U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program

Katrina Archival & Historical Record Team (KART)

Hurricane Katrina, 2005

Interviewee: CAPT Terry Gilbreath , USCG

MSO Morgan City

Interviewer: Not Mentioned
Date of Interview:  28 October 2005
Place: MSO Morgan City, Louisiana 


Abstract:

Capt Terry Gilbreath served as a He has been involved in the ICS structure for 10 years and said that the structure did help to manage the chaos. He was the night incident commander. Normally the evening is relatively quiet; however, rescues were going on throughout the night. He was also working logistics, preparing the incident action plans, and running operations. In addition to rescues, they were also dealing with security issues to ensure that the Coast Guardsmen were safe in the field. They fielded questions from Coast Guard Headquarters and other units, gave many media interviews, and provided high-level briefings. The MSO was running its own IC. They were doing harbor patrols, pollution over-flights, waterways management, and supporting the boat crews and the air station by sending people into New Orleans to assist. For Gilbreath, the challenge, in addition to communications, was the command post’s location. Although it was a great location because they had phones and logistical support, there was still a need to be on scene, which is where the Incident Commander needed to be. The IC did travel to New Orleans frequently, while Gilbreath remained in Alexandria. He added that they were successful because, “they kept their eye on their mission and that was to save lives.”


A portrait photograph of Captain Terry Gilbreath, USCGQ: Could you please state your first name, your last name, and spell your last name?

CAPT Gilbreath: Captain Terry Gilbreath; G-I-L-B-R-E-A-T-H.

Q: And your rank in the Coast Guard?

CAPT Gilbreath: I’m a Captain in the Coast Guard.

Q: How long have you been in the Coast Guard?

CAPT Gilbreath: Twenty-two-and-a-half years.

Q: And can you briefly give us an overview of your career path that led to you being assigned here at MSO Morgan City?

CAPT Gilbreath: Okay. I’m a Coast Guard Academy graduate. After that I spent two years on a cutter out of Gulfport, Mississippi; a medium endurance cutter, and then two years as an XO on a 110 out of Miami, Florida. Graduate school at the University of Connecticut, then I taught at the Coast Guard Academy. I taught physics and chemistry. Then I went into the Marine Safety Program at Marine Safety Office Mobile, Alabama, did a tour at Headquarters and then came back to the Marine Safety Office Mobile, Alabama, as the executive officer. And then from there I was Captain of the Port in Louisville, Kentucky; at MSO Louisville, Kentucky, and then last summer of 2004 I got transferred to MSU Morgan City. 

Q: Okay. And prior to Katrina hitting the Gulf Coast what kinds of preparations were being made here at the MSO?

CAPT Gilbreath: Well we go through our normal hurricane preparations every year because we realize there’s a pretty good chance that we can get hit. So back in May, before the start of the hurricane season, we do a hurricane drill where we walk ourselves through the process and we go through and have an "All Hands" and discuss hurricane preparations. It’s just part of our normal hurricane planning session. So everyone here has to be thinking about that because there’s a pretty good chance that they may get hit.

Q: Okay. Now did your folks stay here at the MSO? Everybody lives in the surrounding areas. Did anybody evacuate?

CAPT Gilbreath: A great majority of our personnel evacuated but as part of Sector New Orleans, our sector hurricane plan, many of us were designated to go up to the sector command center or the remote command post up in Alexandria, Louisiana. So a great majority of our people went to Alexandria, Louisiana, not a great number but some of our people went up to Alexandria, Louisiana, to be part of the incident management team for Sector New Orleans. There were a few that went to other places. Some people went to family in Texas or what but a large majority of our people evacuated and then after the storm when it wasn’t so bad over here they came back to Morgan City.

Q: Now you went to Alexandria, is that correct?

CAPT Gilbreath: Correct. I was one of the deputy incident commanders. For the first week after the storm I was the Night Incident Commander from seven at night until seven in the morning. 

Q: And how did that work up there; was the ICS system working fairly smoothly or was there a lot of chaos [chuckle], or how did that work?

CAPT Gilbreath: Well for any major event there’s going to be a lot of chaos in the first few days and I think the management system that we have in place; the incident command system, was certainly a system that helped us try to overcome and try to manage that chaos. The incident command system is a command structure where we know who’s in charge of operations and planning and it’s a very detailed, laid out system that can grow or shrink depending on the size of the event. The incident command structure has been in place for many years primarily used by the fire service out in California who started it. But we’ve been doing the incident command system in the Coast Guard and the marine safety world for the last ten years and I’ve participated in many live exercises using incident command so I think we’re generally pretty schooled at it. I can’t say we’re experts at it but we’re pretty good. And that type of system, as long as you had a structure and you had a command and control organization I think it helped a lot to keep some of the chaos from getting out of our hands.

