Katrina Archival & Historical Record Team (KART)
HH-60 Pilot LT Rick Hipes, assigned to Air Station San Diego, served out of Louisiana during the Katrina relief operations. He mentioned the strain of the 10 hour + deployment to the area, explaining that after 6 hours a pilot is normally bagged. He described participating in four rescues, including one in which a crippled civilian was saved by lowering a man with an axe to hack through the roof. Working in the heat was hard. The church volunteers at First Pentecostal cared for their nourishment and clothing with great enthusiasm.
LT Hipes: Lieutenant Rick R. Hipes, Public Affairs, Sector San Diego. I’ll just give you a synopsis of what we did during the time period of Katrina. Initially our efforts were immediate, but as you know, after all the damage when this hurricane swept through, there wasn’t as much chaos as there was later on once the levees and stuff broke.
So initially we ramped up to go out right away after the actual tragedy, then we kind of stood down until later when the actual levees broke and then there was much more havoc there in New Orleans. So at that point; just a few days later, we ramped up, sent two helicopters with four separate crews from San Diego. It took us a total . . . we left at like 5 in the afternoon and it took us a total of 10.2 hours to get from here all the way to Houston with two refueling stops; once in El Paso and the next one in San Antonio. So we were pretty much wiped; 10.2 hours later, after actually getting out of town by 6 o’clock or so. We were actually there the next morning so we flew all through the night.
Q: Do you remember what day that was; was it Saturday or something like that?
LT Hipes: I want to say it was Saturday.
LT Hipes: Once we arrived on scene in Houston we were re-tasked to stage both helicopters out of Alexandria. The previous crew had got there earlier that night because they launched earlier that morning. So they arrived there almost a full day ahead of us. We got a little bit of sleep in Houston there, woke back up and took the aircraft out to Alexandria just about an hour north by flight where we staged out of there.
They had a command center set up there and we had daily tasking from there. The first day’s tasking was . . . actually we had numerous tasking along the way. It ranged everywhere from shuttling medical personnel in and out of the area, transporting water, food, and also transporting medical equipment. Other events we did; we transferred Michael Brown of FEMA before he was relieved of his duties. We showed him the area and other Coast Guard delegates and admirals throughout the area so they could see the damage and impact that Katrina and the broken levees had done. Also along the way we were doing search and rescue efforts; finding people. Our crew actually rescued four people. Three people we spotted on the rooftops, picked them up, shuttled them to New Orleans International where we dropped them off to get some aid there, followed by one more person; we found an elderly person in his attic. We were unable to get him to the rooftop in the beginning so we sent a rescue swimmer down. He axed through the roof, cut the person out and then pulled him through the roof where we took him also to New Orleans International. The days consisted of primarily just looking for people on rooftops. At that point it was more or less recovery, not necessarily rescue.
Q: Days and nights or mostly days?
LT Hipes: Yes, most of it during the days. Tasking at nighttime, at that point, was shut down although the Navy and the Coast Guard assets were out there flying. You initially would check in with some of the control towers out there and they would assign us tasking, whether it was taking equipment from here to there, getting fuel, or whatnot. So in our other tasking we flew a lot. I think I flew over 40 hours in a matter of like a week’s period.
Q: How much do you normally fly?
LT Hipes: Like 26 hours in a month.
Q: That’s a lot.
LT Hipes: So it was actually quite a bit. 10.2 hours, I think, is pretty close to the maximum amount flown by the Coast Guard. I don’t know any other guys that have 10.2 hours straight flying in the 60. Our usual bag is six hours and anything after six hours you’re bagged. And what I mean by bagged is you have to have ten hours of crew rest. So we shuffled over there. So long days and nights were definitely well worth it. It contributed a lot to the efforts. A lot like the other Coast Guard assets, the Navy assets were out there working pretty much around the clock.
Q: Did you have any contact with the Navy? Did you talk to them day by day or what?
LT Hipes: One time we coordinated with the Navy. We had some communications failures. We couldn’t get into New Orleans International so they paired up beside us and we got calls in and out of there and got us in and out of there as we needed fuel to continue the search and rescue efforts.
Great people out there in Alexandria. We stayed at a Pentecostal church. They housed us for the full week. It was Alexandria Pentecostal. They washed our clothes. They fed us three hot meals a day and we had a quiet environment to sleep in, so it was outstanding. The people were absolutely, they’re absolutely awesome up there.
