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|| News Item: Posted 2005-10-03

Hurricane Katrina: From the perspective of a photojournalist 'trapped' inside a National Guardsman's flight suit
By Anthony P. Bolante, Reuters

Photo by

Washington National Guard pilot Major Anthony Bolante, right, takes a break with a U.S. Navy refueler during a helicopter refueling stop aboard the USS Shreveport, and Austin-class Amphibious Transport Dock piered on the New Orleans waterfront.
Sunday, September 4, 2005 started out as a normal Reuters photo-assignment workday for me covering numerous concerts at the Bumbershoot Music Festival in Seattle.

The buffer of more than 2,000 straight-line geographic miles and the five days that had elapsed from the actual landfall of Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast gave me the premature security that "I wouldn't have to go to New Orleans either as a Reuters photojournalist or as a Washington State Army National Guard helicopter pilot." I couldn't have been more wrong.

I had just finished covering a performance by legendary blues guitarist Bo Diddley when the caller ID on my cell phone tells me, "headquarters, Washington Army National Guard." For those of you members whom I haven't had the pleasure of yet meeting, my alter-ego life as a U.S. Army Major and CH-47D Boeing Chinook helicopter pilot has me frequently in a quandary of conflicting my military service with my 'civilian job' of covering major breaking news as the Seattle Bureau photojournalist for Reuters New Service.

Much like 9/11, I found myself having to set aside my civilian desires as a journalist who wants to cover the 'biggest news story of moment' with putting on a military uniform to contribute somehow to the health and welfare of fellow Americans in need. Ever since 9/11, the climate of national security has significantly changed and the necessities of our country's Reserve forces are more important now than ever.

Hurricane Katrina was the most recent of a four-year string of National Security issues that have sprung our nation's citizen-soldiers into action. I myself have just returned from being on U.S. Army active duty for one year.

As a member of the Washington Army National Guard's 66th Aviation Brigade, I was mobilized to State Active Duty on 5 September 2005 to assist in the rescue/recovery/relief operations of Hurricane Katrina. By the time my fellow Washington Guardsmen and I reported for duty at Fort Lewis, Washington early that Monday morning, we had already had seen five days of "Breaking News TV" coverage of the disaster on the Gulf coast, especially the devastation of New Orleans.

Seeing rescue helicopters swarming like a beehive over New Orleans in what I knew was "uncontrolled airspace" due to the destruction of the airspace control infrastructure around the Gulf Coast, we somehow knew where my Guard unit would fit into the picture. Someone, some military organization, had to go to the region to help coordinate and de-conflict Aviation Operations in the disaster struck region. That is the forte of the 66th Aviation Brigade Headquarters.

We were to assist in providing command, control and support of the Army aviation assets swarming around the Gulf Coast. We also had to prepare our own Washington State based aircraft with preparing to fly cross-country to the Gulf to assist in the operations.

As we found out, that need would come later. There were already dozens of military aircraft Louisiana and we thus planned to send our aircraft when needed later. What was needed now was coordination.

Our boss --- "The General" --- led our task force of about 70 Washington Guardsmen from Washington State to Naval Air Station New Orleans within 36 hours from "report-for-duty" to the battlegrounds of Hurricane Katrina. What was amazing to see was that many of the 70+ soldiers/aviators in my unit that reported for duty was that some of them just returned from two weeks of duty in Korea at a battle simulation exercise.

They literally were brought back on active duty less than 12 hours after their return from overseas duty. What best summed up the surreal gathering of the soldiers early on that Monday morning was best communicated by the Headquarters Company commander Captain Julie Spencer.

Photo by Anthony P. Bolante, Reuters

Photo by Anthony P. Bolante, Reuters

The famous Metarie Cemetary in downtown New Orleans is flooded as seen on September 9, 2005.
While speaking to all of us gathered in first formation for accountability before deploying, Spencer rallied the troops with a sense of purpose. She said that she realized that we were all mustered for duty on extremely short notice, but that there "should be no complaints. We are going to New Orleans to help people who have lost everything. We have homes to return to in Washington (when done with duty."

For the two weeks we were on duty, there was not a single complaint amongst the team. Those comments set the tone for our deployment in both that firstly, we were brought on duty to help those desperately in need, and secondly we had to prepare ourselves as relief workers to work and live under the worst conditions possible. So, I packed my bags quickly, kissed my supportive wife goodbye and headed to New Orleans.

We boarded a Washington Air National Guard KC-135 airplane at McChord AFB in the cool, crisp, clean air of the Pacific Northwest. We landed four hours later at Naval Air Station (NAS) New Orleans in the neighborhood of Belle Chasse where the hot, humid and smelly air of a disaster zone welcomed us as we left the aircraft. Having been to New Orleans on numerous occasions before Hurricane Katrina, I braced for the worst. However, the tiny military base the about two miles squared in size was one of the few somewhat "secure" areas in New Orleans.

