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NOPD SWAT versus Katrina

Written by James Arey

The New Orleans Police Department SWAT officers organized quickly after Hurricane Katrina and began continuous land based and waterborne rescue missions. As the water continued to rise and the citizens’ panic increased, Captain Jeff Winn quickly set priorities to save the lives of people stranded in attics, on rooftops, and in their vehicles. “The entire city wasn’t safe,” one officer said. “Everywhere you looked everyone was screaming to be rescued.”

Homeless, wet, hungry, and bone-tired SWAT became a military operation that worked non-stop without the usual equipment and supplies. “This is the same kind of stress I experienced in war,” a sergeant explained. “There is no way to tell what day of the week it is…time just stopped on August 29th and it has been one long, continuous day ever since.”

SWAT initially created a staging base at the downtown casino but, within days, Captain Winn moved the team to an elementary school on the westbank of the city, which was one of the few dry neighborhoods. The team named their new home Camp Victory. Military cots were set up, weapons and ammunition were inventoried, and anyone with dry police clothes helped outfit officers who had lost everything.

One of the tactical officers said, “We went from sleeping in our cars and boats to sleeping indoors and on cots. We thought we had it made!” SWAT officers described those first few days as “the true meaning of hell and high water.” We began to worry about our own survival; we had no food, no clean water, and no medical care. Because communication systems were ineffective, officers worked closely together providing backup, intelligence on stricken areas and specific “hot spots.”

The location and status of equipment became a priority. Officer Jim O’Hern, the SOD Armorer said, “I stayed there (at the Armory) through the storm. On Sunday and Monday, I was watching the wind and the rain. I watched the doors from neighboring buildings blow off and roofs being torn off but I thought we had made it. Then the water started coming and with 25 minutes, we had four feet of water in the armory. We grabbed what weapons and ammo we could, got in the SWAT truck, and escaped. We went back for a second trip and the water was so deep that no one could reach the armory. It looked like a lake, not a bayou.”

Arrests were still being made. Because Central Lockup had been flooded, a temporary jail was created at the bus/train station. Angola prison guards and New York City Corrections Officers arrived within seven days to staff the makeshift jail. This location was christened Angola South.

SWAT struggled to meet the demands of the Katrina aftermath but camaraderie, determination, and leadership kept the team focused. “We got tight,” one officer explained. “I thought we were close before but this really made us a solid team.” As other departments responded from all over the country, bringing in supplies and additional officers, SWAT welcomed the support. “Our police brothers and sisters came through for us.”

The team adopted an attitude of determination, resiliency, and the will to be victorious over the ravages of two hurricanes, looters, lack of supplies, and no communication systems. SWAT learned to quickly improvise and adapt. Most members of the team had lost their homes or cars. Their families had evacuated, and with no phone systems working, officers were unable to be assured of the safety of their spouses, children, or parents.

For the first week, SWAT officers were “on the water” constantly night and day, with no breaks. Because of the criminal element, at least one officer was on each boat to ride “shotgun” and protect the rescue efforts. Each boat was manned with at least three officers: one to drive, one to navigate, and one to protect. Landmarks no longer existed and about 80% of the city was now a lake. When the city was submerged, the SWAT team had to learn new landmarks. Maps were useless.

SWAT Negotiator James Foucha and Officer Patrick Barre organized and coordinated a small fleet of boats and successfully rescued hundreds of individuals from New Orleans’ East and the Lower Ninth Ward, areas that had over 15 feet of water. Foucha and Barre’s rescue efforts continued without a break for two weeks. Both officers had lost their own homes and personal belongings.

SWAT team members had to use skills they had never been taught at the Academy. Dangerous and unpredictable rescues were a common event. Deer and alligators wandered through the drier areas. Water moccasins were always a potential risk. SWAT sniper David Waite located a terrified elderly couple holding on for their lives on the upper floor of their submerged home. Waite had to go underwater to remove burglar bars, swim up the staircase and convince this couple to take his hands and swim out with him. Everyone got out safely.