INTERVIEW INTERRUPTED BY TELEPHONE
Q: So we were talking about you being fed and clothed at the church.
LT Hipes: Yes, the Pentecostal Church, those are great people. We would take our clothes . . . we’d fly all day and it’s really hot out there, so we brought these sweaty clothes and instead of having to work in the same sweaty flight suits all week long they said, “Put your stuff in a bag”, and they would wash it and have it clean for us by the next morning to go back out flying again. It was absolutely incredible.
But like I was saying, three hot meals, great people, had the opportunity to go to, Wednesday night they had one of their – I’m not sure what Pentecostals call a mass or whatever, their services - and I got to thank the whole group there in the hall. It was great. And so they were very thankful and appreciative for all of our efforts out there. So it was great. And like I said, three hot meals a day and they were very nice and asked us whatever we needed; rides around town, things like that that we needed during our stay.
But as far as improvisation; for the most part we were tasked with what we were going to do by the command center there in Alexandria. They tasked us with going down, delivering goods, things like that. They were also tasking the C-130s and whatnot to go to different areas and deliver stuff. So once we got our initial mission done we had plenty of fuel to stay on scene for quite a bit longer; up to four hours sometimes. About at that point we would check in with the local area, who was in charge of the different sections there in New Orleans and ask for any tasking and just look for people, and that’s what we did; we looked for people on rooftops and pulled them off when we found them.
Q: Is that the hardest thing pretty much?
LT Hipes: Definitely the hardest thing probably was the fatigue factor, you know, being there for so long and flying every day, but we’re trained to do that. We’re trained to do hoists and whatnot. So the degree of difficulty, I would say was nothing. It was actually almost easier than what we do out here on the coast because unlike a boat, a house is stable, it’s in one position. So imagine doing hoist work to a boat that’s unstable in the ocean and then you have a fairly unstable platform with a helicopter and you’re trying to get both of them to coordinate together to get a basket on . . . and the current through . . .
Q: You’ve got the tides and currents?
LT Hipes: Right.
INTERVIEW INTERRUPTED BY TELEPHONE
LT Hipes: I was saying it was much easier to do a hoist to a house because a house obviously is sitting there. So as far as training goes; the training just kicked in and everyone did their jobs to pull everyone off the rooftops safely.
And the biggest thing was definitely navigating the airspace there because there were so many helicopters. I think at any given time there were over 300 helicopters in the sky at a time, which I would relate that to like driving, it was almost like driving on the freeway. You got nowhere and usually you know it’s a big sky. You’ve got a few helicopters and airplanes here and there that you’re trying to avoid but there it was like “Okay, let’s see, I’m going to turn right so let me make sure that nobody is sitting on my right side. I’ll turn on my blinker again to get over”, and a lot of the helicopters used the roadways and stuff to navigate. And of course we were all at different altitudes that were specified by the Katrina efforts.
But I think everyone did a really good job but I definitely think we were more prepared for Rita. They had something out in advance. And not to say there was anything wrong with the planning that there was for Katrina but obviously everyone learns from different events and we’re able to be more prepared for it. I believe we were prepared for Katrina. I believe we were more prepared for Rita obviously because it had happened so fast in the same time period.
Kudos to all the guys that did all the rescues. Before we had some guys here - I don’t know if you had a chance to like talk to Lindborne [phonetic] and some of the guys - they pulled like over 60 people off rooftops, hundreds of people. I think overall it was over 32,000 people that were rescued . . .
Q: By the Coast Guard, yes.
LT Hipes: . . . by the Coast Guard, which that’s absolutely astounding. And I don’t even know how many the Navy people pulled off, so who knows? And besides, that’s a lot of work, a lot of time put in; people are rotating their crews out there. We got the effects of traveling across and working but I have no idea what those guys were doing out there at the time. I’m sure they were flying nonstop, not seeing any of their families along with having the devastation of a lot of the Coast Guard crewmembers having their homes underwater and stuff like that. But yet what did they do? They weren’t gathering at the Astrodome. They were at work doing something about the problem, so kudos to all of those folks out there.
Q: Well that’s why the book is about the heroes, so it’s the biggest thing the Coast Guard’s done since Normandy.
LT Hipes: Right.
Q: Anything else you wanted to add?
LT Hipes: No.
Q: Alright, thanks very much for your time.
END OF INTERVIEW