Those government cinder block buildings, ugly in decor but tough in survivability, did just that. The neighborhood of Belle Chasse that surrounded the small military base was wind destroyed. The NAS was pretty much in tact. It was an oasis in a land of desolation.

We could tell when we first arrived on the aircraft ramp that this tiny military base housed a few hundred 'permanent' military residents under normal working conditions. Being the oasis that it was, it was shocking to see miles of military aircraft lined on every parking spot along the runway and that the base now housed thousands of military personnel. It was a zoo.

I had never seen such an explosion of operations in such a small area. However, only one entity could somehow make rhyme out of the chaos.

It was truly interesting to see every military branch, Army-Navy-Air Force-Marines-Coast Guard, all working in unison for the focused cause of bringing rescue/recovery/relief to the people of Louisiana. No four-star General could ever prepare for such an impromptu unification of effort, except maybe on the battlefield. Somehow, we all got along.

When we arrived, the Louisiana Army National Guard's aviation battalion was shouldering the burden of being the initial Aviation Task Force coordinators. These were New Orleans residents who the majority of they themselves had lost their homes and here they were busting their butts running operations. It was a humbling sight to see.

One of the supporting side purposes of us deploying to New Orleans was to give relief to the Louisiana Guardsmen/aviators so that they could take some time off to take care of their families and homes.

Photo by Anthony P. Bolante, Reuters

Photo by Anthony P. Bolante, Reuters

Vintage UH-1V "Huey" MEDEVAC helicopters and Umodern H-60 Blackhawk helicopters makeup the more than 150 helicopters from more than 20 States' National Guard units that operated disaster relief air mission support around Louisianna.
When we walked in to the flight operations office for the first time to get briefed by an exhausted Louisiana Guard Lieutenant Colonel aviator, whom we have worked with in the past and regarded as a friend, we could all tell that he was glad that we were there to help. The Louisiana Guard's senior aviator, a Colonel, came in to tell us immediately how the Louisiana Guard really appreciated us coming to their aid.

The next 48-whirlwind hours involved us learning the situation and assisting the Louisiana Guard aviators with coordinating air mission support around the region. The active U.S. Army's famed 1st Cavalry Division (aka: "We were soldiers once, and young: starring Mel Gibson, 2002") had a brigade of aircraft co-located and co-operating with us there on the airfield.

At one point early-on in the operation during an early morning air mission briefing, a Lieutenant Colonel from 1st Cav told us, "do you all realize that there are more aircraft here in the Gulf Coast region providing air mission support to Katrina THAN there are aircraft in both Iraq and Afghanistan combined right now?" The room of us 40- plus military pilots was dead silent for a few seconds. We all believed it. Just take a look at the buzz of aircraft on the airfield.

The aircraft hanger that we "overtook" there at the NAS has a permanent tenant of U.S. Air Force Reserve A-10 Thunderbolt "Warthog gunships." That Air Wing evacuated their aircraft North away from New Orleans before the hurricane hit. Although the building was slightly damaged, it was in pretty decent shape and by the time we got there, AC power was restored and the roof was patched. The A-10's are incredibly effective tank killer airplanes. However, in natural disasters, they are pretty useless.

With the graciousness of those 'permanent tenants,' we commandeered facilities and setup shop and living conditions in their hanger. What a blessing. We had a roof over our heads and electricity. That's a lot more than we expected as we prepared ourselves for Army-style living conditions aka: Tent and mosquito netting.

The non-potable water, though, was another story. E-coli was a real threat there and continues that way today, as the NAS is right on the banks of the Mississippi River which is wrought with all of the toxic and organic debris draining from New Orleans.

Needless to say, taking showers or brushing your teeth with the tap water there was not a good idea. The water that came out of the tap was smelly and thus obviously suspect. No one trusted it. Yes, we did everything with bottled water. Being Army folks, though, we were really luck and appreciated these somewhat plush living conditions. We were moving into the NAS while the people trapped in the squalor of the water-surrounded city were being evacuated. Our helicopter task force contributed immensely to that effort. Anyone who has seen TV coverage of the helicopter operations around New Orleans knows what we've been doing down there.

Rooftop rescue extractions, gigantic-sandbagging of the breached levees, distributing food-water-supplies to remote locations, transporting recovery operations coordinators and workers and equipment. You name it, every type of helicopter operations was being conducted during those first critical days.

As days went by, air rescue operations slowed and we transitioned more into recovery and relief air operations. The city was evacuated completely and there was finally a sense of an opportunity to bound back from the brink of doom that gloomed around the city.

Photo by Anthony P. Bolante, Reuters

Photo by Anthony P. Bolante, Reuters

The flooded neighborhoods of New Orleans' Saint Bernard Parish as seen from an airborne Texas Army National Guard UH-60 Blackhawk on September 17, 2005.
One of the oddest air missions I had to coordinate was to load up our helicopters with feed-hay and to utilize our forest firefighting water buckets to feed and water the hundreds of head of cattle that were stranded on the bayous of the Plaquemines Parish. That was a sign that we've gotten all the people out of the city and we were moving toward conducting other types of recovery mission. I went out on a ground reconnaissance with two of my soldiers one day as we drove from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. It was my first venture off base in a ground vehicle since arriving in New Orleans.

