Kentucky Air National Guard special tactics troops recall Katrina evacuations

  • Published
  • By Maj. Dale Greer
  • 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Chief Master Sgt. Pat Malone had seen a lot in his 23 years as a pararescueman for the U.S. military, including dicey combat extractions in Iraq and Afghanistan and more than a decade's worth of civilian search-and-rescue missions in Alaska.

But none of it prepared him for the devastation he saw firsthand when he and 21 fellow Kentucky Air National Guardsmen deployed to New Orleans Naval Air Station 10 years ago today as part of efforts to evacuate the victims of Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing flood.

"This was, by and large, the worst site of devastation I have ever seen in my entire career," said Malone, who was chief enlisted manager for the Kentucky Air Guard's 123rd Special Tactics Squadron in 2005 and retired from the service in 2012.

"The sheer magnitude of it -- and the conditions that our guys worked in -- was the most horrific I'd seen in 23 years of service."

Chief Master Sgt. Jon Rosa, a Kentucky combat controller who also deployed with the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron and retired in 2009, concurred.

"New Orleans is usually a place of such revelry," said Rosa, then the squadron's superintendent of combat controllers. "But it was like a scene out of 'The Twilight Zone' to be in downtown New Orleans and hear total silence except for the sloshing of flood waters. I just couldn't believe this was America."

But it was America, and thousands of New Orleaneans were stranded without provisions amid a sea of sewage- and chemical-laced water covering nearly 80 percent of the city.

Rosa, Malone and 20 other Kentucky special tactics troops were among the first military search-and-rescue troops to arrive in the stricken city and begin extracting trapped citizens starting Aug. 31.

The Kentucky forces joined up with about 25 other special tactics troops from across the Air National Guard, including Alaska's 212th Rescue Squadron, California's 131st Rescue Squadron, New York's 102nd Rescue Squadron and Oregon's 125th Special Tactics Squadron.

Patrolling the city in Zodiac motorboats and other vehicles, the Kentucky-led contingent rescued 1,292 people, sometimes by cutting through roofs to extract trapped residents.

"We had the ability to go through the city and conduct searches where no one else could reach at the time," Malone said. "We launched from four to 14 boats a day, running about 14-hour shifts in the water."

Once evacuees climbed aboard the Zodiacs, they were transported to makeshift helicopter landing zones set up along portions of the interstate highway system that weren't submerged by flood waters.

The landing zones were cleared by saw-wielding combat controllers who cut down light poles to remove obstructions and then marked the spots with spray paint so information like communications frequencies would be visible from the air, Rosa said.

After an LZ was established, combat controllers would make radio contact with any of the three airborne controlling authorities -- entities like an Air Force AWACS plane -- and advise that evacuees were ready for transport.

As helicopters began to roll in, the controllers would direct their safe flight into and out of the landing zones using the communications gear they carried on their backs.

One particularly productive LZ became so active that a new helicopter was landing every 50 seconds for 48 straight hours, Rosa said.

"For a while, I would imagine it was the busiest airport on the face of the earth," he noted.

By the time the Kentucky Airmen returned home Sept. 7, the Air Guard special tactics contingent had controlled the flights of 3,179 sorties responsible for the evacuation of 11,927 people.

Working conditions were challenging, to say the least. Most troops got less than six hours of sleep a night, and the constant exposure to contaminated water caused rashes and minor chemical burns on some of the Airmen, Malone said.

"These guys were working in a giant cesspool contaminated with any chemical in anyone's garage, oil, gas, deceased animals and sewage," he said. "It was a giant petri dish. But they knew that what they were doing was important. They chose to be totally selfless and help fellow citizens of the United States. They're the biggest heroes on the planet as far as I'm concerned."

Rosa noted that many New Orleans residents seemed to agree.

"All the folks we rescued down there were so thankful," he said. "I had about 20 people come up and hug me while I was trying to control helicopter landings. That's very self-satisfying."