In their state of panic, many citizens would violently grab at the rescue boats endangering the officers and themselves. “They were so relieved to see us coming that they would almost swamp the boats before we could calm them down enough to listen to us,” one of the team’s negotiators said. Lieutenant Dwayne Schouerman, Assistant Commander of the SWAT Team, dove into the water to save an infant, only to be dragged underwater by two adults who were terrified of drowning. Another officer grabbed the non-breathing infant and began CPR while trying to keep the boat from capsizing. No one drowned. The baby survived and was airlifted out while the officers went on to the next rescue. The following night, SWAT Officer Trevor Reeves along with the New Orleans Harbor Patrol rescued rock-and-roll legend Fats Domino from his severely flooded Lower 9th-Ward home. This rescue made front page in Rolling Stone Magazine but was just another example of SWAT doing their job.

SWAT officers Greg McCrae, Jim O’Hern, and Jim Arey, along with Crisis Technician Kevin Himel, were assigned the mission of entering submerged houses of the Department’s 911 Dispatchers who had lost contact with their own families and feared the worst. “So many people remained on the job without knowing what had happened to their families, their property,” McCrae said. “I know the media reported mostly about the officers who deserted but I wish they had spent more time talking about the overwhelming majority who stayed.”

Though heavily armed, SWAT officers also carried hatchets and axes so they could create openings to reach people. Many rescues were made by chopping holes in roofs and pulling thankful families from cramped spaces as the water continued to rise. Officers would carry infants, children and the elderly through deep water to the waiting safety of boats, when boats could not navigate the small spaces and piles of debris.

Because the rescues continued in daylight and dark, Officer Brian Elsensohn (who worked with a broken leg in a cast) flew nightly missions as a spotter equipped with a night vision scope in a US Army National Guard OH58 to give air support to SWAT night patrols. Due to the lack of electricity throughout the entire city, night vision was the only way to successfully patrol at night.

About two weeks after Katrina hit, a HAZMAT team was brought in to evaluate the armory and contents. Because of the length of time the building had been submerged, there were considerable health concerns. Each weapon had to be thoroughly cleaned and reassembled. Officers from Minnesota and Memphis completed most of the clean up of weapons.

O’Hern said, “It took a little over a week to clean and reassemble the weapons. Those guys were GREAT! Between Minnesota and Memphis, I can’t tell you the hours those guys put in.” As weapons were cleaned, armory personnel began distributing weapons to the district commanders. O’Hern said there is still work to be done. “It will probably be six months before we are back to normal.”

As the demands of evacuation subsided, officers began assessing the damage to their homes and became concerned about the practical part of the job: pay, loss of detail income, and insurance claims on their homes. No tourism or commerce had taken place in the city for over a month; with no money coming into the city, rumors became rampant about the city’s inability to meet payroll demands.

Time seemed endless and rescue missions turned to body recovery, standard patrolling, and securing property. The SWAT Team never allowed the lack of resources to deter them from their mission. The courage, determination, and commitment to duty of the SWAT officers is summed up by the oath on the door of Camp Victory:

We will dream of better days as we changed our tainted way,

We will make a brand new start, when we have finally played our part,

We will rise after the storm as we pray for sunshine at every dawn,

We will face each darkened night and as brothers we will win this fight.

James B. Arey, PhD, LPC is the Commander of the Crisis Negotiation Team (CNT) with the New Orleans Police Department. He may be reached at areyjb@yahoo.com.

Ann H. Wilder, LPC, NCC, CADC, LAC, is the Family Liaison Officer (FLO) with the New Orleans Police Department and Program Director, DePaul-Tulane Behavioral Health Center. She may be reached at Ann.Wilder@HCAhealthcare.com.

Published in Law and Order, Jan 2006

Rating : 8.7


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