For those of you journalist that were there in New Orleans covering the news story, we all have to admit how eerie it was seeing a completely deserted city that was wrecked by both Katrina and the hoodlum looters that remained in pockets of the city. It was a sad sight for me to see ground level the once-thriving, Jazz-blowing city, sitting soaked in a stinky muck that literally bogged down the city.

There were no vehicles on the roadways except for emergency and military vehicles and the sight of 8-10 foot high water levels dunking the neighborhoods of Marrero and the Garden District were disheartening. It required driving under combat conditions as nearly every off or on ramp the I-10 became a boat ramp for rescuers. I'll never forget coming to a complete halt after driving at about 45 mph just about ready to go down a ramp and then come to a screeching halt to see an unmarked ramp that led into 8-feet of water.

That forced us to turn around and drive in the opposite wrong-way direction back on I-10 while other emergency vehicles came at us in the other direction. There was no rhyme or reason for navigating the streets. We had to figure out the most circuitous route to get from point to point.

When driving back to the NAS in the near dark, it was sketchy driving around back roads trying to get back due to all of the downed power lines and the threat of looters, but my soldiers and I were happy to make it back to the secure perimeter of the NAS.

Later in our deployment to Louisiana, I was directed by my military bosses to relocate to Baton Rouge to help coordinate the interagency air operations at the Louisianan State Emergency Operations Center near the capital. Getting around New Orleans is clearly more favorable by the flexibility of helicopter. This time, my Private First Class driver and I were prepared for the trek as our HUMMVEE rolled the 65 miles Northward.

What was amazing was that the farther North we drove, the devastation continually lessoned and by the time we arrived in Baton Rouge, it looked as if nothing truly bad had really happened to that city. EXCEPT, for the fact that there were now easily 400,000+ people crammed into a city that normally has about 150,000 residents.

The many New Orleans evacuees exploded the city of Baton Rouge and us rambling around in a huge military vehicle made me wishing that we flew up to Baton Rouge in one of our helicopters. Working 10 days at the Baton Rouge EOC gave me a better appreciation for the macrocosm of effort for the recovery/relief operations.

Photo by

Washington National Guard Major Anthony Bolante (left) and Louisianna National Guard Major Leon Luck coordinate air mission disaster relief support at the Emergency Operations Center in Baton Rouge on September 18, 2005.
At NAS New Orleans in Belle Chasse where the aircraft fleet was stationed, we saw the microcosm perspective of everything going on. The "big-picture" coordination at both Federal and Government levels were being conducted there at the EOC and I was thrown right into the middle of the situation as an Aviation Liaison Officer.

Needless to say, I was grateful for having that opportunity also since even at the higher bureaucratic levels, you could at least see the genuine setting aside of political differences, for the most part, in order to help the people of Louisiana. One of the most significant air missions I helped coordinate there at the Baton Rouge EOC required the use of our UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters who transported personnel into the ghost-town Louis Armstrong International Airport.

Those personnel were responsible for ensuring that the airport was safe to open up operations the following day. It was one of the first major signs of recovery for the city. Until that point, recovery and relief supplies were being landed at the numerous smaller regional airports around New Orleans, especially the NAS New Orleans.

The reopening of the New Orleans airport was a huge relief to incoming supplies and outbound city refugees. I was grateful to watch the news the next morning and to hear that the airport was open at 7am.

My fellow Washington Guardsmen and I returned via one of the first commercial flights that took off from Louis Armstrong International Airport … the same airport that we helped to reopen only a few days earlier. We were surprised to see that we were returning home so soon considering we were all preparing to stay there for a much longer time.

However, by the time we departed, the Louisiana Guardsmen had their breather time to take care of their own personal recovery issues and it was determined that it was time for us to go home, recharge our batteries and be prepared for another rotation later when we are once again needed in the Gulf region.

We were honored to go help the Americans of the Gulf Coast that are in need and I am sure that this won't be the last time we'll be going down there. I write this story as Hurricane Rita has just passed through the Gulf and spared New Orleans somewhat from further extensive damage. With two months remaining in the Gulf's hurricane season, I think that I'll just keep my helicopter refueled and my bags packed, ready to go back again.

Hopefully, all of that is for naught.

(Anthony is the Seattle Bureau photojournalist for Reuters New Service and is also a U.S. Army Major and CH-47D Chinook Helicopter pilot in the Washington Army National Guard. He just returned from one-year active duty service while attending the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, KS and has been working again as a photographer for Reuters since returning home to Seattle two months ago. In a few weeks, Anthony is again being called back to active duty for six months and will work at the National Guard Bureau headquarters in Arlington, VA near the Pentagon where he will once again have to put his civilian photojournalism career on hiatus until he returns to Seattle.)

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