Katrina Archival & Historical Record Team (KART)
LCDR Gilreath was deployed to Zephyr Field after three of his crews had already been deployed to New Orleans. He served as the Coast Guard representative for the Unified Command. There were approximately 600 people operating from Zephyr Field; of these 600, approximately 60 to 65 were Coast Guardsmen.
When Gilreath arrived, SAR operations had been temporarily suspended due to reports of shots being fired at law enforcement officials and rescuers. The Unified Command had two principle players, the Coast Guard and
FEMA. According to Gilreath, by September 8, more than 12,000 people had been evacuated from Zephyr Field. He said that he would not be surprised if that number reached 13,000 because the FEMA report did not cover the Coast Guard numbers for the first several days.
For Gilreath, the biggest challenge was logistics. He had never been involved with an operation where he had to build everything from scratch. “If you did not bring it with you, you did not have it.” It took a week before supplies started to reach them. The other challenge was communications. Communication was extremely difficult. Phone lines were jammed, cell phones were not working, and the satellite phones were undependable. The only complaint that he heard from the Coast Guardsmen was that they wanted to do more.
Quote: “They gave 100 % everyday.”
Q: Okay, could you please state your first name, your last name, and spell your last name out?
LCDR Gilreath: First name is Shannon, last name is Gilreath, and that’s spelled G-I-L-R-E-A-T-H.
Q: And your rank in the Coast Guard?
LCDR Gilreath: I’m a lieutenant commander and I’m the Commanding Officer of Marine Safety Unit Baton Rouge.
Q: Okay. Could you briefly give us an overview of your career that led to you being stationed at Baton Rouge?
LCDR Gilreath: I graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in ’91 and I went to a 270 in Virginia; the Northland. Then I came here to MSO New Orleans in 1993 where I was a marine inspector for five years. After that I got picked up for law school and stayed here in New Orleans at Tulane. I went there for three years. Then I went to District 8 Legal Office for the next four years and then I talked to Captain Paskewich who was CO of MSO New Orleans and some other folks and was fortunate enough to get picked up for the job of CO of MSO Baton Rouge. So that’s kind of how I got here.
Q: Now just prior to Katrina coming ashore what were you doing; what kind of preparations were you making at Baton Rouge?
LCDR Gilreath: Our preparations really started in earnest on that Saturday morning before Katrina; they really kind of started Friday night. I happened to be on leave at the time in Florida. My XO called me and said the storm was turning towards New Orleans and there was going to be a meeting that next morning, so I drove back all night to get back to Baton Rouge for that morning meeting. I sent my wife and daughter to Georgia with my family so that I wouldn’t have to worry about them and then we started kind of going through making sure that everything was tied down, inspecting our fleets, going to our facilities giving them the word on what was going on, getting all our vehicles gassed up; fueled up, parked properly, kind of following a hurricane plan at that stage and making sure our people had the stuff they needed to take care of themselves during the storm.
Q: Okay, and after the storm blew through what did your unit decide to do; what was your tasking? Did you have some people come to New Orleans, some people stay there?
LCDR Gilreath: What we did originally, as the storm was still kind of going through I got a phone call from Commander Rawson of the ICP wanting to know about what our waterway status was and whether or not we could open up the river again, so we were kind of on the back end now of the tropical storm force winds at that stage. So I got a team of four people together, we came into the office and we started basically going from downtown Baton Rouge towards New Orleans running the levees as far as we could go to try to get a waterway assessment for him; to find out what was going on in that sense. So we did that the first night until nightfall because after that it was too unsafe to keep going after dark because nobody had power. There were downed trees everywhere. I was concerned about safety of our people after dark. So we came in and that’s kind of when we started hearing the stuff. We also had two boats, so we checked on our boats to make sure - one of them was CASREPed but one of them was operational - and we wanted to make sure of their status so we could use that. I reported that in. The next morning; about 4 in the morning, I got - communications were very hard; to get a hold . . . because the phone lines in Baton Rouge were jammed and cell phone service didn’t work very well - but about 4 that morning I got a hold of Commander Duckworth up at ICP and he said that the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries had taken over or was doing the SAR ops for the state and he said, “Send any SAR assets you have there.” So I called my boat crew; three people. I called my senior coxswain at the moment; BM2 Ryan McKay, and then he called BM1 Gonzales and MST2 Forte and got them together, got in our 24-foot UTLT and sent them to New Orleans, or sent them first to Baton Rouge to the Wildlife and Fisheries headquarters and then from there, with orders, to go to New Orleans to help do SAR work for Wildlife and Fisheries. And then if they couldn’t find a place to stay that night they’d come back that night. So that’s kind of what we did SAR-wise. The rest of the unit we brought in and reconstituted that morning and we started still doing the waterways management stuff. We didn’t have any power, our phones didn’t work, any of that kind of stuff. So we just tried to go as far as we could south along the river. We continued where we started the day before and we made it actually into New Orleans, I think to mile 105 on one side of the river and 115 on the other side before we couldn’t go any further, kind of just surveying the facilities, the river conditions, the boats that we could see and what was going on and trying to pass the information back to the sector. So that’s kind of what we did on that day.
That night we were at the state OEP office and I was trying to check on my boat crew because I hadn’t heard back from them, because we didn’t have comms with them and they weren’t able to call back to us apparently. Later when I got back from the state OEP office I was coming by the office to check on some things and saw some of my reservists there, and what had happened apparently was the coxswain had gotten a hold of one my reservists who was also one of my coxswains and said, “Look, we’re broken down. We made it out of the city but we’re broken down and we need help. We need another tow vehicle. Our vehicle is shot. We need another one” - not shot literally but the transmission was ruined in it – “and we need body armor because we were in a riot.” rioting around us and that kind of stuff. “We need our guns and body armor.” So that reservist did call us. His name is MST1 James Wood. He had called two other reservists; a Petty Officer Shelton (Donald “Scotty” Shelton) who’s a PS3 and an MST2 Beau Braswell, all reservists, and they got a team together with all the body armor, all our weapons that we had, with some extra supplies, and drove into Gramercy at night. They got down there after midnight sometime because they didn’t leave our unit until probably before almost midnight. They found our original boat crew, changed vehicles out and then they went to a fire station there near Westwego and slept on the floor down there. So that’s what they did on the first day.
CDR Gilreath: Day 2 or 3, that Wednesday; August 31, they got up and they started to go back to Wildlife and Fisheries, again, their headquarters at the causeway and I-10, and they can tell you more about what they did after that. But they went back to the same area they’d operated the day before. They couldn’t launch the boat because the water had risen too much to safely launch the boat without destroying the tow vehicle. This was down off St. Claude Avenue down in the lower 9th Ward. So when they couldn’t do that they went back to Wildlife and Fisheries. Wildlife and Fisheries wanted them to guard some of their vehicles for them because of the rioting and stuff like that and I had given them direct orders to not do that. They could not do any law enforcement at all. They could do SAR but no law enforcement inside the city. So they told them they couldn’t do that. They were kind of cursed at and so they went and found another job. So they went over to the West Bank where they had a vehicle casualty to their boat trailer. So they had to park the boat; found a place to park it at the Naval Support Activity Algiers and then they made their way to Algiers ferry landing. I don’t know how they found that but they found that ferry landing and they saw people that were there that were coming off the ferries. I think the Coast Guard Cutter Pamlico was kind of helping run that operation. They helped offload about 4,000 people and after about 1700 or so the National Guard folks and Wildlife and Fisheries folks that were with them providing the transportation and some of the law enforcement presence left and abandoned them; left them with just the, well six other Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s Officers and two New Orleans Police Department officers with 2,000 people there that had no transportation, no shelter, no additional food and water, any of that kind of stuff, there at the ferry landing.