Q: Can you describe what was going on in the first few days that you were on duty there as the IC?

CAPT Gilbreath: Well as the nighttime incident commander usually at night there’s not a lot of search and rescue going on but in this particular instance they were doing rescues throughout the night. They were doing rescues as much as they could and our big role up there was really providing incident objectives and then part of the incident command system is to push those incident objectives down to the field level, and they were doing a great job. The pilots were doing everything they needed to do, the boat crews, and a lot of our organization up there was, number one: to keep an idea of what was going on as well as we could with our situation unit. But the other part of that was logistics; trying to provide them and keep information flowing around the Coast Guard since they were bringing in other helicopters and things, just trying to manage the logistical piece of that. So that’s really our main role up at the command center and we weren’t, as much as we all like and would have liked to have been down there helping, we weren’t able to, but that’s our role.

Q: Well what would you say were some of the challenges that you faced during that operational period?

CAPT Gilbreath: By far the most difficult was communications. During the storm the majority of cell phones were out and all of the local phones were out so the communications that we had were limited, very limited. We might be able to get through on a cell line maybe once every two or three hours so we didn’t have a constant communication link all the time. So we really were hampered by telephone systems being out and cellular services being out. That was probably the greatest challenge that we had.

Q: Okay, and the chain of communications with the command structure; Captain Paskewich was there. So you pretty much didn’t have any problems getting any kind of tasking or anything like that?

CAPT Gilbreath: No, not at all. I mean a lot of the night shift, we were doing a lot of the planning section; a lot of the planning and we were preparing the incident action plans and we were still running operations. The air ops people were very busy. We spent a lot of time fielding questions from people. We spent a lot of time fielding questions from Headquarters and staffs. When they stood up the joint task force we had several meetings throughout the night with them trying to focus efforts on how the joint task force was going to work with the Coast Guard. But I think all in all one of the successes of the mission was the fact that we kept our eye on our mission and that was to save lives.

Q: What kind of questions were they posing to you? Was this from District?

CAPT Gilbreath: Just everybody. I mean we had questions from . . . a portion of our time was spent doing public affairs interviews. We had press interviews and live television and live telephone conferences. You know we were doing, I did several talk shows. I can remember doing a WGN-Chicago live morning radio talk show and I did a talk show in New York and a talk show in Washington, so we did several of those. It kept us pretty busy. But there was a lot of informational flow and demands from Headquarters. We had information coming from governors’ offices, I mean asking questions because I think our command and control structure, by the fact that we even had a command and control structure, made us pretty successful. I know there were several agencies out there that struggle to . . . that organizational piece we had in place. We were up and running 24 hours before the storm even hit so when Hurricane Katrina hit the coast down near Venice we were up and running. We were ready to respond and we had our whole system ready to go.

Q: That was up in Alexandria?

CAPT Gilbreath: Yes.

Q: Okay.  And were there any particular safety issues discussed also within the command structure; like for instance the toxicity of maybe the water down here or anything like that?

CAPT Gilbreath: Well initially some of the safety issues that we dealt with were reports of gunfire and reports of shots being fired so we had to deal with security on top of rescues and we had to be very cautious about sending people out into the field. We wanted to make sure that they were secure also. So that was probably our first initial concern. Eventually, after a couple of days, then we really started focusing in on safety of our personnel, but for the people that were rescuing people off of rooftops, you know obviously they’re concerned about cuts and bruises and scrapes and all that but they really probably weren’t getting necessarily into the water as much. I think the boat people; the people that were driving flood punts and the ones that really had to get down into the . . . so we were concerned about it and we would just make sure that they were aware of that. But I think that their role is to be aware of their safety and then do the mission. I think they did well.

Q: Now were there any particular demands or frustrations that you felt at that time, like a particular pressure or maybe it was logistical in trying to get supplies and seeing on TV maybe? I’m sure you have like the news going, not that you have the time to watch it, but any particular things that caused that whole command structure a little bit more pressure and you felt like, “We really need to get this done”?

CAPT Gilbreath: Well there were pressures all the time, I mean just continuously something new to deal with, and I can’t say that any of them were more vexing than anything else. You know a lot of internal questions from other . . . we were having to do a lot of high level briefings. You know the President came into town and the Vice President and all these congressman, so that was the challenge for us is just to keep the informational demands but it’s just part of the game. I mean we knew that that was going to happen. I can’t say anything was more challenging than others. I mean it was very frustrating sometimes to see inactivity by others that kind of hampered our process but I can’t say that it was anymore than, you know it was a response and we deal with all . . . I mean you just roll up your sleeves and make it happen.

