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Grace under pressure

Grace under pressure

When everything was seemingly going to hell in a handbasket in New Orleans following the withering blow of Hurricane Katrina, one bright spot emerged. Day after day, around the clock, the Coast Guard went about its business in the cool, competent, professional manner that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing them operate — whether it’s plucking a sailor off a foundering sloop in the Gulf Stream or hoisting a terrified family off the roof of their flooded home.

In New Orleans and along the shattered coasts of Mississippi and Alabama, the Coast Guard saved more than 24,000 people. Its aircraft flew nearly 6,000 sorties and boat crews more than 12,300, making it one of the largest search-and-rescue missions in the agency’s history — rivaled only by the Mariel Boatlift from Cuba in 1980, and the Cuban and Haitian migrant interdiction operations of 1994.

“In terms of aerial rescues, this was historic,” says Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Buddy Dye, a 23-year veteran. “There has never been anything bigger in Coast Guard history. Nowhere near it. At one point we had something like 40 percent of the entire Coast Guard air fleet assigned to the area.” Air crews came from as far away as Alaska.

Deservedly, the Coast Guard got high marks for the way it handled what has become the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. There was no hesitation in its response, and certainly no confusion about the mission or the execution. As soon as the storm winds abated sufficiently, Coast Guard helicopter crews flew into the devastated areas and began hoisting the shocked and bewildered to safety.

“There was no ‘asking for permission,’” says Dye, explaining that pilots and coxswains are well aware of the conditions in which they’re allowed to operate. “It’s just ‘go.’ We just had so many people who needed help.”

Under difficult, trying and often dangerous conditions, the Coast Guard demonstrated it had the leadership, people and skills to get the job done. For that, we owe them our gratitude.

When embattled FEMA director Michael Brown resigned two weeks after Katrina stormed ashore, the secretary of homeland security appointed a no-nonsense Coast Guard veteran with plenty of experience in crisis situations to head up relief operations. Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, the Coast Guard chief of staff and third in command at the agency, was made special deputy for hurricane recovery.

Allen has been described as everything from an organized team player to a “rock,” unflappable, capable, tested and hard-working. One agency spokeswoman wondered if he ever slept. In his more than 35 years with the Coast Guard, 56-year-old Allen’s responsibilities have ranged from search-and-rescue and drug interdiction to protecting ports and coastlines from terrorism. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Allen was in charge of the Coast Guard response along the entire Atlantic seaboard.

Why was the Coast Guard able to perform so well after Katrina when others stumbled?

For one thing, that can-do spirit that was so clearly evident following Katrina is something that’s ingrained in the marrow of the organization. And the Coast Guard plays it smart and safe when it comes to an old nemesis like hurricanes. They know from experience that the best course of action when a tropical storm threatens is to evacuate its stations, moving boats, aircraft and people out of harm’s way. That way, as soon as the hurricane passes, they can move back in behind the storm and get down to the business of saving lives. With Hurricane Katrina bearing down on the Gulf, the Coast Guard wisely evacuated its regional command center from soon-to-be-flooded New Orleans to St. Louis where it could function much more effectively.

And compared with other federal agencies the Coast Guard is relatively small, nimble, and believes in giving local commanders a good deal of autonomy to make decisions. “We give you a long leash and a lot of responsibility,” says Dye. “We’re a response organization. An emergency happens, and we respond.”

The Coast Guard also adjusts quickly to the unpredictable. The flooding of New Orleans and the large number of people stranded on rooftops and second- and third-story patios created a host of rescue scenarios outside the norm. Lt. Russell Hall, who flew an HH-65 Dolphin helicopter for four days in New Orleans, told me that one of the biggest challenges was working the rescue basket around power lines, tree limbs, and into extremely tight places. “Threading the needle,” he called it.

Rescue crews quickly adopted “non-standard” equipment, such as long-handled axes for chopping through roofs, and elbow and knee pads.

“Every mission, every sortie, every flight that went out, there was some sort of improvising that had to happen,” Hall says.

But there was never any confusion about the No. 1 priority. “The mission was clearly defined,” says Hall. “We needed to save as many people as we could.”

And the Coast Guard accomplished that with a refreshing modesty that is so unusual today. “We just call it part of the job,” says Hall.