This week marks the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Coast Guard response operations in the aftermath of the storm surpassed that of any previous response with a total of 33,545 persons saved.
In this series, we will present posts from first responders as they reflect on their response to the hurricane.
As Hurricane Katrina approached Florida as a Category 1 hurricane, then AST3 Sara Faulkner was deployed with an aircrew to Air Station Jacksonville in advance of the storm.
The aircrew waited on edge watching weather reports come in, when unexpectedly, the storm changed course. The suspense was broken by a phone call, ordering the aircrew to report back to Aviation Training Center Mobile – immediately.
Flying through the tail end of the hurricane, the HH-65 Dolphin helicopter and crew flew into the harsh conditions of the storm back to their home base. Upon arrival, a fresh aircrew jumped into the helicopter and took off. Faulkner and the aircrew, weighed with anticipation, were told to get rest, as they would be deployed without delay.
She reported to the air station the next morning, before the sun was up. As missions were being flown across dozens of gulf coast towns, her first mission was over Biloxi.
Her anticipation turned instantly to shock as the aircraft took off and she saw the destruction left behind from the violent hurricane.
“You could see the devastation already,” said Faulkner. “You could see where winds had ripped the buildings completely apart. You saw buildings pulled out to sea. Mansions were gone and concrete slabs with stairs led to nothing.”
As they arrived on scene, Faulkner’s senses were heightened. Her ability to hear became critical due to distractions from the radios of at least ten helicopters flying around. Adding to the sheer volume of noise, her eyes became sharper as there was debris as far as she could see.
“There was clothing hanging in trees so you would think it was a person,” said Faulkner. “But when we would fly over it, we would just end up seeing a sweatshirt or an item of clothing, and not people.”
From the back of the helicopter, Faulkner and the flight mechanic heard a faint mumble. Looking at each other simultaneously, they knew they heard the word “mayday.”
Amongst the flooded town, a yacht had been spotted, surrounded by residential homes and debris.
There were three women aboard the yacht. After their home flooded, they swam amongst the debris looking for shelter. Two were in their 50s, and the third was the mother of the two, in her 80s. Having no familiarity with marine radios they started pressing buttons – miraculously it worked.
One of the women was rescued by the local sheriffs boat, and two were rescued by the aircrew. As the two women were hoisted into the helicopter, their struggle with the storm was evident.
“All of their wounds were already infected,” said Faulkner. “The mother was a diabetic and she was going into shock.”
As a rescue swimmer and qualified EMT, Faulkner was able to treat the women before they were flown to safety.
Five years later, as an AST2 at Air Station Clearwater, Faulkner is still able to vividly recall what that first rescue meant to her.
“I joined the Coast Guard to be a rescue swimmer and save lives and it was on such a large scale,” said Faulkner. “It was ugly at times and bad, but I was just glad to be there to help in any way I could.”
Although this first rescue stands out in Faulkner’s mind, the women Faulkner and the aircrew rescued that day were just a few of the thousands of rescues the men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard performed. To read more about the men and women who were a part of the response and recovery missions related to Katrina visit here. To hear about another rescue Faulkner was part of, click here to watch a video of her performing her first balcony rescue.