Q: So the local officials just left?
LCDR Gilreath: Well it was getting . . . I guess they had a curfew at some point. I mean it really wasn’t safe to be out at night. It was not safe at all to be out at night. Really it was not safe to be out unarmed and our folks were armed at that point in time. But they kind of made a pact with the other parish; Calcasieu Parish, and said, “Look, if you won’t leave and you help us, we’ll help you.” And so they, together, worked to find transportation for those 2,000 people to get them out of there and to Baton Rouge. So they somehow found, they commandeered some buses on the West Bank somewhere, probably buses that were designed or designated to go to the Superdome. And probably those bus drivers, although I don’t think that our Coast Guard folks did it - I think the police department did it - said, “We’re commandeering these buses on behalf of the Coast Guard”, or something. But they got them somehow. They got 20 buses and loaded up the 2,000 people that were remaining, got them on those buses and got them out of there, which I thought was a tremendous accomplishment, because some of those same folks had been near a riot the day before that broke out when the National Guard folks pulled out leaving those folks abandoned without any other shelter. They’d moved them out of their houses to save them from the floodwaters . . .
Q: And left them.
LCDR Gilreath: . . . and then at dark or before dark at 1700 they just stopped their operation and left, and now these folks have got no shelter, no nothing, so they rioted. They were angry and they rioted. So I think our folks showed tremendous judgment in recognizing that we’ve got to get a way to get these people out of here or some of the sick and wounded and hurt people that were there weren’t going to live throughout the night, particularly if they started rioting again. So they found transportation for them and got them out of there.
Q: And they took them to Baton Rouge, is that where they went?
LCDR Gilreath: They sent the buses to Baton Rouge. Our folks didn’t go with them.
LCDR Gilreath: They just loaded them on the buses. Those 12 people or 14 people loaded 2,000 people. They were the only security for them, everything; loaded them on – first aid, everything – got them on those buses and got them out of there.
Q: And do you know where they went to once they got to Baton Rouge?
LCDR Gilreath: I don’t know which shelter those folks went to, I just know they got them on the buses and sent them to Baton Rouge.
Our folks, after that, they tried to go to a fire station or a police department to get showers and they couldn’t do it there. They wound up on the floor of the gym at the Naval Air Station there in Bellchase and slept there.
Then at the same time; on that Wednesday, I had a second boat crew, or my MKs, my engineers; boat engineers, were working, we have a 23-foot UTLT that had been CASREPed for more than four months awaiting parts and hadn’t been run or anything because we needed parts to fix it. I sent them to work working on that boat trying to get it operational because I felt like we were going to need more boats because by now we were hearing stuff on the radio about the need for boats and stuff in New Orleans. They worked throughout the day and they took the boat to, I think it was Boats Unlimited in Baton Rouge where those folks did a tremendous job helping us because they basically found parts for our motors by taking them from brand new motors they had there to sell to the public. They took those boat parts off, put them on our motors to get our motors back up and running and I think they just charged us for parts. I don’t think they charged us labor or anything. You know they just did all that for us to get us running. We got that boat together and they staged for the next day to come to New Orleans. So on that Thursday morning I sent my second team down – well actually it’s my third team - into New Orleans; three more people. This time it was Petty Officer Leger leading the team; an MST1, MK2 Jack Smith and MK3 Courtney Thibault who went down to one of the other boats with orders to meet up with our other boat crew and do what was needed to save lives, and they happened to run into them trying to get fuel. They called them. They had a personal cell phone they were able to reach them on and they then diverted and went to Zephyr Field.
That same Thursday morning I got a call from Commander Paradis from the ICP there in Alexandria and he told me, “Go to Zephyr Field”, and so that’s when I went to Zephyr Field after that. So I took Lieutenant (jg) - he goes by Levin but his name is Daniel - Brown with me and we went to Zephyr Field, and I wasn’t really sure what I was going to find at Zephyr Field and then I got there.
Q: And what were you tasked to do there?
LCDR Gilreath: My orders when I left were we needed a strong command presence at Zephyr Field. So when I got there, there was another Lieutenant Commander there; Lieutenant Commander Darryl Schaffer, who at that time was the Coast Guard’s rep to the Unified Command. He had done a lot of work trying to set all this up. He, I think, was emotionally spent because I think he had lost his house and wasn’t sure about the status of his family, and he was just overwhelmed with everything that was going on because there was a whole lot going on with that, and SAR ops had been suspended and everything. So I basically saw where he was at and decided that I needed to relieve him because he needed to get out of there. So I relieved him and kind of took over as the Coast Guard rep to the Unified Command.
At that time Zephyr Field had about 600 folks working this Unified Command of which about 60 to 65 folks were Coast Guard and the other 600 or 550 folks were USAR teams, and that’s Urban Search and Rescue Teams that work for FEMA. They come from around the country. There were teams there from Texas, from California, Florida, Tennessee, Missouri, Montana - I’m sure I’m leaving off some - New Mexico and Arizona at different points in time. Those teams are 70 to 80 people. Some of the larger teams might be 100 people and some of the smaller teams might be 50 people and it kind of varied in size. But they are trained teams and they primarily do rescue work for like say earthquakes, building collapses, structural damage and things like that. Very few of those teams had any boats. They were great paramedics, firefighters and all that stuff but they had no boats. So we had our Coast Guard boats that were there. The Coast Guard contingent; there were 36 folks and 12 boats from the St. Louis area; from MSO St. Louis and Group Upper that sent their DART teams down. Then we had some flatboats; two large flatboats, and some of what they call TANB Boats, and forgive me if I don’t know the exact terminology of how to tell you exactly what team the boat is but it’s a 21-foot or so Deep-V diesel-powered aluminum boat, okay, used to haul ATNs, and we used them a lot but they weren’t really good boats to use inside of the city, just like our UTLT wasn’t the best boat to use inside the city. It’s too big. We had three of those from them and then I think ANT New Orleans had a boat there to help out as well. So we had those boats and there were boats from EPA, U.S. Wildlife and Fisheries and the U.S. Geological Service had some boats there as well. We were supposed to have boats from Wildlife and Fisheries but they were kind of doing their own mission somewhere else.
These USAR teams, like I said, there were about 600 of them. They were kind of represented by what they call a blue - the acronym was IST and I think it stood for Incident Support Team, which are FEMA trained but aren’t necessarily all FEMA employees. They are a team. They drill together. They work together at these accidents and disasters and stuff like that, so they had some experience working together. They kind of were in an ICS structure already. They were led by Dave Webb who was a FEMA employee, a tremendous man, who did a wonderful job there. He was kind of their leader. Their kind of deputy was a guy by the name of Paul Strickland who I think was a FEMA employee but I’m not certain. After that, all the rest of those folks; the chief of planning, the chief of ops, the chief of logistics, were all non-FEMA employees but were a part of this team. They may have come from other areas and their teams may not have actually been there but they were FEMA trained in this role; to serve in the jobs that they were in. They kind of formed the nucleus of our ICS structure there as far as our staff positions, as far as that goes.
The Unified Command, there were really two principle players: that was the Coast Guard and FEMA who was representing the USAR teams. We had some other local agencies that were with us but in reality they didn’t do a lot. They didn’t provide much in the terms of resources or people or info or guidance. Wildlife and Fisheries was supposed to be there. I didn’t see them very often. Jefferson Parish; not their sheriff but one of their chief deputies was there and he was there fairly often. And then later we brought in some folks from New Orleans Fire Department who were represented and the New Orleans Police Department would sometimes come in, so that was kind of our unified command. But again, the principle players were the Coast Guard and FEMA representing the USAR teams. The other federal agencies that were there providing boats weren’t part of the unified command structure as far as making the command decisions, they just provided assets. I’m really not sure why. You know in hindsight maybe we should have had them in there more playing in that role but their role was just to provide boats for us.
