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by Larry

September, 2008

The U. S. Coast Guard's Finest Hours

Since our last issue, our nation recognized the three-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's late August, 2005, destructive Gulf Coast impact. Government reaction at all levels to that disaster has been universally considered inadequate. Indeed, it is likely the word "Katrina" will in time be generalized in our culture to mean any absolutely insufficient response to a dicey situation, as in "Boy, was that a Katrina!?"

Less well known, though, is that in the aftermath of the New Orleans flooding the United States Coast Guard (USCG) surpassed a previously superb record. In its long history, The Coast Guard has rescued over a million people, interdicted drug operations, protected our country's 96,000 miles of coast line, and stopped a multitude of illegal alien entries. But in the days and nights following the Katrina-caused breaching of New Orleans' levies, this well trained and admirably organized force mobilized with efficiency, coordinated with local authorities, kept up with sources of the latest information on victims, and repeatedly put lives on the line to pull off an almost incredible feat of rescue.

The stats speak for themselves. Beginning as soon as it was safe to fly after the hurricane's passage, and thus in the air long before other rescue efforts were starting to mobilize, the Coast Guard's Search-and-Rescue (SAR) operations:

  • Saved 24,135 people from immediate danger;

  • Evacuated another 9409 hospital patients;

  • Flew 1817 helicopter rescue missions;

  • Racked up 4291 hours of flight time;

  • Involved over 5000 personnel in Katrina-related operations, the Coast Guard members often coming from distant states, while many others, there from the local area, were losing their own homes as they continued rescue efforts;

  • And overall, in those few days single-handedly brought over half of the more than 60,000 stranded New Orleans area victims to safety (four times the number rescued in the previous entire year).

This was hazardous duty. Within hours after major flooding had begun in New Orleans, there was a breakdown of utilities, basic services, or law and order. Pilots, their crews, and swimmers ran a gauntlet of risks, including contaminated waters, power and phone lines, snipers, alligators, snakes, terrified dogs, people reluctant to wait their turn, darkness, collisions, heat, humidity, engine failure, and scared and trigger-happy security guards or vigilantes.

A flooded New Orleans highway interchange in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, 2005

Their SAR helicopters were frequently hoisting people from between buildings where landing or even getting close were impossible, and so at times were lowering cables from as high as 180 feet. Each helicopter crew would typically do 100-120 lifts a day. Shifts could be for up to 20 hours. But the machines were virtually flying around the clock.

Since the record of the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) in this same period was poor, the question arises why another government agency could handle things so well. Partly it seems to have been a matter of leadership quality. Fittingly, soon following FEMA's dismal showing before, during, and after Katrina, President George W. Bush accepted the resignation of Michael Brown as the organization's chief. Brown's duties as head of hurricane relief operations were assumed by Vice Admiral Thad W. Allen who had already so ably managed the Coast Guard efforts.

Besides the management style differences, the Coast Guard is a far smaller, nimbler body than the bureaucratic multiple-agency Department of Homeland Security (including FEMA), which now has overall responsibility for disaster relief. Like a boxer trying to do brain surgery, due to its extensive size and mission Homeland Security may have difficulty focusing in a timely, competent way on a particular set of problems requiring urgent resolution.

It helps, I think, too that the Coast Guard, though the smallest (at just over 39,000 strong) of our nation's armed services, is a military organization and trains for years to handle a wide varieties of emergencies. It is true it had never before encountered anything as staggering in scope and immediate need as the Katrina aftermath, but its capacity to respond is always revved up, unlike civilian operations that can take months to get into high gear.

The superiority of readiness to deal with a crisis extends down to the lower echelons of the Coast Guard force. Members of the service are routinely trained for skill in two or more specialties. And by long maritime tradition, whether a SAR helicopter pilot or a low ranking skipper of a small Coast Guard boat, the person in charge of that craft calls the shots, with no second guessing by others, regardless of rank. Everyone else on board answers to that individual, period.

There are many larger questions that the catastrophe raises, such as how to best deal with increased threats from hurricanes (now that Global Warming will likely assure hotter seas have the energy to generate both more powerful and more frequent storms), whether or not to rebuild in low lying areas near the coast, how much the government should step in to help when insurance companies, aware of the trend, will be reluctant to take on the increasing risks without prohibitive premiums, how much responsibility and uncompensated expense the federal government should assume when people refuse orders to evacuate, and whether it is in the national interest to restore or protect islands and wetlands, the final barriers, without which such storms as Katrina, like the massive attack of a great white on its prey, will reclaim for the sea ever widening and deepening swaths of the coast.

As we write, Galveston, TX, and several adjoining communities have been all but destroyed by Hurricane Ike. Many of their neighborhoods were in fact wiped out. Houston itself sustained a great deal of damage, though it was minor compared with New Orleans' 2005 experience. As after each hurricane, the question for individual home owners as well as mayors of devastated cities, will be whether to rebuild. For Houston, there is no question. For Galveston Island too, it seems, though one wonders if this is truly the most realistic choice and if it would be at all feasible without expensive aid from an ever accommodating federal government. As hurricanes increasingly decimate expensive populated areas along our coasts and our national coffers are becoming depleted for this and other reasons, many along the Gulf might adjust to Mother Nature's periodic batterings in a different way, evacuating permanently. These areas would make great parklands. They might then be restored to their natural states as wetlands and barrier islands, and so as more effective buffers for inland areas. However the decisions go down, for our communities at the mercy of a less than benevolent water realm, such questions will have agonizing and costly answers.

But that the United States Coast Guard proved its mettle in the Hurricane Katrina response, there is no doubt. For preparing ahead of time, stationing plentiful resources in a ring just outside the storm's fury before it even hit, then sweeping in promptly with rescue equipment, supplies, and trained personnel as the winds had died down, and for giving unstinting assistance till the job was done or could be transferred off to more land-based services, the Coast Guard received a well deserved Presidential Unit Citation. Of the many disasters with which it has had to cope, Katrina was the most dramatic and challenging, yet the USCG made it seem "all in a day's work."


Coast Guard's Response to Katrina a Silver Lining in the Storm. Stephen Barr in The Washington Post; September 6, 2005.

How the Coast Guard Gets It Right. Amanda Ripley in Time; October 23, 2005.


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