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U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program

Katrina Archival & Historical Record Team (KART)

Hurricane Katrina, 2005

Interviewee: EM2 Rodney Gordon, USCG

Electrician's Mate, Air Station New Orleans

Interviewer: PA3 Susan Blake
Date of Interview: 6 October 2005
Place: Air Station New Orleans

 


Abstract:

EM2 Rodney Gordon being decoratedEM2 Gordon oversaw all the electrical work at AIRSTA NOLA.  He and other members of the station’s public works department assisted with pre-Katrina preparations and then flew with one of the flyaway crews to Lake Charles the day before the hurricane hit.  After Katrina passed through, they flew into Homa , La. , where the crew refueled and proceeded to AIRSTA NOLA.  Gordon flew in with the CO and XO, who began refueling helicopters and preparing for SAR operations. With the help of Naval Air Station personnel, Gordon began clearing the ramp with a CG front-end loader tractor. Gordon checked on the station’s administrative building where the ops center is located and started the two standby generators; during the next few days, several generators blew up due to fan belt breaks and it took five different generators before he had one in place that worked consistently.  To run the generators, he got diesel fuel from the Navy’s small fuel farm, which he had to rig with both CG and Navy generators. The Navy, which did not have an electrician on-scene, also gave him a key to their fuel pump so that he could get fuel for the helicopters.  It took several days for him to make electrical repairs to the damaged CG hangar.  During the first few days, he received assistance from MK1 Dan Mitchell, who had expertise with motors, but Gordon handled the electrical work for the both the CG and Navy stations.  On the third day he got the Navy’s brand new, larger fuel farm going, with the Navy CO watching over him. Gordon noted that his previous experience in residential/commercial power made him a good fit for the Navy work that needed to be done, and he noted that other CG electricians may not have had that knowledge because their training is focused on afloat needs.  For this reason, he would like to see at least a week’s worth of residential/commercial power taught at “A” school. With his limited knowledge of air conditioners, he also fixed the a/c unit in the main CG tower for berthing.  After running out of wire, he was able to cut open the doors to the Navy’s public works building to get more.    He also rigged up a Kawasaki mule with a 55-gallon drum held in place by a ratchet strap and stuck on a 12 volt/12gallon-per-minute pump so that he could use it as mini-diesel fuel truck to refuel the generators more quickly.  Working 20-hour days, his biggest challenge was that everything was needed in a hurry and he had to keep to code and work safely while searching for the equipment he needed to do his job.  


Q: First off I’d like for you to state your first name and your last name and spell your last name.

EM2 Gordon: My name is Rodney Gordon; G-O-R-D-O-N and I’m stationed at Air Station New Orleans.

Q: Okay. And your rate is?

EM2 Gordon: I’m an EM2; electricians mate.

Q: Now what does that involve as an EM2; what are your duties?

EM2 Gordon: I’m pretty much in charge of all the electrical work here that goes on at our Coast Guard air station. We have no contractors here or civilians as far as doing electrical work so we’re pretty much in charge of what work gets done here and what we decide to do and whatever the command wants us to do.

Q: Now why did you decide to join the Coast Guard?

EM2 Gordon: Well my uncle, he’s a Master Sergeant, He just retired as a Master Sergeant up at the National Guard in Charleston and he talked to me, and then after September 11th I figured it was just the right thing to do.

Q: Alright. Now before Katrina hit here what were you doing; were you preparing for the hurricane?

EM2 Gordon: Yes, we were going around . . . and I work in PW; Public Works Department. When a hurricane comes we pretty much work all as a team together, not necessarily in your rate. We put up hurricane shutters, make sure the hurricane locker’s inventoried and just things like pack up the drive-away crews and get the fly-away crew, the helicopters ready as far as GRMEs [phonetic] and stuff such as that to take with us. So just preplanning and post-stuff and just thinking ahead of what we need as far as if a hurricane does it here when we fly away.

Q: So where were you just prior to the hurricane; were you here or were you somewhere else?

EM2 Gordon: I was here and the day before the hurricane we flew out to Lake Charles, stayed there for two days, then the evening the hurricane hit we flew into home and refueled, stood by there for the winds to die down a little bit and then we flew in. I think the winds here when we flew in were 80 mph and we found a clear spot to land on the runway. I flew in with Captain Jones and Lieutenant (jg) Bill Dunbar. We flew in and they dropped me off and we refueled the helicopters. We have one fuel truck here; a Coast Guard fuel truck, refueled the helos and they went on to doing their search and rescue, and we pretty much saw all that on CNN [laughter].

Q: So they let you off here, right?