Q: Well were you able to utilize their assets?
LCDR Gilreath: Oh absolutely. We used their assets in the daily planning because, like I said, the USAR teams themselves didn’t have, or very few of them had boats, so when we went out to the different areas we had to use our boats and their boats to transport these folks on the waterside.
I probably should - I don’t know if this is a good time to explain it or stop me if I’m going too fast. I don’t know what direction you want me to go in - the way that, I think I’ve told you the general overview structure of how it was set up. What we tried to do, or what we did was, we’d divide the city up into sections, okay, and they were based on some of the primary streets, then we would send these teams from Zephyr Field to these parts of the city. And we would do three types of searches. The first type of search is called a hasty search, the second was a primary search and the third was a secondary search. The hasty search was designed to get into an area, find the people using bullhorns or whatever - you know usually you could find the people. They would see you and wave you down or flag you down or whatever - and get them to come to the boats or we’d bring the boat to them and get them on the boat and pull them out of there. That was kind of the hasty search and you kind of went block by block by block in this area to try to find the people and get them out. The primary searches were when you actually went up to a house and you physically touched the house. You either knocked on the roof because the water was flooded up to the roofline, okay; you knocked on the roof or you knocked on the door if the water was only up to the door or to the porch or wherever. You’d knock on the door or a window or whatever but you physically would knock on the house and listen for a response. If you heard a response then you would access the house and try and enter it and try to find the people and where they were at. Those were the primary searches. The last search was a secondary search and that’s more of the, in fact it was going room by room by room by room doing a complete search of the entire house. That was not something that we were involved in early on and it’s not something that we needed to be involved in, in my opinion, at that time because we were still just trying to rescue as many people as we could. That secondary search was used later on or it was used when you had Intel that there was somebody in a particular house. Maybe we got a 911 call routed to us at some point in time or someone had come up to us and said, “There’s somebody in this house.” That was kind of when the secondary search techniques were used. Otherwise that was for way down the line after I left that and I think we didn’t need to be involved in that secondary search because by the time you got to do doing those you’re talking body recovery and we did not want to do body recovery. That was not one of our missions there, at least from the Coast Guard side. I think it became a mission later from the FEMA side of the Unified Command. But what we did was we would try to send those teams out, set up and go to these areas. We’d pick areas that were based on where we thought people were at, where we could get to and launch our boats and areas that were not as threatening, at least to begin with.
The thing that I need to explain is that to get from Zephyr Field to anywhere inside the city that was flooded you had to go by convoys, okay, and there was only one way to get to the flooded part of the city and that is to leave Zephyr Field, which is on the Airline Highway or Highway 61, it’s just kind of about in the middle of, well it’s just east of the airport and west of the parish line, kind of in the middle there. You had to leave there, go to the Huey P. Long Bridge, cross the Huey P. Long Bridge, go across the West Bank on the West Bank Expressway, go across the Crescent City Connection, and then from there, depending on where you would go, you’d spread out because you could go on I-10 towards the City Park exit but you couldn’t get all the way because that was where it was flooded out. So I-10 was underwater there and you could only go a little bit in that direction. You could take I-10 east toward the High Rise. Right before you got to the High Rise you could get off on 610 but you could only go less than a mile on 610 before it started to dip and it was underwater. Going east in the city you could cross the High Rise but then the I-10 was underwater so you had to get off on what’s called Chef Mentour Highway which is Highway 90, and you could go up Highway 90 for a ways and then Highway 90 was underwater and it was impassable. And then the final way you could go is you could get off somehow in the city and kind of snake your way along close to the river, either towards St. Charles Avenue or towards the French Quarter, okay, snaking your way around to get places. But everything else was underwater. So logistically speaking, to get from point “A” to point “B” it took about an hour to get from Zephyr Field to finally get over into the flooded part of the city and then you had to find a place to launch your boat in your assigned area.
To launch your boats, that was a real challenge as well because it depended upon the type of boat you had and it also depended upon where you could launch it from. Boats that were on their own trailers needed to kind of be launched from boat ramps or you could use the down ramps or onramps from the interstate to kind of launch it and back it into the water. The little flood punts that we had, the great thing about those is you could launch them just about anywhere. So they could pick them up, sometimes they picked them up and set them on the water off a down ramp off an interstate. Other places they’d have to launch them from the roadway because there was no down ramp off of the interstate anywhere. So that was kind of how you launched boats.
Q: And were there any kind of hazards in launching boats that way that they relayed back to you; the teams that went out, or were they just pretty much . . . ?
LCDR Gilreath: There were hazards everywhere. I mean I can try to tell you the hazards that I’m aware of but there are security hazards. On those first few days that we were launching the boats the security hazards were even larger because a lot of the folks had made their way to the onramps. Some rescue ops would take them back and leave them on the onramps. I mean there were lots of civilian rescues going on out there as well and they weren’t coordinated as to where they took them and all that, so you take the people and put them on the onramp. So you had just mobs of people on the ramps, on the interstates and on the highways so that was an issue. Launching them from the interstate; everything was flooded. I mean I over-flew it. I’ve lived in this area for 12 years. I was shocked, amazed. The pictures that you see on TV cannot do it justice because everything was underwater, everything. And when you see a picture on TV you think, “Okay, well that’s one little area.” It doesn’t just register automatically in your mind that it’s not just that one little area that you’re seeing, it’s everywhere is like that.
Q: It keeps going.
LCDR Gilreath: It keeps going and going and going and going and going, it’s all underwater. And the houses, you’d have houses that were flooded to the roof line. You’d have houses that it was flooded just in the street, you know, but it was all flooded. You know if you drew a line from St. Charles Avenue and went north to the lake everything in that area would be underwater. And everything in East New Orleans was underwater and everything in Chalmette was underwater except for maybe a mile at different places along the river, which is the very highest ground, but everything else was all underwater. So when they launched their boats, you know, you’d have victims that were floating in the water. You’d have dead animals floating in the water. You had broken gas mains. You had downed power lines everywhere. You had submerged vehicles. You had submerged street signs and fences. And the water level would vary depending on where you were at because the terrain, although it’s still a bowl, varies in New Orleans as well. So there are all kinds of obstacles that you have when you go to launch your boat and then navigating it gets even worse.
Q: Yes. And the teams; were they integrated with FEMA or it was like a FEMA team and a Coast Guard team, how did that work?
LCDR Gilreath: The way we did it is it changed through time. On that first Thursday that I got there on the 1st there were no SAR teams out at all because our ops had been suspended because of the threats of violence that had gone on and there were reports of helicopters that had been shot at. We knew about at least one National Guard individual who had been shot there at the Superdome. We had been told that there were New Orleans Police Department folks that had been shot and we also had been told that there were shots fired at a rescue worker, so all those ops were suspended for that day. On that Friday when we started them back up again we had combined teams of Coast Guard folks and then we had teams that had no Coast Guard folks in it at all that went out from Zephyr Field that went to other parts of the city. We’d use those assets from other agencies for transportation.
Q: Did you configure these teams so that you’d have medical; I mean how were the crews constituted? I mean did that have a lot to do with whether it was all FEMA or all Coast Guard?
