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.
A master cutterman… more than 23 years of Coast Guard sea service… 25 years on active duty… but nothing could prepare him for what he saw and experienced after Hurricane Katrina.
Lieutenant Robert “Dave” Lewald, currently the commanding officer of CGC James Rankin homeported in Baltimore, Md., admits his life was forever changed after the legendary storm struck the Gulf Coast in August 2005.
Not only was he a first responder, he was also a resident of New Orleans. His house was damaged, making the list of “blue roofs” lining the streets, and his family was sent away with other evacuees. He had to put aside his personal loss and focus on his duties.
Then Chief Warrant Officer Lewald was the commanding officer of the 160-foot construction tender CGC Pamlico homeported in New Orleans. He knew his crew and boat would play a critical role in post hurricane response.
Responding post storm
After evacuating the boat and crew for safety, Lewald immediately returned to New Orleans with a small fleet of vessels. His task direction was simple – head down river and see what you can do to help. It’s what he summarized as “finding a mission of opportunity.”
“The farther down river we got, the worse things were,” he said. “Barges up on the banks and ships up on the levees.”
Soon after arriving down river, Lewald began getting calls for help – first transporting more than 100 people away from rising flood waters to ultimately rescuing a total of about 7,000 people in just over five days. Using Algiers ferry landing as a make shift evacuation center, he coordinated medical personnel, helicopters and buses to triage and relocate people rescued by his crews.
Safety was a priority but ingenuity and quick thinking was a necessity. Picking up and moving thousands of people on the water required Lewald and his crews to solve problems on the fly.
“All I know is that every one of the sailors that was with me saw what needed to be done and just did it,” he said. “I told the guys before the fleet disbanded in Algiers – make sure you remember this, make sure you remember what you did. Keep those mental pictures because it will stay with you for your life.”
Restoring the waterway
After an week of incredible rescues, confrontational law enforcement and safety issues and handling emotional trauma of survivors and crewmembers, Lewald knew there was more work to be done. As the commanding officer of a construction tender, Lewald had to quickly switch gears and turn his attention to restoring the river to shipping traffic.
The Gulf Coast region is one of the most important maritime areas in the country and the hurricane’s destruction proved to have global economic implications. With more than 1,900 (80 percent) of the aids to navigation below New Orleans gone or severely destroyed and hundreds of barges, fishing vessels, and other debris blocking safe navigation, Lewald had a monumental responsibility ahead of him.
“The task was obviously daunting,” said Lewald. “We knew from pre-existing plans what aids to do first. From there, we just fell into work, triaging the work to decide priorities.”
Staging out of the destroyed Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Station in Venice, La., the Pamlico crew worked almost around the clock to reopen the river. They were able to restore the river and open it to 24 hour traffic without restrictions in just two weeks – much faster than any predicted expectations.
Although the river was now open and maritime traffic began to flow, Lewald and his crew still had even more work ahead of them. Not only to continue to restore the Gulf Coast region but also to restore their homes and lives. Five years later, Hurricane Katrina is still a time in Lewald’s life he cannot talk about with ease. It will forever remain in his heart and mind both personally and professionally.