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New Orleans Police Respond to Katrina
On August 29, 2005, the New Orleans Police Department began to respond to calls for service in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Much of the city had evacuated prior to landfall of this Category Four storm as dangerous storms are common occurrences in “The Big Easy,” so each district reported for duty as assigned and officers began handling routine calls.
Parts of the city had flooded from the storm surge and other areas were damaged from the wind, rain, and tornadoes, but much of the city remained relatively secure. Then the unthinkable happened. The levees broke and the water rushed into a city that was hampered by downed trees and power lines. Suddenly, it was a race against time.
Roads that had been passable were now flooded with rushing (and rising!) water. Officers switched from law enforcement to search and rescue—beginning with the rescue of their own officers and their families. At least 30 officers were trapped in their own homes—climbing into the attics or onto their roofs for safety.
Rescuing officers and their families became the most pressing issue of the moment. Generating additional stress to this already devastating situation was the lack of boats and vehicles to tow the boats. Officers began to use their personal vehicles in an effort to get to the trapped men and women.
Officers were instructed to shoot holes in the roofs of their homes as a way of escaping. Dispatchers were working at an intense pace in an effort to keep officers safe. The logistical nightmare was compounded by the sporadic lack of working police radios and cell phones. The storm had eliminated almost every method of communication available to law enforcement.
Knowing that every officer would be needed for the impending disaster, the tension and anxiety continued to build. Officers responded to save their fellow officers and family members. With total disregard for their own homes and their own personal safety, each district began to focus on saving officers and citizens that were being threatened by the rising water.
Without functioning communication systems, chaos was inevitable. Between word of mouth and sporadic phone service, the tactical officers in the Special Operations Division gathered at the main casino in downtown New Orleans and began creating a battle plan—fighting both the rising water and the inevitable looting.
The officers that had been rescued immediately went to work rescuing others. The tactical officers responded to SWAT rolls that involved attempted kidnappings and car-jackings. The criminal element of the city was energized by the disaster. They saw this situation as an opportunity to run rampant, and the increase in shootings, rapes, robberies, and vandalism was more than an urban police department could handle alone. The officers had to provide cover for each other, for firefighters, and other emergency services while rescuing citizens.
As the water continued to rise, tens of thousands of citizens began to seek shelter in public buildings. This was complicated by lack of public or personal transportation—and the lack of communication systems. Now crowd control was added to the task of saving the city from the flood waters. As both water and people continued to invade the wounded city, the New Orleans Police Department had to immediately organize their resources and prioritize the tasks at hand.
The citizens were an unwieldy combination of tourists (many not speaking English), poor, elderly, children, “die-hards” who believed this would be “just another storm,” and gang members who were armed and dangerous. The criminals came out like roaches who preyed on the helpless. The police department, still focused on rescuing (and having to provide cover for rescue missions) was not able to provide its usual standard of routine patrols and crime prevention.
As the tactical officers received calls for an evacuation, they had to plan their entrance to the location by using interstate exits as boat ramps. Officers found different landmarks because so much of the city was now underwater. Due to the urgency of the situation, officers were driving the wrong way down streets and highways in an effort to reach people before they drowned.
Being able to maneuver the city this way proved difficult for some officers. Their instincts and knowledge of the city was not “reversible” in their minds and they found it difficult to transverse this city that was now fighting for its life. Switching from land based operations to water based operations proved to be another challenge.
It is important to note that during this hectic time and under these difficult circumstances, no police officers were injured. New Orleans Police Department officers performed these tasks knowing that their homes were being destroyed by flood waters and not always knowing if their families were alive and safe. The dedicated officers never wavered. Sunset did not curtail their efforts—when the sun rose on a flooded city, officers were still working to save as many people as possible. Even if the structures were gone, the people are the life of the city and deserved to be saved.
The crisis continued to escalate as the criminals fought harder to gain control, the water continued to drown buildings and people, and officers had been working without sleep for over 48 hours. As exhaustion and frustration were taking hold, reinforcements arrived. Fellow officers from all over the entire country responded to the need for assistance.
A nationwide “911” call was quickly answered and the brotherhood of law enforcement once again brought the situation back into control. For the first time since the storm hit, NOPD officers were able to get food, water, and rest. A grateful department welcomed the support, and lasting friendships with other departments and agencies were made.
Despite the massive disruption, the New Orleans Police Department stood fast, stood together, and stood proud.
James B. Arey, PhD, LPC is the Commander, Crisis Negotiation Team, with the New Orleans Police Department. He may be reached at JAMESA@new-orleans.la.us.
Ann H. Wilder, LPC, NCC, CADC, LAC is the Family Liaison Officer, Crisis Negotiation Team with the New Orleans Police Department. She may be reached at Ann.Wilder@HCAhealthcare.com.
Published in Law and Order, Oct 2005
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