LCDR Gilreath: No, it had more to do with the boats and transportation about how we divided it up, at least initially. All that changed as we were able to get additional security folks in from the MSST teams that had come in. Lieutenant Commander Sean Regan had provided us a bunch of help in that regard. I mean that happened really . . . the first MSST operation that I was involved in happened on that Saturday. But to try to answer your question; when we were able to get MSST support, PSU support, TACLET, they then became the security for all of our FEMA teams that went out. We had six guns between the 65 people that we had there at Zephyr Field, Coast Guard wise, and those were the only dedicated law enforcement, or at least guns, that we could depend on everyday for the entire 600 people we had there to do these SAR ops. So we developed tactics to try to protect at least the Coast Guard teams that were going out as best we could. So what we did was we talked to the folks from St. Louis. I talked to, there’s a Lieutenant John Goebel, Lieutenant Alfred Jackson and Lieutenant Chris Pisares and then there were some other folks there, and I asked them, “Hey, you’re the DART experts. These are your teams. We’ve got six guns. How are we going to make this work to protect you the best we can, because priority one is we need to do ops and we don’t have body armor for you. We don’t have any more guns. We don’t have any of that kind of stuff. We need to do operations. I want to keep you as safe as possible. We’re asking for this stuff. We’ll get it eventually but if you don’t feel like we can do this safely we can’t do it.” So we worked with them and what we did is we set up a command and control kind of idea where you’d have one DART boat that would have two armed individuals on it, not a coxswain but two armed individuals with body armor and they would kind of be the boat that would control three other DART boats, and that way we split up our six guns between our 12 boats and sent those teams out. It worked pretty well because the communications were very difficult everywhere and it was even difficult in the field when those boats had radios because they were basically line of sight. So when those boat folks were, let’s say up underneath a house or a porch pulling people out, they couldn’t really talk to the person a block away or two blocks away so they had to try to stay together as best they could and that kind of command and control structure kind of worked for them where you’d have that one boat kind of being in charge with those two security folks, and the other boats would free up so they could carry more evacuees and more people that were rescued out of there. So that’s kind of how we did that. And then we would put a USAR/FEMA person with them as well to help with chainsaws and other stuff like that to help access the houses. There were medical personnel with them as well. The DART teams came with two HS’s, or at least the ones from St. Louis came with two HS’s. So they had those back at the launch points and so they would treat the people as they got out. The FEMA teams all had paramedics; top individuals working with them as well. Sometimes those folks would be in the boat. Sometimes they would be at the launch point to help the individuals when we pulled them out there. And then the final way we got them medical help was we would eventually be able to call and get medevacs for them. We worked that out with the air station where we got a dedicated channel, at least from the Coast Guard side, where we could get a hold of our helos that were doing tremendous work and get a hold of them and help us medevac folks. And then some of the other USAR teams were able to hook up with other National Guard folks or other DOD department folks that were out there and arrange medevacs. And then beginning on Sunday - it might have been Saturday now - September the 3rd; I think it’s September the 3rd or September the 4th; that Sunday, FEMA was able to obtain a couple of helos for us to use to do medevacs and so then we had those available to us as well that we could call using the FEMA teams and the FEMA radios to get back to our command post and tell us, “Hey, here’s an individual”, and we would then plot it and get them out there to him; get him help that way.
Q: Now were you coordinating the other Coast Guard assets from your location; like the Pamlico was here?
LCDR Gilreath: No.
Q: Okay, so that wasn’t coming from you. You just were coordinating the teams that were at Zephyr Field?
LCDR Gilreath: I was in charge of coordinating the Coast Guard teams at Zephyr Field and being the Coast Guard representative to the Unified Command. So I drove the Coast Guard asset part where we sent our Coast Guard assets from Zephyr Field and I, as the Coast Guard representative, helped say where we were going to send the whole USAR teams that weren’t Coast Guard related or Coast Guard teams themselves.
LCDR Gilreath: The other operations that were ongoing, I didn’t really know what else was going on other than I could see the air station because they were flying and I was able to arrange over-flights with them going back through the state OEP office. There were Coast Guard folks in the SAR side of that that we were able to call and could get into them using SAT phones occasionally and they could arrange and pass information to the air station for us. The Pamlico folks, they were on their own for the first several days. On that Friday I think the Spencer, maybe that Thursday, the Spencer came up and I think the Spencer then kind of took control of that operation at that point in time. I saw the Spencer on my over-flight on that Friday morning. She was anchored in the middle of the river there in downtown so they were kind of doing their own thing. We were involved with them only to the extent that as we were transiting the river we would hear back from them at times, and because they were ATON folks (PAMLICO’s teams) and I had ANT folks with us, they knew each other, and so we were able to use the TANBs to supply them with food and water and MREs and stuff like that that were there at Zephyr Field. We were able to take them stuff that way. But as far as what they actually did and where they were sending their teams, I didn’t control that at all. They did all that on their own. The same with the station . . . .
Q: Station New Orleans?
LCDR Gilreath: Station New Orleans here; they did tremendous work here. Dan Brooks and the folks here did just tremendous work. They were kind of working from the lakeside, I think, in, whereas we were kind of going from the inside out because we had the littler boats; the smaller boats, to get inside of the city and they faced the same thing I was facing with the larger boats is you’ve got levees that are still intact. You can’t get across those levees with those larger boats. So they were kind of working their own operation as well and they all did tremendous work. Everybody worked just . . . I mean I can’t say enough good things about every Coast Guard person that was here. They gave it their all everyday, 100% all the time. They never stopped working. I mean the living conditions that these folks were in and under . . . and you know the only complaint that I ever got was, “I want to do more.” I mean they didn’t complain about no showers or not porta-potties or no decontamination stations, or any of that kind of stuff. Stuff that they absolutely had to have they didn’t complain about that. They only complained when you couldn’t use them from dawn to dusk working their tails off. That’s the only time they ever complained and then they didn’t complain much. You know it was just like, “Hey, we want to do more.” They worked hard. Everybody worked hard.
Q: And you really didn’t have communications with these various units, did you?
LCDR Gilreath: We didn’t have communications with anybody. I mean it wasn’t just the units. The best communications were face-to-face but even with our own units that were working for us, what I did Coast Guard wise is, I said, “Here’s my expectations. Here’s what I want you to do. You’re all responsible people that I have in charge of them. Go do the mission. If it’s unsafe don’t do it, pull out and get back with us.” But I couldn’t talk to them very well, at least initially, when they went out in the field. I had to trust them to do their job and they did it phenomenally. I mean they did stuff on their own. They solved problems on their own out there because I couldn’t talk to them and they couldn’t talk back to me. By the same token I couldn’t talk to Alexandria or the state OEP office very well at all because the SAT phones were unreliable and they didn’t work. I think part of our problems with the SAT phones were there was a helo base that they set up right in Zephyr Field right beside us, and so when you were finally able to get on the phone with somebody and get through via a SAT phone and you’re waiting on hold to try to reach the individual, a helicopter would go across and it would cut you off; it would drop you off. So everybody was trying to get communications but it was pretty much nonexistent. I mean I was able to get through to Alexandria at night after about 11 o’clock. From about 11 o’clock to probably 5 o’clock in the morning you could get through to Alexandria because the phone lines weren’t jammed during those times usually. During the day the phone lines were always jammed when you were trying to call into Alexandria or you were trying to call into the state OEP office. By the same token I’m sure that they were trying to call me and they couldn’t get a hold of me either because the cell phones normally didn’t work. Our unit cell phones didn’t work at all. And like I said, the SAT phones just didn’t work well at all. It was just very, very difficult to get comms with anybody.
Q: So what was the most effective means of communication, just face-to-face?
LCDR Gilreath: Face-to-face without a doubt.
Q: And did you use the Nextel text messaging; that seemed to . . . ?
