With contributions from Lt. Chuck Arena.
It was seven years to the day that Hurricane Katrina’s Category 5-strength devastated the Gulf Coast that Hurricane Isaac made landfall in Louisiana. Isaac was a Category 1 hurricane when it made landfall in the region, but showed just how devastating a storm can be, regardless of strength or size.
With the threat of destruction looming every hurricane season, complacency is a responder’s worst enemy and aircrews work year-round to ensure they are ready to support their nation and community in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Altogether the preparedness and teamwork at the region’s four air stations paid huge dividends post-Isaac in the form of 28 lives saved and 54 assisted.
In advance of the storm, both man and machine were moved to areas outside the storm’s projected path. At Air Station New Orleans, two helicopters and a maintenance team were dispatched to Houston. Their mission was to wait out the storm and follow in its wake. Other air stations gathered supplies and equipment, with many crewmembers staying multiple nights at the air station to be ready as soon as they got the “all clear.”
Preparations also took place in the hangar bay. Leading up to any storm, planes and helicopters undergo exhaustive maintenance. When Isaac hit the region, the mechanics and engineers knew it was their job to have each aircraft ready to launch.
“You need to have all aircraft available and ready to go because after the storm passes we are one of the only aircraft allowed to fly in the area,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Kevin Cheatum, an aviation maintenance technician. “It is extremely important for us to get in the air and fly in order to assess damage and provide help to the affected people and communities as soon as possible.”
Preparing days in advance was also important as it allowed each member of the crew to minimize distractions and focus on the mission at hand – saving lives.
“Moving ahead of the storm allows us, as Coast Guard members, to focus on executing search and rescue unimpeded while maximizing available resources,” said Lt. Craig Johnston, a pilot at New Orleans.
Once Isaac made impact, it was “all hands on deck” as reports come in for those who were in need. There were a total of 20 Coast Guard assets flying the skies post-Isaac, including aircraft from Air Station New Orleans, Aviation Training Center Mobile, Air Station Houston, Air Station Clearwater and from the Coast Guard Auxiliary. In just six days, they flew a collective 325 hours.
“Hurricane Isaac was not much different from other hurricanes in the sense that the day-to-day schedule and operations are constantly changing because of the amount of damage a hurricane causes,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Dennis Slavinski, an avionics electrical technician. “You just have to remain flexible with the maintenance and flights each day.”
Over the course of their post-hurricane operations, aircrews tackled every mission they were given, whether it was rescuing a family or airlifting residents out of a flooded community. Days after the storm passed, crews even had to respond to a boat collision on the Mississippi River. A total of 19 people were involved, 13 of which needed medical attention, but ambulances were unable to reach the survivors because local roads were flooded. Coast Guard aircrews transported all 13 in what was the Coast Guard’s largest mass casualty operation in the region since 2010.
It took the efforts of 200 Coast Guard men and women – 120 at Air Station New Orleans alone – working together. But they were also joined by numerous agencies including the National Guard, local police and EMTs.
“In particular, on one of our medevac cases, the National Guard helped coordinate a confined area landing by providing personnel on the ground to keep the helicopter clear of trees and power lines,” said Lt. j.g. Bryan Conrad, a pilot at New Orleans. “In addition, they assisted in triaging the patient and bringing him aboard the helicopter. This allowed us to expeditiously get the patient to a higher level of care.”
Storms are a common occurrence in the Gulf, and Coast Guard crews must never let their guard down. The men and women at Air Station New Orleans, joined by first responders across the region, highlighted the importance of preparing before a storm; each step of the way – whether it was in preparing, response or recovery – the crews were Always Ready, Semper Paratus.