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NOPD versus Hurricane Katrina

Written by Charles Hustmyre

New Orleans Police Officer Chris Abbot crawled into his attic to escape the fast-rising flood. But the water kept coming. The water climbed the walls until it reached the ceiling and then flowed into the attic. Abbot used his police radio to call for help. Outside, the hurricane raged. Throughout the city, police officers were pinned down by the wind and cut off by the storm surge. No one could get to Abbot.

When the water threatened to drown him in his own attic, Abbot used his service pistol to blast holes in the roof, then he kicked his way out. After fellow officers reached him by boat and pulled him from his rooftop, Abbot reloaded his pistol and went to work. More than a month would pass before he would get a day off.

Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans on Monday, Aug. 29, 2005. It is a day New Orleans police officers will never forget. The storm devastated their city and nearly destroyed their department. The days that followed tested the New Orleans Police Department like no other law enforcement agency has ever been tested.

Yet, despite the tremendous personal losses that most of the officers suffered—their families scattered, their homes under water, their possessions destroyed—the vast majority of them stayed on the line, day after day, with no sleep, no food, no communication. They stayed true to their mission: To protect and to serve.

Desperate Times

The day before the hurricane hit, Lieutenant Dwayne Scheuermann, assistant commander of the New Orleans Police Department’s SWAT team, brought his own 18-foot flatboat to work with him. He knew he was going to need it. His brother Darryl, a former sheriff’s deputy who recently joined the NOPD, brought another personally owned boat with him. They rode the storm out at the sports arena next to the Superdome.

When the wind dropped to 30 or 40 miles per hour, Scheuermann and his brother, along with a handful of SWAT officers, climbed into a couple of trucks and pulled the two boats through a tangle of fallen power lines and uprooted trees until they reached the part of the city known as the Lower 9th Ward. Everything there was under water.

The officers launched their boats, and for the next 14 hours, they plucked hundreds of stranded residents from the tops of houses and pulled them through holes they cut through roofs. By Tuesday—the day after the storm—several floodwalls had collapsed and most of New Orleans was under water.

Scheuermann and his team went to the sprawling Calliope housing project, where they found the first floor apartments filled with water. “There were literally hundreds and hundreds of people hanging out their windows screaming for us to start picking them up,” Scheuermann said. The SWAT officers spotted a group of panicked residents huddled inside a leaking fiberglass boat. As Scheuermann tried to tow them to safety, the leaking boat capsized. Men, women, and children tumbled into the water.

One of those who went under was an infant strapped into a baby carrier. Scheuermann and two other officers jumped into the putrid water. When Scheuermann finally located the baby carrier and dragged the infant up to the surface, he could detect no signs of life.

Scheuermann and a local resident carried the baby to one of the boats and handed it up to a SWAT officer. The officer started CPR. The infant’s vital signs returned. The officers rushed the baby to a National Guard medical station set up at the nearby Superdome.

Vice and narcotics commander, Captain Tim Bayard was also pressed into service running boat rescue operations. His team used police boats, borrowed boats, even commandeered boats. Bayard described what he saw after the hurricane passed: “It was just water. That’s all you saw. Water and people, people begging for help, guys floating around on mattresses.”

Bayard’s improvised boat crews, composed mainly of narcotics and vice detectives, worked around the clock for days on end. On each trip into the city’s flooded neighborhoods, terrified residents jammed into the boats, sometimes threatening to swamp them. “I can’t believe they were even floating,” Bayard said. “I think we broke every Coast Guard rule they had. But the people were scared. They wanted to get out. We had to do what we had to do.”

The Axe-man Cometh

The day before Katrina hit, Sergeant Danny Scanlan brought an axe to work. “I knew there were going to be people in those attics,” he said. He thought he might need the axe to chop through the roofs of houses to reach trapped residents. Scanlan is the commander of the New Orleans Police Department’s 1st District narcotics unit.

Scanlan grew up hearing stories from his father about Hurricane Betsy, which slammed into New Orleans in 1965, flooding the city and taking dozens of lives. “He told me how people died because they retreated to their attic and didn’t have an axe,” Scanlan said.

After the storm, Scanlan and a couple of other officers borrowed a policeman’s 19-foot fishing boat and motored into the area near the University of New Orleans. “There were people everywhere,” Scanlan said, “on their rooftops, inside their houses in waist-deep water.”