LCDR Gilreath: We didn’t use Nextel text messaging down here. Our phones that we had, had that capability with Alltel, that had the Nextel stuff, but the Alltel was out at least initially down here so we didn’t have that at all. Plus, you know, in hindsight maybe we could have gotten some more of those phones and brought them with us; different phones to use, that might have done better. The communications that seemed to work best at all were from . . . the people from St. Louis had a few cell phones that you could reach St. Louis because those numbers weren’t jammed. If you had a cell phone provider whose tower was still up somewhere in here and you were trying to dial way out of state somewhere else, you could get though to them sometimes but you couldn’t get through to area code 504 numbers, 225 numbers or 318 numbers. Any of those numbers you could never get through because those lines were always busy or almost always busy when you tried to call them.
Q: Now how were you able to communicate with your chain of command? I mean what were you . . . ?
LCDR Gilreath: Probably not to the liking of my chain of command because I mean I tried to call them . . . .
Q: You were basically on your own?
LCDR Gilreath: They let me run with stuff on my own, which I was very fortunate because there’s absolutely no way that . . . first of all I’m not sure how we were able to get the job done as we did but there’s no way I could have done that job; maintaining our folks, keeping our folks headed in the right direction and continually briefing someone at the same time about what we were doing because there’s just too much happening, going on, trying to get all this working. So I was fortunate in the sense that I was kind of free to do what I thought needed to be done and then get a hold of them and tell them what I could, and they didn’t give me a hard time about that which, “Thank you very much for letting me do that Sir because I never would have gotten it done otherwise.” So I would just try to call back at night and tell them, “This is what we’re doing”, and it got better as it went along because our comms slowly got better. We got more staff there; more people there and we kind of grew to the point where now I had regular contacts with folks who I could call up and tell them, “Hey, this is what we’re doing today”, in advance so they would know this is what our plan is for the next day, you know, and try and tell them what’s up next, so to speak, and where we’re headed.
Then Captain Mueller came down on several occasions to talk to us and find out what was going on. We had other folks from Alexandria come down and talk to us. We had folks from OEP that would fly down. They’d get overflights down to see us every now and then and we’d tell them, “Hey, this is what we need. This is what’s going on. This is kind of where we’re headed.” And we got better organized as it went on but in the first couple of days it was very chaotic dealing with anybody or talking to anybody.
Q: Well do you have any ideas on how communications could be improved in a situation like this in the future, I mean now that you’ve actually been through it?
LCDR Gilreath: Well here’s what we did for Rita based on what I learned from Katrina: we went out and bought a cell phone from every cell phone service provider that we could find so that when the towers went down we would at least have some cell phone from somewhere that would work. We obtained Nextel’s from the state police because they had gotten a new shipment in so that we could use Nextel’s if we needed to, to call people if the cell phone service went down, and we still had the SAT phones. I mean it was possible that you could find a place where they’d work somewhere. The ones that we had just didn’t work for us. So we tried every form of communication I could think of and I had gotten one of those Treos to try to use the internet to text somebody about what was going on if we had to have that. So we tried that as well to be prepared for the next time around.
The other thing that I think might work is to make it more cost effective. If you can buy the cell phones where you get the calling card to call in or prepaid minutes or something instead of having to sign a contract because that makes it a lot cheaper for you in the end, especially if you don’t wind up using it because of the storm. But that’s what I would say; that and face-to-face are the best ways to do it because in this kind of atmosphere there’s no Coast Guard message traffic that you can set up to do things with. We didn’t really have email; to be able to email stuff and reports, to get to other people. It was pretty much face-to-face, get a hold of who you could send . . . we sent people to Baton Rouge occasionally to pass messages for logistics, supplies and stuff like that, but it’s pretty much face-to-face, and that’s the best way that I think worked for us.
Q: Okay. Working in the unified command structure, how was that; did things go smoothly or could things have been improved in interfacing with FEMA and the other people that were reporting there at Zephyr Field?
LCDR Gilreath: It got . . . just like everything else except for the water, okay, things got better as it went along and as we got more experience working in it. I think one of the challenges that we had was that we had not worked with this blue IST, or I’d never done anything like this before. But I’m not sure if the Coast Guard had ever drilled with the blue IST team before so I’m not sure that they really truly understood what we could bring to the table, and we started integrating into their structure more. And like I said, they had their planning staff. They had their ops staff. They had their logistics staff. So I tried to embed people and we tried to embed people in the planning side and embed people into the ops side so that they would understand kind of what our capabilities were a little better and that we could get involved in that and help them. So when we got enough people to actually have a little bit of a staff there putting them together seemed to help us work better together overall. I will say that despite the fact that the FEMA often seems to have gotten a bad rap in the media, there was not a FEMA person there that I saw that did not work their tail off the entire time they were there. I mean I am proud of the Coasties because I think the Coasties did everything I could possibly ever ask from them and a lot more, but the FEMA folks worked very, very hard also and everybody tried their very best as far as I’m concerned. I mean I didn’t see anybody not working hard or doing the best they could with what they had.
Q: Well did you interface with local law enforcement? What kind of relationship did you have with them?
LCDR Gilreath: On the local law enforcement side there was the one Jefferson Parish- not the sheriff but the chief deputy or whatever and I’m sorry I can’t remember his name right now - he was there. He was coming to our daily meetings or at least the evening meeting. He would usually come to that. Wildlife and Fisheries; we were supposed to be working for Wildlife and Fisheries from what the state plan said. Under the state plan urban search and rescue was supposed to be led by Wildlife and Fisheries and I think before I got there they may have done that a little bit more but by the time I got there on the first day it had stopped altogether and they would just occasionally come and provide us some support. So we got very little guidance, tasking or intel from them at all. The New Orleans Fire Department came to help. Eventually when they had been rescued from other places they kind of came in and provided some local knowledge in places. The New Orleans Police Department never really came very often, if at all, so we didn’t really know too often from them. The state police did show up some, especially later on in that week. They would start coming to some of our meetings and at least one or two days they had folks there to help us do the convoys and do the escorts for the convoys, but that was never consistent. It was never, you know we would plan one day. For example, that first Friday that we started SAR ops again, we planned for all these other local law enforcement folks to come help us and they weren’t there. There was nobody other than the Coasties and a few folks they found from somewhere to escort people around. So when the MSST folks came and the PSU folks came, that was just tremendous help because now we had dedicated folks that we could rely on for security for us during this time. I could call them each day and say, “Hey, here are these folks”, we could say.
Q: Were any of these units involved in any law enforcement actions or any instances . . . ?