EM2 Gordon: Yes, they let me off here. We’ve got a front end loader tractor here. We pushed the ramp off and the Navy helped us clean it up. We cleaned the ramp up so that when all the helos come in no FOD would be on there and we also looked at the VR-54 ramp because the helos that were coming weren’t just Coast Guard. We had Navy, Air Force, Marines, everything you can think of as far as helos. C-130s were landing at the Coast Guard ramp VR-54 and that was pretty much the major point where all the helicopter operations were coming out of.

Q: Now did you have electricity here? What services did you have?

EM2 Gordon: Well the first thing we did when we got off the helo is I got two standby generators on the admin building. And as you’re aware, the admin building has our Comm station in it. It’s got our communications radio and everything else. So I fired off the generator over here at the admin building to get it going. 
We noticed that there was damage to the hangar so we had to . . . it took a few days to go through and walk through and isolate out everything and then we got certain things turned on in the hangar so that we didn’t have any electrical hazards, and that’s how we went about that. We knew the admin building was fine but everything else we kind of went though and we megged everything out just to make sure everything was safe to turn back on that we had turned back on.

Q: Now you also you got some fuel pumps going, or what kind of impromptu . . . ?

EM2 Gordon: Okay, starting out was kind of, we got here, refueled our helos, and after refueling the helos the fuel truck doesn’t last that long. We got the key from the Navy and went down to their fuel pump where they’ve got their trucks at. We went through there and at that time we used their trucks to refuel the helos that were coming in; all different kinds of helos. Different branches of service were filling up there. So we were running out of fuel. They asked me if I could go down there - I reckon there was no electrician there. I was pretty much the only electrician here for the first three or four days - and I went down and hooked up a 480-volt generator to the Navy fuel farm. That’s the big huge tanks you see when you’re coming in. And we sat there for a few minutes and I had to take another generator off of one of the Navy buildings and then pulled it all the way over there to the fuel farm and hooked up the generator. We had two generators hooked up there; one was 208 and one was 480. The 208 ran the remotes and the 480 ran the big pumps. I mean we worked on that probably until [chuckle] one o’clock in the morning. 
And the first few days we were working 20-hour days nonstop but at that time you’re not tired. You’re all going off adrenalin because you’ve got to get the stuff done. It’s not a question of can you do it, you have to.

Q: Now who else was helping you?

EM2 Gordon: Well for the first two days it was myself and then my MK1; Dan Mitchell, came in and he’s a machinery technician. He works on all the motors. So he went through and did all the checks on all the generators and stuff and made sure they were safe to run and then I did the electrical part of it; hooking everything up. And I can tell you its kind of hard to go behind somebody. You know it’s a brand new system and everybody’s standing there looking at you. You know you have the captain of the Navy base and then you have the XO down there and they’re looking at you, watching, and it’s a brand new system so you kind of go about it as a, you know you make sure you do the right thing. I’ve never hooked up anything wrong [laughter] so that’s always a plus. 

But when we got that fuel farm going - I think that was the third day we got that going - I only worked on it for like five or six hours and that was at nighttime. So of course there is no light so you’re working out of a flashlight pretty much stuck in your mouth just working. And so we got that joker fired off and going. And I’ll tell you what; there were a lot of smiles around because I mean that’s all the helos. You can’t fly without fuel and they pretty much put that all on me. But I figured, you know, me being in the Coast Guard, I’ve got a job just like everybody else does and that’s what makes the Coast Guard so good is everybody does their job and everything gets done in all branches of the service because we were all working together to complete this stuff.

Q: So do you have any idea how many helos came into fuel here?

EM2 Gordon: [Chuckle]. 

Q: It’s just unbelievable, right?

EM2 Gordon: Probably uncountable. I’ve never seen that many helicopters, not even on a TV show [laughter].

Q: When they initially let you off here how many people were here?

EM2 Gordon: I think it was just me and the XO and my Ops boss. I think the XO was fueling helos. You know everybody pretty much had to do their part to get everything going as far as if it wasn’t in your field of duties. I was fueling trucks. The XO was fueling trucks. So whatever needed to be done, whoever was free pretty much went and ran it until other crews could come here.
And then the next problem we ran into was I had to hook generators up to . . . we had multiple generators blow up so when one blows up, something as simple as a fan belt breaking would halt operations because you can’t just go out to NAPA and buy a fan belt, it had to be flown in, and so that’s standing by basically. We had to pull in another generator to hook up. I hooked up five different generators to that admin building before we got one that ran constantly and could handle the load of the building. 

And the problem we ran into, I’d say a week after the whole deal – it was about four days after the hurricane hit - is, you know you’ve got generators. They run off of diesel fuel and we didn’t have any diesel fuel. So I went down there to the Navy again and hooked up their small fuel pump, which supplied MOGAS and diesel fuel and that diesel fuel was for the generators. So without the small fuel farm the big fuel farm isn’t going to be any good because the generator is going to go out because you don’t have diesel fuel. So it was kind of hectic there for the first few days.