Q: Did you work with the state OEP at all?

CAPT Gilbreath: We had representatives down at the State Office of Emergency Preparedness and we had representatives in the city Office of Emergency Preparedness, so we kept as well as we could talking to them. And again, some of our communications were hampered. But we had representatives . . . as a matter of fact, like Plaquemines Parish; within a couple of days we sent representatives down to Plaquemines Parish because there was no one else we felt . . . and so we sent somebody down there to stay with them and help them through some of the process. And I think we were pretty successful in a lot of that liaison because we do a lot of that and a lot of drills, so I think that helped. 

Q: Now what was going on at the MSO here?

CAPT Gilbreath: Well at the Marine Safety Unit here we were . . . when you evacuate; when you tell your people to leave they have to come back in and reconstitute, so they were running they their own incident command. They were doing harbor patrols. They were doing pollution overflights. And then they were also supporting sending people into the city. We had mini-teams going in. We had several of our boat crews that went into Station New Orleans to help with small boat operations. I sent quite a few teams over to Air Station New Orleans just helping around the air station as they’re doing this massive air lift. They’re bringing in supplies and food and they needed people there to move things out of planes and clean up and just do support work, and so we sent a bunch of people in for that. Also a bunch of people doing, like I said, harbor patrols, pollution overflights and waterways management. We were working hard to get the Intracoastal Waterway open so that we could move traffic. That’s a critical part of our job is once the search and rescue was still going on we were looking at moving traffic up the Intracoastal Waterway; up the Atchafalaya Chafalaya River, so you could get barge traffic moving from Houston up the river for some of these critical fuel and chemicals that are needed up there.

Q: Now do you know which crews were deployed first in this area? I know there was a nine-vessel flotilla from Baton Rouge that came around. Were any of your crew personnel involved in that?

CAPT Gilbreath: They were not on that. That was all out of the ATNC; the Aides to Navigation Cutters, but we did send some of our boat crews over there to Station New Orleans to help with the operation and they were some of the first ones, I understand, that were over there to assist. But we weren’t part of that flotilla.

Q: Now how long were you in Alexandria?

CAPT Gilbreath: I stayed up there about three and a half weeks and I came back. I stayed up there principally . . . one of the challenges that we had was the fact that our command post was a great location. It was far enough away from the city that we still had phones and logistical support. You know we could go to the local Wal-Mart and we could go to places to buy things. It was far enough for that but it was also distance because a lot of things that were going on in the city there we needed the incident commander down in the city with General Honoree and the joint task force with the members of the port; the port commission, the port authorities and the river pilots. There were a lot of meetings with the city and we needed to be a part of that and Captain Paskewich needed to be down into the city. Captain Mueller went down to Station New Orleans to help rebuild the station and try to get boat operations up and running. So it really left . . . I stayed in Alexandria because I’m the only other captain assigned to the sector and that’s where I spent a majority of the next three weeks was staying up in Alexandria while those guys were doing all those flights. I never, as a matter of fact, me personally, I never went into the city as part of that because it’s not my . . . you know Paskewich and Captain Mueller are clearly the ones that needed to be there. So for me to stay up in Alexandria was a good thing, that I was able to try to balance a lot of things going on up there.

Q: How long were you in Alexandria?

CAPT Gilbreath: Three and a half weeks. I left three or four weeks prior to Rita because Rita was affecting and it looked like it was going to affect our zone here, and it did. Out on the western side of my zone we got hit by Rita. So that was the principal reason I was able to leave is just because I had to get back. As the Captain of the Port for this zone I had to be back in my zone to deal with Hurricane Rita. And we brought in some Reserve people to help run the incident command up there.

Q: Were any of the station personnel affected by Hurricane Katrina; did they have any homes damaged?

CAPT Gilbreath:
My people at MSU Morgan City?

Q: Yes.

CAPT Gilbreath: There were a few people that were affected. I have a lieutenant that just moved here from New Orleans who owns a house in New Orleans that got flooded but they had already moved all their stuff, but the house was going to be rented and now all of a sudden they’ve lost the income for that house. I have several other people that live in and around New Orleans that commute into Morgan City. So there were a handful but we were able to get ourselves up and running back at MSU Morgan City within a few days. 

Q: Yes.

CAPT Gilbreath: You know there were many people that lost a few things. I lost shingles on my house and I lost a tree, and the hurricane had quite a bit of effect out this way too but nothing compared to New Orleans.

Q: Now is there any memorable story that you’d care to share with us from this experience?