LCDR Gilreath: Well our Coast Guard folks were under direct orders from me not to engage in law enforcement at all, period. They could engage in self defense if needed but no law enforcement. So for example, I told them, “I don’t want you going out there stopping looters.” I do know that there was law enforcement out there that were involved in doing that kind of stuff but weren’t really involved in the SAR stuff, and they came across local law enforcement in their daily missions. They came across the New Orleans Police Department doing things, telling them, “Hey, there was a murder that just happened over here. You don’t want to go in this particular part of the area yet”, or, “Yes, we’re investigating a murder over here”, or, “This is very bad over here”, or, “This is a little bit better over here.” We did that. On one occasion we had a conflict with them, with I think it was the Kenner Police Department. It may have been Jefferson Parish but I think it was the Kenner Police Department now. We were taking - this was that Friday night on September the 2nd - we had teams from St. Louis; the DART team from St. Louis along with, I think it was Arizona Task Force. They’d worked late in what we call the Canal Street area which is what New Orleans locals would know as Mid City. They had taken about 200 people that they had rescued and brought them back. They were taking them by convoy because we had no transportation. I haven’t talked much about transportation but there was absolutely no dedicated transportation to take evacuees anywhere, at least from Zephyr Field. We had planned for it, we were told we’d get it, but we never got it. So they had to think on their feet, find ways to put them in the back of trucks or on the back of what we had to get them there, and they took them to the airport because at that point in time the airport was the only place we thought you could physically take evacuees because Jefferson Parish; the sheriff, had basically passed to us that they didn’t want any evacuees brought into their parish. Well the only place that you could go from Orleans Parish to get them out is through Jefferson Parish, so the airport we knew were taking people, we could evacuate them there. So they took them to the airport. They got to the airport and they were met by this police officer who said, “Turn around, you can’t take your evacuees here”, and we told him, “Hey, this is where we were told we had to take them.” It was the only place they’d take them. And the guy took a shotgun out, jacked around the shotgun, pointed it at our folks and said essentially, “You’re going to move now or I’m going to shoot you.” He actually chambered a round, pointed it at them. I had folks that were near bullets being fired in the city at other times and stuff like that and I think they were more upset and more concerned about that particular incident where someone pointed a shotgun at them from law enforcement and said, “I’m going to shoot you if you don’t turn around right this very second”, than they were concerned about anything else that went on as far as threats of violence against them personally. We found out about that. I think our Coast Guard folks called Alexandria and passed the word to them via cell phone. They had a cell phone that worked somehow. They got the word to them. They worked it to the state office. We got the word from some of the FEMA folks there what was going on and we passed the information back to the state OEP office, worked through it; through the ESF9 contingency there. They got a hold of the ESF9 rep at the airport and said, “Yes, bring them back.” They brought them back and the same thing happened. I don’t know if they had the shotgun pointed at them this time but at that time threatened that they were going to arrest everybody in the caravan. I don’t know how they would’ve done it but they were going to arrest all 100 of these rescue personnel and the ESF9 rep at the airport if they didn’t turn around and take these people somewhere else. So they took them to the I-10 and Causeway and dropped them off on the interstate there. I’m hoping there was somebody there that had some kind of receiving station for them but that was ultimately the only place we could take them because we didn’t have anyplace to put them at Zephyr Field. So they took them to I-10 and Causeway which is probably . . . if I could, that’s one thing I wish there was a way to change because I don’t think that was the right thing to do; take them and drop them off on the interstate somewhere. These are people that you’re rescuing from houses and then put them on the interstate instead of taking them somewhere where you know that they could get out of there and go somewhere else. But that was the only choice we had. I mean we didn’t want our people shot.
Q: And how was this resolved eventually so you could take them there?
LCDR Gilreath: Well we tried to, again, put pressure back to the state because I don’t control the Jefferson Parish Sheriff and the federal government doesn’t control the Jefferson Parish sheriff, but hopefully the state could exercise some influence on them. So we went back to the state OEP office and screamed and said, “We’ve got to have help here”, and then somehow, maybe someone had their signals crossed or whatever, but the next morning we were taking people back to the airport again. So the airport was open again the next morning. So that’s how it got resolved I think is someone from the state or maybe it was a Coast Guard higher up had talked to them. I mean all we could do was plead, “We’ve got to have a place to take these people”, because that was a huge . . . I mean you could save them from the water, get them to dry land and then you had no place to take them or no transportation to take them in. And so even if we had been somehow more efficient to save more people at one given time it just would have exasperated the problem even more because you had no place to take them.
Q: No shelter?
LCDR Gilreath: There’s no shelter . . . .
Q: No medical?
LCDR Gilreath: No medical. Well we had medical treatment initially but I mean that’s first aid, that’s not dialysis machines and all that other kind of stuff you need for all the people who are really truly sick. The airport was the place that I think that they did a lot of treatment eventually. But we had zero coordination with the National Guard, as far as I know, about that they would take folks for us.
Q: They never came down to Zephyr Field?
LCDR Gilreath: The National Guard was at Zephyr Field but they were doing something completely different. They were resupplying places that had evacuees I guess or their own crews doing operations, and they did tremendous work too. I don’t want to belittle anybody. I mean everybody worked hard but it seemed like to me that we couldn’t get any help when we needed the help for buses, okay, for example. And we plead daily, we asked for buses for, I don’t know how many days in a row, “Please send us buses. Please send us buses”, and I was told that if you didn’t have 200 people in one location waiting to be picked up by a bus you couldn’t get a bus. And even if you got a bus, that would only hold 100 of those 200 people. They would not send you a bus anywhere else. So even though we said, “Give us a bus to do a round robin run to all our places”, we couldn’t get buses. So our folks just had to figure out ways on their own to find transportation; flag people down, find people who . . . you know National Guard troops may be heading somewhere else, put the evacuees on them or put them back in their own vehicles somehow and carry them back to wherever we could take them.
Q: So at what point did evacuation become a more coordinated effort to where you were actually sending them to a place instead of a highway or just wherever you could drop them?
LCDR Gilreath: It didn’t become better organized until our numbers had dropped way off. The numbers of people that we were rescuing each day . . . I think on that Friday and Saturday were about 2,000 folks. Sunday our numbers were about 800 folks and when I say that that’s total from that entire task force there at Zephyr Field; Coast Guard and FEMA both, those numbers. By that Monday we were down to probably 200 people or less and so at that point in time the transportation side, we could fit them still on the back of our own vehicles if we had to. And then as we started working with DOD we got a lot better support at that point in time than with getting helos in for airlifts for people who needed medical evacuations. And I think the plan, as of when I left on that Thursday, was when we found people we’d get them concentrated and we’d call in, then they’d arrange a helo to actually come pick them up instead of having them on a bus or carry them somewhere else, or wait in the hot sun all day before we could transport them out of there. But the problem was only solved because we finally got less people, not because someone magically flipped a switch and said, “Here’s more transportation for you.” We got more transportation when all the Superdome stuff was all cleared out and when we got more DOD assets in to help. We had more transportation available then but I think it was really a combination of just maybe more of that but less people to move at that point.
Q: Do you know how many people in total that you evacuated through Zephyr Field?
LCDR Gilreath: Through Zephyr Field and the folks that were attached to Zephyr Field who weren’t at Zephyr Field the first couple of days but working on their own - like my unit was working on their own and the DART folks – as of that Thursday on the 8th of September, over 12,000. I want to say - in fact I can look – my estimate would be 12,310 people as of September the 8th. And then after September the 8th, talking to the person who came behind me and all that, there was probably another, you know, three to four hundred to five hundred folks. So I would not be surprised if the total numbers - if someone was able to finally calculate it - would approach close to 13,000 total throughout that entire effort because I’m sure there were some folks that we don’t have counted yet that were helping out on those first couple of days that we don’t know how many people they rescued. I will say that the numbers that the FEMA folks were keeping did not include the Coast Guard numbers at all for the first five days or six days of it, so none of those numbers made it in, so that when you see a FEMA report and the FEMA report says 6,500 or 7,000 and I’m telling you it’s 12,000, it’s because they didn’t include any of the Coast Guard numbers for the first several days of that. They just didn’t include them.
Q: Alright. Well could you tell us a little bit about Coast Guard policy and what I’m trying to get at is, is there anything about the Coast Guard and the way the Coast Guard works that made this a more manageable situation in the fact that we’re more flexible, I think, than the other services?
