Reflections on Katrina – Critical Incident Stress Management

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This past weekend, the nation marked the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in New Orleans. For the people of the Gulf, the men and women of the Coast Guard and the millions tracking the storm, landfall was only the beginning of what would become a major rescue and recovery effort.

This is the last post of our four part series titled, “Reflections on Katrina.”

AMT2 Martinez takes an in-flight break
AMT2 Miguel Martinez catches a much-needed in-flight break in the skies over Louisiana. Approximately one-third of the Coast Guard’s entire air fleet was deployed to the region to support rescue operations in the immediate aftermath of the storm. U.S. Coast Guard photo by PA1 Luke Pinneo.

Sometimes, even the rescuer needs rescuing.

An indelible mark was placed on the collective consciousness of our service five years ago when thousands of Coast Guard men and women rushed from all corners of the country to aid the citizens of the Gulf region. Hundreds of Coast Guard rescuers who called the Gulf community their home sent their families away with other evacuees and ignored personal loss while they remained to carry out their duties.

Approximately 5,600 Coast Guard members responded after Hurricane Katrina and shared in the heartache, images, pain and spirit that filled the days, weeks and months to follow. With every rescue and valiant action, a responder had the potential to be exposed to a breadth of traumatic and sometimes hard to cope with situations.

Responders to Hurricane Katrina were supported by trained Coast Guard Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) “Peers.” CISM is intended to help individuals exposed to critical incidents identify and cope with their responses. “On-scene” CISM support is meant as a brief, practical crisis intervention designed to limit the level of distress members’ encounter.

“Our mission in CISM is to keep our shipmates healthy and productively balanced in work and life,” said LCDR Patrick Culver, a CISM Peer who volunteered to deploy after Hurricane Katrina made landfall.

Culver used his decades of operational experience paired with his emergency management and stress training to ensure responders took care of themselves after taking care of others.

DART approaches a flooded house
Members of a Coast Guard Disaster Area Response Team approach a house in a flooded area in southeastern Louisiana. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

LCDR John Branch, an experienced Coast Guard pilot, was one of the aviation CISM Peers who spent a lot of his time speaking to Coast Guard flight crews.

“What surprised me most was the breadth of issues that faced our aircrews,” said Branch. “The flight mechanics were the [ones] signaling to those left behind that they would return, a heart-wrenching responsibility in the face of disappointed survivors.”

Branch also described situations where the aircraft commander, restricted by the capacity of the aircraft, had to choose whom would be rescued from the thousands in need.

“We are not programmed to pass people in need. To always wonder if they made it,” he said.

CWO Ty Farrell, an advanced CISM Peer, worked with first responders and boat crews who had the daunting responsibility of going from house to house, door to door, looking for survivors.

“I fully support and believe in the CISM process,” he said. “People should think of it as a mental checkup and conditioning for themselves and for their shipmates.”

Culver, Branch and Farrell are just three of the many Coast Guard CISM team members who helped responders cope with what they saw and experienced post Hurricane Katrina. Today, the Coast Guard continues to train, respond and constantly adapt so we can be ready for the next response wherever and whenever that may be.

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