Q: Now you were kind of on your own to make these decisions, right? Like you said, “Okay, we don’t have any power. How can we get this going”, correct?

EM2 Gordon: Right, yes, definitely. I didn’t really have any bosses, just guys asking me if I could do something. So I mean that’s how you go about it. They ask you if you can do it and you just go do it. You don’t think twice about it. I mean the Navy was more than cooperative. They let me take a bolt cutter, go down there and cut the Navy PW doors. I used every strand of wire I had on my Coast Guard base here, in my unit department, and I had to go down to the Navy base and go in their Public Works department because you’re thinking, “Nobody’s here.” I mean unless you flew in there was nobody here to let you into any of the places to get any kind of equipment. I mean even HAZMAT stuff we had to go through pretty much the XO and captain of the Navy base to get a key to go in there. And I went and got wire and I mean we just . . . it all worked out.

Q: Well what was the most challenging part of this?

EM2 Gordon: The most challenging part of the whole thing here? Well the most challenging part of the whole deal is [chuckle] everything is in a hurry, you know everything is SAR. So whatever you’re doing it’s got to be done in a hurry and in order to keep code and be safe I mean you had to pretty much not take your time but do it in a hurry but do it right and get the equipment to do it. Now don’t get me wrong, it was made available but you had to search for it because for the first five days, after the first five days we just started getting supplies in [chuckle]. I mean it made a bunch of smiles on people’s faces. We had generators coming in right and left and see, we didn’t have that before. I was running down to the Navy and, “There’s a generator on a building. Let’s take it off that building and put it wherever we need it”, you know yank it. And you know you’re unhooking it from these people’s building and you’re thinking, “Well what are they going to do when they get back. I’ll have to come down here and hook their generator up or whatever”, because there were no electricians here. It was me and that was pretty much it. There were guys here . . . the most challenging thing was because Katrina hit. You know that was the most challenging thing [chuckle]. Even right now it’s still challenging hooking up 75 RVs or however many are out there. I mean I’m doing that everyday too.

Q: Now are there any other instances that you can recount for us of where you had to improvise to get something done like air conditioning or when you were setting up the RV city, or helping to set up this?

EM2 Gordon: Yes. Well I’ll tell you; one AC unit problem we had was the main tower up here. The ACs were burnt. Nobody really knows how to work on ACs, including me, but I know how to make something out on my own and I finally figured out how to hook that up and that helped a bunch of guys who would have been sleeping in the heat. And I went down there when they came and got me so I hooked that up for those guys. 

Then you have all those electronic components and they have to be cool when you’re using them as far as servers and stuff and we had to go through the hangar and isolate different breakers because in order to have computer and internet you have to go through there, and then you’ve got all this floor damage. So you have to go through there and isolate everything, lay everything out and make sure it’s safe to turn on. 

I don’t know, for the first three weeks everything is pretty much a blur because you’re just running and going and doing and when you get done doing this you’re doing something else. And when you’re by yourself you’re not thinking about, “Okay, what am I doing next?” You’re just going and doing it and your not getting tired because I reckon you’re running off of adrenalin the first few days, because you walk up to something and you can’t believe something is happening and then you try not to think about that. You just do your job. 

Q: Now do you think back on the initial phases when you were getting the electricity going here and realized that the rescues that happened, really they were dependent upon you getting the fuel lines going here and these helicopters up in the air? Does that kind of roll around in your head sometimes?

EM2 Gordon: It does but it’s kind of the same thing I said a minute ago. I know they couldn’t fly without fuel but that’s part of my job. I do electrical work and I just happened to be at the starting point of the line. I mean its like, “Okay, we didn’t have fuel for them. What if didn’t have pilots, then nobody would fly the helicopters [chuckle]. So I mean everybody does their job and that’s pretty much how you’ve got to look at it. The most stressful thing I did - to take you back a minute - was having a meeting with the Commandant [laughter].

Q: Oh you did? 

EM2 Gordon:
Yes Ma’am.

Q: Tell us about your meeting with the Commandant.

EM2 Gordon: That was a good thing. 

Q:
When did that happen?

EM2 Gordon: I wish I could have been dressed up. I don’t even know what day it was. It was a few weeks ago.

Q: And he came over to speak with you?

EM2 Gordon: Well we had a few people that were lined up to meet with him. So I met with him and he’s a really great guy. It’s an honor to meet somebody like that. You think you’ve got some stressful things but you can only imagine all the stuff they have to deal with. And you look back at that and you just keep on going. He’s a great guy. 

The Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard, I met him, and you just can’t say enough about him to keep the stuff going like we’ve had here. And at a time like this to be as awfully good as we are right now is awesome, I mean as far as taking care of the Coast Guard men and women. You couldn’t ask for any better than that.

Q: Now before you came in the Coast Guard were you working as an electrician?

EM2 Gordon: [Laughter] See, I got a good jump on pretty much everybody as far as electrical work because I had done electrical work for a good four years before I got in the Coast Guard. And see, the thing is, is most electricians, they go in the Coast Guard. The “A” school is mostly based on a boat line frame because most of your billets are on boats and stuff. And I know residential stuff. I mean you can put me on anything residential and I can figure it out but you get some guys in here and they’re a great help but it’s a totally different mindset as far as shore power and afloat power. I wish they would just let me go to “A” school and teach about a few hundred classes; you know, add an extra week to the “A” school [chuckle] and let me teach some residential commercial stuff.

Q: So that’s what you’d like to see for the future? Is that something you’d like to do?

EM2 Gordon: Oh definitely. I’m not saying anything about the Coast Guard, but we have land billets and when something like this happens, a lot of our guys, you know, they know how to do electrical work but not jumping into transformers.

Q: I mean you like to help train people. That’s what you would like to do?

EM2 Gordon: Oh definitely. I mean I was sitting out here. I’ve got a key to every one of the Navy’s transformers and they pretty much trust me to do anything. I mean you’re not going to find too many people to just jump in and change out a 1,000 amp breaker [chuckle]. It’s kind of crazy because I’m dealing with transformers and big distribution panels and it’s a little bit different then when it’s afloat. And I’m ready to go afloat but I’m not in a real big hurry [chuckle]. I want to do it because I want to see both sides of the Coast Guard and once I’m afloat then I can make a decision of how I think about electrical work in the Coast Guard, because when I get there I want to know as much as the guys who on the boat. And that’s the thing I reckon. We could kind of teach each other.

Q: Well were you personally affected by the hurricane?

EM2 Gordon: Well my wife, we had just go married four months ago [chuckle] and I sent her to Valdosta with my dad, which it wasn’t that bad but you miss your family and you just can’t get up and take leave and go see them either. You know you’re stuck here but you try to think that it’s better for them to be there than here. I wouldn’t want her here back with me because New Orleans just wasn’t suitable for people at that time. But now she’s back and everything’s good, just like it was.

Q: Alright.  Are you living here in the RV city?

EM2 Gordon: No, I’m living at my house at NSA.

Q: Okay, your home is over at NSA.

EM2 Gordon: They got me a new refrigerator the other day.

Q: Very good.  Just one question and I think I heard this from the XO. There’s a story about the first fuel truck. You had to wire up maybe a 55-gallon drum and a 12 volt pump or something. It was really an impressive story.

EM2 Gordon: [Laughter] Yes Sir. This isn’t going to be shown to any HAZMAT people, is it [laughter]? But we . . . a 55-gallon drum . . . it was so hard to get. They only had one fuel truck here to go around and fuel up our generators and it’s so hard to get them because they’re so busy filling up everybody else’s. I mean they made time for us here today to come by but when you’re riding through the RV park you can’t drive up in there to refuel. So what we did with one of our little Kawasaki Mules, we took a 55-gallon drum, stuck it on the back, strapped it down with a ratchet strap and stuck a 12-volt; just like a 12 gallon per minute pump in there and we’d fill it up with our big 550 gallon tank. Its better then carrying those little five gallon cans around [laughter], I’ll tell you that. But yes, that was pretty neat. But we just got something in a little safer. It’s bigger and plastic that’s made to go with that truck.

Q: But you were moving diesel though so that wasn’t too unsafe.

EM2 Gordon: No Sir, diesel is not that flammable. It was pretty much what we had to do to get by at that point [chuckle].

Q: There was a need and there was a fix.

EM2 Gordon: That’s right [chuckle]. It was either, “Okay, carry 100 five gallon cans over here and fill them up or we could fix that up and go do it.

Q: Lastly, is there anything you want to share with us about this whole experience?

EM2 Gordon: I just want to throw back at a point again. You know here at this base, if we didn’t have a captain like we have and an XO like we have, or an Ops like we have, I mean the command has just made it more then better to work here. I mean there hasn’t been a time I think; only a period of a day, maybe three or four, where I just wanted to get out of here just because I was so aggravated. But it’s nothing like that. I mean you want to work for these guys. These are guys you want to work for because you know they’ll take care of you in the long run and that’s pretty much the way I see it. And everybody working together; teamwork, whether you’re flying a Coast Guard helicopter, driving a boat, everybody’s got a job to do and just like it happened during this time, if everybody does their job then everybody, I mean you’ll benefit from it.

Q: Very good.  Well thank you very much.

END OF INTERVIEW


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