LCDR Gilreath: I’ll give you two specific examples or try to give you . . . I mean it’s hard to give you . . . there are so many things that I want to say that it’s hard to narrow it down. But the two things I’d top off, I’d say first of all the Coast Guard trains its folks to make decisions and we give people responsibility very early on in their career and we let them take that responsibility, and so therefore when people encounter a problem or an issue they try to solve it without necessarily having to call the next person up the chain of command and say, “This is what I want to do Sir”, or “This is what I want to do Ma’am.” You know they generally do it and then call up and say, “This is what we did”, unless they find a problem that they know they can’t deal with on their own and then they call up. And I think ingrained thought process really played out here because there were no comms. I couldn’t talk to the people in the field very well. They couldn’t call me up and say, “Hey, we’ve got this situation here, what do want me to do?” It was, “These are your general orders. Go do it and find a way to solve it, find a problem solving skill”, and they did that and they did extremely well at that. The place that that really becomes evident that doesn’t happen necessarily everywhere else is when you bring in DOD, and I don’t want to slam DOD at all because they do tremendous work but they plan things much further in advance than we plan things. So when we started doing joint ops with them they had some tremendous people working but they basically said, “Look, we’ve got to plan longer range than what you’re planning in”. And the whole cycle, I mean we would plan the day before for the next day’s events but in reality, because we had very poor intel initially and we couldn’t get better intel until late at night, what you planned for the first day the day before was totally changed the next morning at 6 o’clock when you did your morning op brief. So you scrambled around for an hour and a half to two hours putting everything back together, sending the teams out different places and stuff like that, “This is where you’re going to go now. This is who you’re going to go with.” All that we did almost by the seat of our pants every morning putting everything back together to go out there, and I don’t think that other organizations could do that that well when they are stuck with these planning things. “I’ve got my assets staged here and there, wherever” and our people are trained and flexible enough to do that. So those were the areas I’d say that we definitely excel in, in that ability to do that kind of stuff.
Q: Well are there policies or procedures that you could see that could be improved upon; Coast Guard policies?
LCDR Gilreath: With regards to something like this, probably not. This is so . . . I mean we . . . no, I don’t want to go out on a limb and say that, yes, I definitely could find a huge Coast Guard policy procedure, to say to change that, because I mean we tried to follow Coast Guard policy as best we could with what we had and what we were able to do. But I’ll be very honest with you, there was not time to physically - and there’s no way to do it - to go pull up each Commandant instruction to verify that exactly the way you’re doing it is in accordance with Commandant instructions, and we tried to follow everything the best we knew. And an example was, we would not arm anybody unless you currently were a qualified boarding team member or boarding officer with current weapons quals. We wouldn’t arm you unless you had that. But I’m sure at times I put people out there in body armor, when we finally got body armor, that didn’t have guns or didn’t have weapons and I sent them unarmed with people who did have weapons, and that may not exactly follow Coast Guard policy but that was what I felt like had to be done at the time in order to try to keep our people as safe as I could with what we had available and still do this job and still do this mission. So if I violated Coast Guard policy on that I’m sorry but that’s what I did to get it done.
Q: Well what would you say was the most challenging, aside from the communications, the most challenging aspect of your position over there at Zephyr Field?
LCDR Gilreath: Logistics; without a doubt, logistics. I have never been involved in an operation where you had to build everything from scratch but you had to build everything from scratch here. The only thing that FEMA had available for you when you got there was food. If you didn’t bring it with you, you didn’t have it. There were no . . . I mean I was under this impression that when you sent some people to one of these disasters there’s a camp set up and there’s a cot for you and there’s a place for you to eat and sleep and all that kind of stuff. That’s not there. FEMA expects our teams to go with 72 hours worth of stuff to live on their own and with a disaster of this type it took a week of some of the best Coast Guard people we have working for us, logistically-wise, to start getting us logistics to keep this thing running. So other than food there was nothing else. If you didn’t bring it you didn’t have it. So the thing that bothered me the most when I got there on that Thursday was the people I’d sent down here, they were sleeping under the stars in borrowed cots from . . . I don’t know how they got them. They scrounged them. I mean they just, like a lot of other things we just kind of scrounged it. We begged, borrowed, pleaded and we didn’t steal anything but we begged, borrowed and pleaded an awful lot from other people that, “Hey, can we have this? Can we use this?” We got a lot of stuff that way. But you had about a day’s worth of supply of fuel. How do you get fuel? You had to find fuel. You had to find clothes for people because you’re in this contaminated water and there’s nowhere to wash your clothes. There’s no place like that. We didn’t even have decontamination stations for these folks. So they’re going out in this water with all these chemicals in it, with all the oil in it, with the bodies in it, with the dead animals in it, all that kind of stuff, and we don’t even have stuff to clean them off with when they get back and they can’t take a shower, yet they voluntarily go do this everyday to try to save lives. You know you tell them, “Don’t get wet.” Well you can tell them not to get wet but that’s pretty much a joke because you’re going to get wet. You either have to get out of your boat to pull it over stuff, wade through stuff – hopefully you had waders – but to pull it through stuff. The people you’re picking up are wet so you’re getting water on you from there. An airboat goes by and it sprays water all over you. A helo comes down to do a medevac and it spreads water all over. I mean you’re going to get wet. So these people are getting wet.
Logistically we could not support them with everything that we needed. We didn’t have porta-potties, didn’t have toilets, didn’t have showers, didn’t have laundry and didn’t have a place for them to sleep. I mean to sleep; there was a building there at the facility there at the Saints camp we were at where there were five or six hundred folks sleeping in it and you’re working in 95 degree heat everyday and it’s probably almost 100 degrees at night in there, you know that’s no way for your body to recover. So logistically that was the hardest part was trying to build from ground zero up when there’s no manual for it that I know about and I didn’t know how to do it, so we kind of just worked through it. I assigned some people to start working logistics.
I had some great people working for me: Lieutenant (jg) Brown, Chief Dillon from Galveston, Chief Davis from ANT New Orleans. We had other folks working from St. Louis helping us out on all that just trying to figure out what it was that we needed because you needed everything. Figuring out who to talk to to get it and then get that process in motion was by far the most challenging thing to keep that running because everybody wanted to go out into the field and start to rescue people and save lives but if you didn’t have fuel for them and you didn’t have a place for them to sleep and you didn’t have anything else for them, they couldn’t do anything. So that person that was working logistics was probably, in some sense, more critical than the person actually in the boat pulling the person off of the house because that other person working logistics found ways to get them out there and get fuel for their vehicles. I mean all that was a challenge.
Q: Well when did the supply chain start kicking in; when did you start receiving the cots and porta-potties and things like that?
LCDR Gilreath: I’m not sure we ever received cots. We eventually got some tents from working back through my parent command there at Baton Rouge. We were able to get some tents and it started rolling down from there. And then talking to some of the other parent commands they were able to send additional tents and solar showers and stuff like that and send their people in RVs, which was absolutely critical because the RV gave you a place to sleep at night that was protection from the elements. Thank God it wasn’t raining because if it had rained more we would have been really hurting. That was a blessing. That was a miracle and all that. But they started sending supplies when those teams started showing up probably on that Saturday. We got our first real good shipment of supplies, I would say coming out of Alexandria, probably on that Monday. We might have gotten some radios, I think we got some radios on Sunday. So we got some radios to help with comms on that Sunday, so that came Sunday. But the porta-potties and showers and laundry and all that stuff started kind of really showing up Monday, Tuesday, into Wednesday. Wednesday was a huge day because Wednesday we got, by then had laundry now and we had showers for everybody so everybody could take hot showers. So that was a tremendous help, both sanitation wise and all that to help out there. And then I think Wednesday we finally got body armor after asking for body armor for . . . I guess it was hard to get because there were so many people asking for it. I know everybody needed it but I think Wednesday - it may have even been Thursday; Wednesday or Thursday was that September the 7th or 8th when I say Wednesday – was when we finally got body armor in for our folks that didn’t come from somewhere else. I mean we were hot-racking body armor that entire time, which is nasty stuff, with everybody’s sweat in it and stuff like that, but that was the only thing you could do. You had to try to do the best with what you had and the Coasties did. I mean our folks did tremendous work with what they had. They just did . . . you could not ask somebody to work harder than they did, and they did. They gave everything they had all the time. Nobody left anything on the table. I mean they gave it their all, all the time.