As the officers approached a man stranded on his roof, he waved them off. “Go get them first,” the man shouted as he motioned to the roof of a neighbor’s house. Scanlan and the other officers looked to where the man pointed, their eyes drawn to an attic vent near the peak of the roof. Something was moving. “All we saw was a stick and a handkerchief,” Scanlan said.

Inside the house, a female college student had knocked a hole in the ceiling and climbed into the attic to signal for help while her parents and grandmother stood on the kitchen table and tried to stay above the rising water.

Scanlan climbed on top of the house and chopped a hole in the roof. He dropped down into the attic and then lowered himself onto the kitchen table. The water stood more than 5 feet deep inside the house. With the father’s keys in hand, Scanlan swam through a maze of floating furniture to the front door. He unlocked the deadbolt and forced the door open. He pulled the grandmother out first, then the mother. The father swam out behind him. Sergeant Scanlan and his boat crew worked until dark, until they couldn’t see anymore. “We probably took a hundred people out,” he said.

Officers Trapped

Captain Robert Norton of the Special Operations Division rode the storm out with dozens of officers at the Louisiana State University dental school building. Before the storm, Captain Norton—who commands the NOPD marine unit, bomb squad, and dive team—had positioned boats in four locations around the city. He had also divided personnel and assets with another SOD supervisor, Captain Jeff Winn, commander of the SWAT team.

“Our objective was to divide our command and control,” Norton explained. He hoped that if the hurricane incapacitated one of their commands, the other would still be able to operate. It turned out to be a very good idea.

As storm as the storm began to subside, Norton stepped outside to survey the damage.

“The water was rising, and it didn’t stop,” he said. Soon his entire fleet of police cars was under water. Norton and another officer climbed into a boat and headed toward the part of the city known as Gentilly. There, they found the water already at the roofline of most of the houses. “I never realized how bad things were until we got out there, until we saw what was happening,” Norton said.

Captain Norton and his partner carried boatloads of stranded residents to an interstate overpass. They kept at it until their boat motor got so fouled with debris that it locked up. Back at the dental school, Norton discovered that the water had risen so high that he and the other officers were trapped. The rescuers needed to be rescued.

Later, after being rescued himself, Norton finally reached the makeshift police command center set up at Harrah’s Casino and took charge of deploying the hundreds of law enforcement officers from around the country who had come to New Orleans to help. Some of them, Norton assigned to boat crews and to search and rescue teams.

Others, especially those with tactical training and who had come with night vision equipment, he dispatched to the city’s beleaguered police districts. “You had looting going on, you had officers being shot at, you had some districts that were completely under siege,” Norton said.

Fort Apache

One of those district stations under siege was the 1st District on North Rampart Street. Wedged between the central business district and the French Quarter, officers at the station quickly dubbed it Fort Apache. “It was like Somalia,” said Sergeant Danny Scanlan, commander of the district’s narcotics unit. “We had been taking gunfire every night.”

Most of the shots came from the Iberville housing project a few blocks away. Three nights after the storm, Scanlan climbed to the top of the five-story health clinic next door to the station. He brought an M-4, .223-caliber rifle with him. It was pitch dark. The only light came from the moon and from burning buildings. Near midnight, gunshots rang out.

“It was three different guns,” Scanlan said. “I heard the first one go off, and I grabbed my rifle. The second one went off—you could hear (the bullets) coming over the station—and I started looking in the area they came from. The third time somebody fired, I caught their muzzle flash and I opened up on them. I shot maybe ten rounds.” Scanlan’s marksmanship had the desired effect. “We never got any more fire out of that area for the rest of the time,” he said.

Algiers

The west bank of the Mississippi River, the part of New Orleans known as Algiers, escaped much of the flooding that followed in the wake of Katrina but not the surge of chaos and violence. Lieutenant Joe Meisch and three other 4th District officers jumped 16 looters at a Wal-Mart. They ran out of handcuffs and had to use duct tape commandeered from the store to secure the prisoners.

Just down the street, Officer Kevin Thomas and his partner encountered four armed looters at a gas station. In the ensuing gunfight, one of the looters shot Officer Thomas in the head. His partner’s return fire took down one of the gunmen. Thomas survived, and all four suspects were arrested. Fellow officers recovered four guns: three handguns and a pistol-grip shotgun.

The officers assigned to the 4th District survived for more than a week on food and water they scrounged from Wal-Mart. They set up a makeshift kitchen under a carport at the district station and a first-aid center inside a tiny office. They worked 24 hours a day for the first two weeks. To put gas in their police cars, the officers rigged an electric pump to an underground fuel tank at a neighborhood gas station. They powered the pump with the battery from a wrecked patrol car.