CAPT Gilbreath: You know I guess the memorable stories that I can remember, just the constant embed flow of things that were going on, you know, the decisions that we were making, sometimes were just, you know you’d make a decision based on like two minutes of information and you’d make a big decision. I was surprised at the ability of some of the Coast Guard, and I’m sure there are going to be questions asked, but the amount of major decisions that we were able to make and do and able to function, and some of the frustrations at watching others in inaction. I guess Captain Paskewich has probably told you about the incident that was working down at the 911 in New Orleans. Mayor Nagin . . . I guess several of the 911 operators didn’t show up and we had a Coast Guard ensign; a Reserve ensign that called us and said “Well I’m answering phones at the 911 center in New Orleans”, and we kind of went “Really? Why are you doing that”, and she said, “Well there’s no one else here. Is this okay?” And I said, “Oh yes, go ahead”. So she stayed there all night answering 911 phones for the Coast Guard.

There were a lot of other . . . and I’m sure that some of the guys who were actually down in the trenches can really tell you some of the major stories; some of the true life stories that were going on, but for us up in Alexandria I think the people of Alexandria did a wonderful job supporting us. We had several of the local schools providing cards and stuff saying good things. 
The other thing that I thought was really remarkable was the public affairs posture that came out of this. I know traditionally we struggle to get just a little blurb on the NBC Nightly News and they had, just for several days and a week after the hurricane, we were turning down national news programs. We’d say, “Well we don’t have time to do FOX, we’ll do CBS.” I mean that’s the level of the public affairs posture and they did a very good job handling that first few days with three people up in Alexandria. They handled just probably more media calls than we’ve ever handled in a short period of time. And we were doing, like I said, live interviews all the time, things that I probably wouldn’t have even thought about. You know, next thing I know I’m doing a live talk show in Chicago [chuckle]. Some of it was just kind of funny but it worked out and I think the Coast Guard people just did a wonderful job. They did their job and did what they were supposed to do.

Q: Did you have any PAs helping you out?

CAPT Gilbreath: There was the chief and a couple of other petty officers and that’s it for the first couple of days; Chief Bandrowski. And there was other petty officers like up in St. Louis where they were standing up the incident command post up there. There were others in Houston. So they were scattered all around but the three we worked with were doing a pretty good job just staying up all hours of the night. That was another . . . everyone was just burning on running 20 hour days and 18 hour days and that first week was somewhat of a blur because of some of the things that happened, but it was fun.

Q: I guess the adrenaline of everything that’s going on just keeps you fueled and going? 

CAPT Gilbreath: Oh absolutely, yes. You didn’t even want to go to sleep because you thought you’d miss something. And it was a challenge for like Captain Paskewich to just try to be aware of everything going on; your situational awareness, to be able to go and take four to six hours of sleep and by the time that you came back things are all different and it took you a good 30 minutes to an hour just to see where things were at that point. So that was a challenge because it was always something new and if you weren’t there all the time you’d miss stuff. And usually like for me, standing the night watch, I’d go from seven at night until seven in the morning but then we’d have an eight o’clock morning brief that I would do so I was up until eight. And then the next thing you know there’d be another nine o’clock conference call and then ten o’clock something else. So for the first week I probably wasn’t going to bed until noon or one and I’d get up at five so I might get four or five hours of sleep, but it didn’t bother me. I was fine with it.

Q: Did you ever get a chance to go to New Orleans or Venice or any of those spots?

CAPT Gilbreath: No. Since I’m not the sector commander and I’m not the Captain of the Port of New Orleans, my role really . . . I would have been a passenger so I did not. I’ve had several opportunities to go into the city since then but not during the event. 

Q: Yes, but after the event.

CAPT Gilbreath: Oh yes. Afterwards I’ve been around but not during the initial event because the people that needed to get down there were the ones I was putting on the planes. It wasn’t me. I was cautious about that. I didn’t want them going, “He’s just taking a flight”, and so I didn’t do that.

Q: Now is there anything that we haven’t covered that you’d like to share with us?

CAPT Gilbreath: No. I think as a sector, Sector New Orleans had stood up nine to ten days before this event had happened and we’ve been operating as a sector pretty much for the last six months anyway. We’ve had a sector command center. We do daily sector briefs. And frankly I think a lot of the relationships between the sector command; Captain Paskewich and Captain Mueller, we’ve all worked together in the past so I think that helped a lot. There was really no burden or anything there between the three of us. I think everything went very well because of that. The sector did a good job. I think the concept of the sector was good. I think there are some refinements that we need to make as with any operation. I think the frustrating thing obviously for us is the fact that we couldn’t pick up the phone and call somebody down in New Orleans because we just had limited communications. It was very, very challenging but it was good. It was a good time. I’m glad I’m around to have been able to do it. 

Q: Thank you very much.

CAPT Gilbreath: Okay, I appreciate it. It was fun. 

END OF INTERVIEW


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