Q: Now how long were you folks there at Zephyr Field? When did you return back to Baton Rouge?
LCDR Gilreath: My folks and myself; meaning my people from MSU Baton Rouge, we left on the 8th.
LCDR Gilreath: I sent my team back on the morning of the 8th because our boats were no longer useful. I mean frankly the 24-foot and 23-foot boat, after the first few days and some missions to Chalmette that we were able to do and a couple other things, really you couldn’t launch them in there. It wasn’t worthwhile. My people were burnt out. I sent them back because I couldn’t use them. What we needed were flat boats and we had some of those coming but they weren’t there yet. So I sent them back and then I got relieved. Lieutenant Commander Brad Wallace from PSU 307 came in to relieve me on that Thursday and we passed information along and I left that night; Thursday.
Q: Were you able to go out on one of the missions to survey what was out there?
LCDR Gilreath: No, my surveys were done via overflights. That’s how I did my survey. I did not get to go out physically in the boat. It would have been nice to do that, but as I said earlier, everybody wanted to go on the boat. The harder thing to do, in my opinion, was keeping everything running. And plus there was no way I could get away from all the decisions we were trying to make from the unified command to do that. So I did overflights. I did get out a few times to go to some meetings. Captain Mueller brought me to a meeting which was very helpful for me with DOD and really helped the unified command out tremendously because it positioned us instead of the unified command just totally going away. It positioned us so that DOD knew what we were doing and they came into our organization and said, “We kind of want to work for you instead of us having to take all our assets out of there and throwing them somewhere else.” They came in and plugged into us, which I thought was just remarkable that they were willing to do that but it made sense because we had the right plan in place to say that the whole city had been covered. I mean everybody else was pretty much just doing great things but there was not a lot of coordination between those great things they were doing and how do you know that every part of the city was covered. How do you know that you went every place you needed to go because that ultimately had to be done to say that we got everybody out that we could rescue. And that plan; the unified command offered that strategy, you know with the hasty and primary and secondary searches, it offered a way so that it all had been done and we had that data kind of built. So when they plugged in that was big.
Q: Now when your folks came back from the field was it a difficult thing to focus people, you know psychologically, when they went out there they saw a lot and then to come back, what was their mood and how did you deal with them psychologically?
LCDR Gilreath: Psychologically; everybody, including myself, wanted to go back. Nobody wanted to leave. We were all tired, we were all beat, but everybody wanted to go back because we had this rescue mentality saying, “We want to go back and save lives”, and they felt guilty about not being back out there. So they were really mad when I sent them home and I was really mad when I called up Alexandria the next morning and wanted to go back. I wasn’t that mad but I wanted to go back and I wanted to go back. I kept trying to go back and I kept being told, “No, someone else is covering it.” Everybody wanted to go back and do more because they saw what was going on there and they saw all the work that was being done. We kind of worked through that by telling them the good things they had done, by saying, “Look, there’s another thing that we’ve got to do.” What I tried to emphasize to them; to my crew, was, “This is a marathon. We’ve just gone out the first mile but there’s a lot more of this race that has to be run and when everybody else that is here helping us and doing tremendous work is gone, we’re still going to be here dealing with the same problems that are still in existence, helping with the sector; rebuilding the sector, helping with our marine safety missions, all that kind of stuff.” We kind of tried to focus that way.
And then the other thing that helped was our pollution mission had gone way up at that time so we were able put people into that. And then we brought in CISM folks. On that first full Tuesday that we had been back we had CISM training come in so they did like an initial CISM training for everybody at that stage.
LCDR Gilreath: Which I think helped some.
Q: Now is there any instance or memorable moment that you would care to share with us in the overall mission that you participated in; a person that you encountered, a story that you heard from one of your crew members that you’d care to share with us?
LCDR Gilreath: There’s one that I will share but before I share it I will say that there are thousands of stories that came out of this, and so to pick one story is very difficult; to pick one over the another, because people did tremendous work. But I think the story that got to me the most was a story from Sunday; September 4th, and that was a very hard day because we had tremendous heat that day. People were falling out with heat stress and it was a really difficult day. They told us on that Thursday; the doctors had come in and said, “Anybody that was in their attic after Thursday is probably not going to be alive.” So we had some DART teams out in the section of town not far from the ISC. They were down in there. They were in a very heavily flooded section. They turned off their motor to their boat to listen and they heard like a little faint tapping sound from somewhere and it was an elderly man in his window, tapping on his window, on the second story. There are bars over the window so they can’t get out and he’s tapping on the window because he sees and hears them out there. They’re able to go over there. They get somebody to cut a hole through the roof. They go in and they find this man with his 80 – this is an elderly man - but he has his 87-year-old mother with him. She’s bed-constrained. She can’t get out of bed. She’s lying in water up to her neck just about. He’s in water up to his waist or chest or whatever, and they’d been trapped there since the storm had come in and had flooded, so they’d been trapped since sometime either Monday or Tuesday, flooded like that. And they were still alive through all that time and there’s no way they would have been rescued had they not been out there and shut off their motor and heard that little faint tapping. And these people shouldn’t have been alive and yet they were. And you know that, to me, is a tremendous rescue story, you know the effort that went into that to get out there; to get those people there, to find them, locate them, and then save them, pull them out, and that was tremendous.
Q: Now were you personally affected by the storm; did you have any property damage?
LCDR Gilreath: We’re fine. That’s another part of that factor. Very few of the folks that were working in Zephyr Field, except for the ANT New Orleans folks, had any kind of personal damage as a result of the storm. We were very fortunate in that regard; very, very fortunate, because the folks that did, did tremendous . . . I mean I don’t know how they did what they did under that strain.
Q: Now is there anything you’d care to share with us that we haven’t covered?
LCDR Gilreath: I’ll repeat that it’s the people that made the difference. It’s wasn’t me. It wasn’t individual lieutenants or whatever. It was the people there that made the difference. They are the ones that saved the lives and did the work and found what needed to be done and did it, and they did tremendous work and I couldn’t be prouder of them. I’d do anything in the world for them that I could to thank them for what they did because they just did awesome. I mean they worked their tails off with very little support, at least initially, you know, doing tremendous work, doing everything they could. I couldn’t be prouder of them.
Q: All right, great, thank you Commander.
LCDR Gilreath: Thank you.
END OF INTERVIEW
NOTE: After reviewing this I failed to mention all of the units that participated in Coast Guard operations at Zephyr Field while I was present during the course of the interview. This is not indicative of the value of their contributions but rather a failure on my part to adequately cover this during the course of interview. In addition to the DARTs from MSO St. Louis and Group Upper, we also had DARTs from Sector Ohio Valley (includes Sector Office as well as MSU Pittsburgh, MSU Huntington, and MSU Paducah), and we had a DART from Sector Lower Mississippi River. Other unit’s that provided key personnel or boat crews with boats at Zephyr Field while I was present included ANT Galveston, ANT Sabine, ANT New Orleans, ISC New Orleans, Station New Orleans, Station Sabine, National Data Buoy Center, MLCLANT, FIST New Orleans, and Air Station Cape Cod. Coast Guard forces providing security for our joint teams operating from Zephyr Field included MSST New Orleans, MSST Galveston, MSST Miami, Taclet South, EMSST and PSU 307.