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From New England to New Orleans

Two Coast Guardsmen recall the people, sights and smells of the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina

Two Coast Guardsmen recall the people, sights and smells of the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina

On Aug. 29, the day Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Louisiana coast south of New Orleans, the Coast Guard requested that officers from stations across the country volunteer to go to the Gulf Coast to support what would become a historic search-and-rescue operation.

In New England 16 service members from nine stations volunteered. Among them were Second Class Boatswain’s Mate Ron Ross of Station New London, Conn., and Third Class Machinery Technician Mike Catelli, also of New London. When Ross and Catelli arrived in New Orleans on Sept. 1, at Algiers Point across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter, they described what they found as “total devastation.”

“During the day it stunk — all the time,” Ross, who is 33 and from Plantation, Fla., explains. “Fires were burning constantly. It stunk like feces, like garbage. At night, you’d see the entire city but it was dark. You’d see a skyline, but it was completely dark.”

During their first four days in New Orleans, Ross and Catelli served at a ferry station moving evacuees from boats to buses and helicopters to transport them to the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. “Ferry operators, out of the kindness of their hearts, were bringing stranded people to us,” says 21-year-old Catelli, who is from Cranston, R.I. “We’d get them off the ferries, process them and give them food and water. At times, some sat there for five or six hours waiting for transport to the airport. A lot of EMTs were around giving help.”

Things became more complicated the second day, Ross says, when the ferries stopped running. “The ferries just stopped. I don’t know why,” says Ross. “So we picked up where they left off. We had to. We went out on the water like, ‘Go out on your boat and just find people.’ That’s what we did.”

Ross served as coxswain on a 41-foot Coast Guard utility boat that patrolled the waters near Algiers Point and helped rescue some 80 stranded people, he says. In total, about 7,000 people passed through Algiers Point while Ross and Catelli were there.

“Obviously these people were devastated but, surprisingly, most were in good spirits,” explains Ross. “It was contrary to what you might have seen on the news. Some of them hadn’t had food for days. It was hot. Most people only had a couple bags or their animals. It’s all they had left. Despite all that, most people were very helpful, and thankful.”

For Ross, the most memorable moment was assisting a 92-year-old woman with a chihuahua in getting to the airport. “This lady wasn’t going anywhere without her little dog, and I tried putting her on a number of buses but no one would take her,” Ross explains. “The buses were either too full or the drivers wouldn’t take pets. One driver absolutely wouldn’t take her. He started screaming at me. So I said, ‘To hell with it,’ and walked them down to a helicopter. She was so happy that I’d done all that she wouldn’t go without giving me a kiss goodbye.

“I don’t know how much time she has left down on this earth but she has it to spend with her dog,” Ross continues. “I’ll never forget her. Never ever.”

After four days at Algiers Point, Ross and Catelli were sent to Coast Guard Station New Orleans where they helped clean up. The station, located on Lake Pontchartrain, was “hit pretty bad,” and had been under 4 feet of water and was cluttered with debris, Ross says. Four days later, Ross and Catelli were sent to nearby Coast Guard cutter, Harriet Lane, where they helped escort boats and fuel vessels along the river.

On Sept. 17 — 17 days after first arriving in New Orleans — Ross and Catelli were notified that they would be returning to Connecticut.

“The first thing we did when we found out was go to the guy in charge and ask him if he needed anything else,” Ross says. “We wanted to make sure that before we got on a plane they weren’t going to need anything.”

Looking back, Ross and Catelli say they’re glad they volunteered to go to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

“In the Coast Guard, you’re always in situations like that,” Catelli says. “You do the job however big or small it may be. I would have been glad to stay and keep helping out if I could.”