“The first week was the worst,” Meisch said. “This place was hell on Earth.” During that first week after the storm, the 4th District officers took gunfire every night, said Meisch, a former U.S. Marine sergeant. “We’d return fire then send a patrol out to see if we hit anything, like it was Vietnam.”

War Zone

Captain Jeff Winn commands the New Orleans Police Department SWAT team. In 2003, Winn served as a gunnery sergeant with the U.S. Marine Corps’s Fifth Regimental Combat Team during the invasion of Iraq. What he saw in New Orleans was a lot like what he saw in Iraq, maybe worse.

“As far as the tempo of operations and the danger of the situation, I would probably classify it as higher than what we had in Iraq,” Winn said. The SWAT team was responsible for responding to calls at the packed convention center, where as many as 25,000 people were stranded without food or water. Gunshots and violence were commonplace. On their final trip to the center, Winn and his team discovered three dead bodies. “One of them looked like he had multiple stab wounds,” Captain Winn recalled.

The SWAT team was also responsible for backing up officers at district stations throughout the city. “The districts started running into looting problems left and right,” Winn said. “It got really violent. They were calling for help every single day.”

In addition to those stranded at the convention center and the Superdome, thousands more were trapped on bridges and interstate overpasses. Stuck in the broiling summer sun, they were desperate for water.

A few days after the storm, Winn’s team picked up an intelligence report about a group of armed men who had hijacked a water truck. They were reported to be on an interstate overpass robbing people who approached the truck seeking water. There were also reports of rapes and at least one murder. “We got a report that one guy wouldn’t give it up, so they killed him and threw him off the interstate,” Winn said.

Winn’s team spotted a dead body lying beneath the crowded interstate. It seemed to corroborate the report about the murder. Winn’s team started checking out water trucks. Later, as SWAT team members stopped a suspicious truck, Winn and Lieutenant Dwayne Scheuermann took up a position on an interstate ramp above the truck. Both were armed with M-4 rifles.

From their elevated position, Winn and Scheuermann watched as SWAT officers approached the truck. A man jumped out. He had a gun in his hand. “We had wide-open shots at the guy,” Winn said. “The guy pointed the gun at the troops, and we opened up on him.” They hit the gunman twice. He survived and was medivaced to an area hospital.

Winn and Scheuermann have no doubt that they got the right truck and the right man. Reports of robberies on the interstate overpass dropped to nothing. “We were having all kinds of trouble up there,” Scheuermann said. “After that, not a peep.”

Six days after the storm, a group of 7th District officers fought a running gunbattle with an armed gang that had opened fire on a group of volunteer rescue workers near the Danziger Bridge in New Orleans East. The officers killed two of the gunmen and wounded four. None of the officers were injured. Many in New Orleans viewed the shootout as a clear sign that the New Orleans Police Department was retaking control of the city.

Aftermath

About 80% of the New Orleans Department’s 1,500 officers lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina. Two were so overcome by the devastation that they committed suicide. For months after the storm, hundreds of officers lived aboard cruise ships docked at the Port of New Orleans. Many of them have lost everything they owned.
To date, 57 New Orleans police officers have been fired for abandoning their posts. Eighty others have resigned. Disciplinary hearings are pending for an additional dozen or so officers who were missing or unaccounted for after the storm. Many of those who were reported AWOL were later exonerated. The flooding stranded some. Many couldn’t make it to their assigned units, so they teamed up with other officers and conducted rescue operations. In the end, 90% of New Orleans police officers did what they were supposed to do. Most did a lot more.

“This is unprecedented in our country,” said Dr. Howard Osofsky, a professor of psychiatry at the LSU School of Medicine in New Orleans. “There is no disaster that has had the amount of trauma for a department that this has, where so many police officers have lost homes, been separated from their families, had loved ones living in other places with no idea when they’ll return.”

Captain Robert Norton has nothing but praise for the officers with whom he worked and those he saw in action. “You had police officers who didn’t know where their families were, who had no contact with their families for days, and they were still out there working...out there saving lives,” he said. “When you see these guys pulling people off of rooftops and pulling them out of homes, it was just amazing. Some of the stuff that happened was just totally heroic.”

Chuck Hustmyre is a retired federal agent and freelance writer based in Baton Rouge, LA. He can be reached at chuck3174@yahoo.com.

Published in Tactical Response, Jul/Aug 2006

Rating : 6.8


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