guidance from the top and little time to waste. So, commanders did the best they could, mapping out areas to search, drafting up missions on the fly and coming up with impromptu methods to coordinate efforts.
“I was told by General O’Dell that this is not the time for fancy operations orders,” but to get in quickly and start helping, recalled Lt. Col. Kent Ralston, inspector-instructor for the Tampa, Fla.-based 4th Tracks.
Landing zones were marked with spray paint and a radio frequency to avoid collisions. Pilots’ cell phone numbers were doled out for any request for airlifted food or medical evacuation. Infantry and amtrac commanders were given a general area to search and pored over Rand McNally maps to mark off the streets they patrolled. Marine officers canvassed the surrounding area for local police officials to help them figure out where to go, and what to do when, and if, they found someone trapped in the wreckage.
During the first two days of amphibious searches, dubbed “Task orce AAV,” fewer than 20 holdouts were found, many of whom stayed behind on their own and were forced to leave their homes by city officials. The leathernecks never had to pull anyone kicking and screaming into their amtracs; instead, they coaxed people aboard with a reminder that help would be a long time coming if they didn’t leave now.
The Marines rescued a few willing pets: cats, dogs — even parrots. But there was little reward for their daily efforts.
“Eleven hours and two dogs,” said Pfc. Maurilio Martins, a rifleman with 1st Platoon, Bravo, 1/8, after the first day of searches yielded two stranded dogs that had to be abandoned once the amtracs reached dry land.
The Marines were wrapping up search operations in New Orleans, switching their emphasis to the rural St. Bernard Parish — where some remote communities were nearly wiped off the map by wind and water — just as efforts to pump the floodwaters out of inundated New Orleans neighborhoods ramped up.
But that didn’t mean that as the Marines continued to try to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina, their frustrations would end anytime soon.
“Everybody wants a piece of the action,” said Sgt. Steve Farage, Machine Gun Section leader with Weapons Platoon, Bravo, 1/8. “What they need is someone to put their arms around the whole thing and say, ‘This is where you need to go.’ ”
Sounds to me like they did get some victories. They didn't find bodies of folks who weren't rescued in time, and they confirmed that everyone in their area that needed to get rescued, was.
Sounds like a good (if exhausting) day to me...
Well looks like the job was done.
Just because they the Marines didn't rescue any people, etc doesn't meant their mission was a failure. Their mission was search & rescue and restore order. I think their mere presence helps calm things, letting the criminal elements know, that "we're watching you."
Good job Marines HOORAH