Canadians were among the first to help New Orleans during Katrina. This is their story
Metro’s Rosemary Westwood reports from New Orleans.
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This is the first in a three-part series on New Orleans‘s ongoing struggles ahead of the 10th anniversary of Katrina.
St. Bernard, Louisiana.
Wanda Crownin sat smoking a cigarette in Lehrmann’s Bar, in a booth beside the pool tables, the weekend before the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
The bar was made famous for staying open through the storm and ensuing crisis, an air-conditioned oasis for first responders including a 46-member heavy search-and-rescue (HUSAR) team from Vancouver, some of whom rescued Crownin’s mother.
“They floated her on a mattress to St. Bernard highway, and a helicopter took her out across the water,” she said. “We’re always grateful.”
Shaun Murphy, then a captain with the St. Bernard fire department who now lives in Tennessee, remembers first spotting the Canadians in the days after the storm.
“I saw these guys coming out of one of our neighbourhoods,” he told me. “I knew everybody who was supposed to be there. One of them said they needed some help to get a lady out of the house. And I said, ‘Who are you guys?” He said they were from the Canadian search-and-rescue. I said, ‘I’m not trying to be a smart ass or anything, but where the hell did you come from?’ At that point no one was helping us — we were on our own.
“It was very mixed emotions,” Murphy said. “One, the fact that somebody was actually there to help us was awesome, and the other part is that I can not believe, for the life of me, the United States of America, as big as they are, wasn’t here, and the first help we got was from outsiders.”
St. Bernard is a separate municipality adjacent to New Orleans, a bedroom community, a rural home to fisherman and shrimpers, and an industrial hub with a sugar refinery and two oil refineries. Before Hurricane Katrina, 66,000 residents lived there.
“The wind shifted after the eye passed,” remembers Fire Chief Thomas Stone, who weathered Katrina’s battering from inside his office on Aug. 29, 2005. “And I’m thinking, ‘Oh, I think we made it.’ Wrong.”
The levees of the Industrial Canal to the west broke first, and Stone watched whitecaps roll up the road. The water rose 4½ metres in 20 minutes. It thrust houses into streets.
It cut electricity, downed cell towers and left thousands of people stranded in sweltering heat.
While people all along the Gulf Coast had fled the Gulf Coast, Tim Armstrong was trying to find a way in.
The province of B.C. had offered assistance to Louisiana, and Armstrong — one of the leaders of Vancouver’s HUSAR team — secured a plane. They took off for Baton Rouge (New Orleans’ airport was closed), but had to re-route to Lafayette mid-flight when they heard Baton Rouge was out of fuel. Upon landing, the team made its way to Kenner, where — within a 30-minute drive of the devastated communities — they were almost sent home.
The now infamously slow U.S. -government response had left victims of the flooding without food and water for days. There were rumours of mass looting and civil unrest (much of it later proved unfounded — people had mostly taken food and basic supplies). Authorities were preparing to send in the National Guard.
Rescue operations were on hold, the Canadians were told. They might as well leave.
“We’re like, what? We’ve gotten all the way here to support and help and now they say there’s no mission for you,” Armstrong remembers, incredulity still in his voice.
Then two detectives with Louisiana State Police walked in. There’s a problem in St. Bernard Parish, they said. “The town’s totally under water, and the locals are trying to do the best they can and there’s been no outside help come in there.”
The Canadians had a mission.
Armstrong’s first look at the community was of rooftops poking out of water as far as the eye could see. At emergency-operation headquarters, Armstrong met Henry “Junior” Rodriguez, St. Bernard’s outspoken and boisterous equivalent of a mayor, and the reason why, to this day, some in St. Bernard still falsely believe they were rescued by the RCMP.
“He had a gavel and a jar of dill pickles beside him and a dog curled up around his feet,” Armstrong remembers.
“Vancouver, where’s Vancouver?” Rodriguez asked. Canada, he was told.
“He stood up and said, ‘Hey everybody, the Mounties are here!’”
Before the Canadians arrived, Chief Stone already had about 100 firefighters commandeering any fisherman’s boat they could find to search for survivors. With the Canadians came more resources and equipment, and a more sophisticated operation.
There were 25,000 houses and 3,000 businesses to search. The teams would start 12-hour shifts at 6 a.m. It was gruelling, gruesome work.
“The temperatures were in the high 90s, the humidity was very high,” said Stone.
“You’d go all day with a sandwich and a few bottles of water, so it was, like, rapid weight loss.” He laughed a little.
“It was miserable. Everything you can think is in the flood water: human waste, dead animals, dead humans, hazardous materials that people keep in their homes.”
A tank at one of the oil refineries was damaged, spilling about 1.1 million gallons of crude into the water too. They came across giant snakes while searching homes.
“People were in desperation mode,” Armstrong remember. “Everywhere we turned, people running out of their medications were swarming us when we’d arrive in areas. Trying to find someone to communicate with their loved ones. It was just absolute chaos, like you’ve never seen before.”
Stone showed me a map of the community peppered with little red dots representing each of the 129 bodies found. Armstrong’s first fatality was a mother whose family had floated her on a mattress for days, and who died from the heat.
“It was really heart wrenching to get people out of there, and then they still had no real place to go, and didn’t know what was in store for them,” Armstrong wrote in a dispatch from Sept. 3.
Ronnie Lehrmann, owner of Lehrmann’s Bar, remembers the Canadians as among his rescue-worker clientele.
“We opened up from seven to 10, and sometimes six till 10, and we just gave everything away,” he said.
“Sometimes you had 50 or 100 on the street out there waiting to get a cold beer. We had to blow a whistle every 15 minutes, say, ‘OK, 10 people out, 10 people in.’”
In the decade since the storm, firefighter Shaun Murphy has become a Canucks fan, and Armstrong and Stone have become friends. Armstrong has been back to visit St. Bernard twice — he’s now an honourary citizen — and Stone has visited Vancouver.
It’s a friendship encapsulated in a single photograph, snapped as the Canadians were preparing to pull out after an exhausting week of operations. The team gave Stone a large Canadian flag, and he told them to hoist it on a makeshift flag pole.
“Then some of the U.S. Coast Guard guys got a little uppity about having a Canadian flag displayed,” Armstrong said. “Of course, in true U.S. style, they had to find a bigger flag and fly it a little higher.”
Katrina still looms large in St. Bernard Parish. Half the population had still not returned by 2010. Sprawling, lush lawns mark where houses used to sit. Stone jokes that St. Bernard is now the dollar-store capital of the world, while grocery stores remain scarce.
On Friday, Aug. 7, Armstrong got a package at his New Westminster office. Sent by Dani Babineauy, whose cousin was rescued by the Canadians, it contained a thank-you card, and a box of T-shirts that read “Mounties are our heroes to St. Bernard.”
“You actually feel you made a difference in not just one person’s life, but many,”
Armstrong said of that week in St. Bernard. “And I feel proud that we were down there and we were Canadian.”
The Vancouver heavy searcha and rescue guide
From the City of Vancouver:
“The Heavy Urban Search and Rescue (HUSAR) Task Force is a special operations team of up to 120 members with medical, fire suppression, emergency response, search and rescue, and engineering backgrounds.
The task force rescues victims from major structural collapses and other hazards.
The HUSAR Task Force includes,
- Structural engineers
- Heavy rigging specialists
- Search specialists
- Logistics specialists
- Rescue specialists
- Medical specialists
Members come from following organizations:
- Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services
- Vancouver Police Department
- City of Vancouver Engineering Department
- Vancouver Park Board
- BC Ambulance Service