William H. Thiesen, Historian Coast Guard Atlantic Area
Hurricane Katrina began the modern era of North American superstorms as part of the record-setting 2005 Atlantic hurricane season.
The tropical depression that developed into Katrina formed over The Bahamas on Tuesday, August 23, 2005. By the weekend, evacuations were underway all along the Gulf Coast. Early in the morning on Monday, the 29th, Katrina made landfall between Grand Isle, Louisiana, and Mobile, Alabama. By that time, the hurricane had weakened from a Category 4 to a Category 3 storm on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, but it still packed sustained winds of 125 miles per hour. However, Katrina devastated parts of the Gulf Coast with a whopping storm surge of up to 27 feet above sea level, surpassing the previous record by over six feet!
The United States Coast Guard already had in place up-to-date and regularly exercised hurricane plans. For Katrina, it pre-positioned assets for a “surge operation,” a high-intensity response effort launched with maximum available resources and personnel. The Coast Guard pre-staged air assets in Texas, Florida, and North Carolina. Service experts foresaw communications as the weakest link in the initial response, so they pre-planned localized response efforts and pre-distributed self-reliant communications equipment, including the latest satellite and cell phones.
In response to the impending landfall, the Coast Guard launched what would become the largest search and rescue mission in the nation’s history. Actual operations began well before the hurricane left the Gulf Coast. The medium endurance cutter Spencer chased Katrina as it swept north and was the first Federal vessel to arrive in New Orleans. As soon as the storm passed, Spencer delivered relief supplies and, for over a week, provided communications and local coordination for evacuation and search and rescue efforts. Dozens of the service’s fixed-wing aircraft overflew the affected areas to assess damage and vector Coast Guard helicopters into the worst hit areas to find survivors and rescue victims.
To support this massive response effort, the Coast Guard drew on resources from every corner of the nation with no significant losses to its personnel, assets, operations or financial resources. Nearly 30 Coast Guard vessels would follow Spencer to support response operations. The Coast Guard also drew on 100 response aircraft, including C-130 long-range aircraft; HU-25 Falcon jets; HH-60 and HH-65 helicopters; and over a dozen Coast Guard Auxiliary aircraft. These aviation assets flew from bases as far away as Alaska to support the response effort. All of these air and sea assets focused on search and rescue, marine environmental protection, maritime commerce support and aids-to-navigation missions.
Coast Guard personnel played a major vital in ensuring a prompt and effective response effort. Early in September, Department of Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff appointed Vice Admiral Thad Allen as the Principal Federal Official to oversee the Federal response in the hurricane’s aftermath. For the duration of this operation, the service brought to bear 5,600 Regular, Reserve, civilian and Auxiliary men and women. Locally-based service personnel performed duty around the clock despite damage to their Coast Guard bases and stations, and the destruction of their own homes.
The service continued response work for well over a year. The storm had caused the release of eight million gallons of environmental contaminants into the Gulf, only three million gallons less than the massive Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. The service responded to over 4,000 pollution cases, including seven major pollution incidents, and helped re-open all of the nearly 60 refineries in the affected area. The Coast Guard repaired or replaced 1,400 damaged or missing aids-to-navigation along hundreds of miles of coastline, and coordinated the salvage of over 2,500 wrecked vessels. The service oversaw the salvage of countless offshore structures that were adrift, damaged or sunk. In addition, the service undertook a $230 million project a year after Katrina to clear storm debris between the I-10 Freeway and the Gulf of Mexico. This operation removed materials ranging from lost houses and autos to missing railroad cars.
The Coast Guard excels at missions required by storm response efforts. Of the 60,000 people stranded by Hurricane Katrina, the Coast Guard aided over half of them. The men and women of the service performed search and rescue, waterway reconstitution, environmental assessments, facility damage assessments, emergency repairs, and established temporary operational and support facilities throughout the disaster area. The service used its aviation and boat crews to rescue more than 24,000 people and assisted in the joint-agency evacuation of nearly 9,500 patients and medical personnel from healthcare facilities in the devastated areas.
Hurricane Katrina impacted 6,400 miles of shoreline and created a 90,000-square-mile swath of destruction, an area larger than the size of Great Britain. The storm displaced nearly one million Americans. Katrina also caused more than 1,800 deaths, making it one of the costliest U.S. storms in lives lost. Up to that time, in terms of property damage, it was by far the worst U.S. disaster, natural or man-made, with losses of nearly $125 billion.
In May 2006, President George W. Bush awarded the Coast Guard the Presidential Unit Citation, the highest honor bestowed to a military unit. Citing the thousands of Coast Guard men and women who served in the response effort, Present Bush described the operation as “one of the finest hours in the Coast Guard’s 216-year history.” Bush went on to say that, “When Americans were at their most desperate, they looked to the skies for help, and they knew their prayers were answered when they saw the rescue choppers from the United States Coast Guard.”
Today, the service’s response to Hurricane Katrina stands as the first and best-known of numerous superstorm response efforts undertaken by the Coast Guard over the past 15 years. Throughout the Katrina operations, men and women of the United States Coast Guard went in harm’s way to complete their mission as members of the long blue line.