Katrina Archival & Historical Record Team (KART)
CDR Kachele: Good morning. I’m Commander Kelly Kachele; K-A-C-H-E-L-E. I work at Maintenance and Logistics Command Pacific in Alameda, California. My role here in Alameda is Chief of Logistics Division and my role in Katrina was Logistics Section Chief.
I was just telling the story of one of the other people that are being interviewed; Commander Barkley Lloyd, who showed up in Alexandria where I was stationed at the time, and Barkley tells the story a lot better than I do. But he was ordered in, showed up late at night, came to me and said, “Oh Kelly, I’m so glad to see a familiar face. Where am I going? What am I doing? What’s the plan for me?” And it was late and he needed a place to sleep and there was no room in the inn. We had berthing in four or five different places in the city of Alexandria where we were. Alexandria, Louisiana was inundated with evacuees and we in the response business were competing with them for resources including hotel rooms. And we had a couple of hotels that had been reserved ahead of time for contingency but they were by no means enough for all of the people that the Coast Guard sent to the area; hundreds of people. And the incident command post, by the way, was in Alexandria at that time for Sector New Orleans. Commander Lloyd was sent there by orders, not really sure what his assignment was, and asked me where he was supposed to go, and the first thing we tried to work on was where he was going to sleep. And it was kind of funny. We sent him in a government vehicle out to a place that we hoped was ready. It was an abandoned Air Force barracks and we sent him with a non-rate driver and a couple of other folks and sheets to make a rack when he showed up, definitely not Camp Hilton. He ended up . . . we weren’t sure exactly where he was supposed to be assigned and in a matter of hours during the night we found out where he was supposed to be going and that there was a flight the next morning that he was supposed to on that left at 06:00. So we sent a non-rate out a couple hours later to wake him up, get him going and bring him back and take him on a plane to go to New Orleans where he was going to be working, I believe at the JFO; Joint Federal Office. It was either there or the Joint Task Force actually. He ended up working on the Iwo Jima. So that was Barkley’s beginning and that was a sort of synopsis of the things that I was responsible for.
In Katrina, for the first ten days I was in Alexandria. As I said, I was the Logistics Section Chief. I split the day with another person; my counterpart, and basically we were responsible for all berthing, all transportation, feeding people and finding clothing for people. Very early on I was there . . . I reported I think the first or second of September so it was very soon after. I’m part of the Incident Management Assist Team for PACAREA and that was the role in which I was sent and we were sent to assist the Incident Command Team that was in Alexandria with their responsibilities. And in logistics, like I said, we’re responsible for berthing, feeding people, getting people places, buying whatever is needed, ordering people in, ordering supplies, equipment, materials. It’s a big job and the people that were there were very overwhelmed. They had done a great job keeping the operations from being affected by logistics. The whole area was devastated and the communication infrastructure was gone and communications was a part of what we were responsible for and so our challenges were huge. The cell phone towers were down. Regular telephone communication did not work. Even in the area where we were; Alexandria, which was north - probably about four hours from New Orleans - cell phones were bogged down constantly because of the high usage, high density. People basically . . . the city of New Orleans moved north and to some degree west. So we had many, many logistical challenges. Berthing was one of them. We ended up having people in two hotels right adjacent to the command post in Alexandria. We made arrangements with a local church and had about a hundred cots in the gymnasium of the church that we kept filled with Coasties. When Commander Lloyd showed up all of those cots were full. We had investigated another hotel across the street from us and it had a reputation [chuckle], and we decided that as bad as things got we were not going to send Coastie responders to that hotel and we were fortunate in that we ended up not having to do that. But we were very challenged in finding berthing; just a place for people to sleep. And the church worked out very well for us. There was some very creative resourcing while we were there. Vehicles; trucks to haul things, vans to haul passengers; to haul people back and forth, they weren’t to be found. They had all been rented and were being used by evacuees and by other responders that were in the area. FEMA had teams in the area, the Red Cross. Other responding agencies were in the area and we were all competing for the resources in this small little town.
The people in the town actually were very responsive and cooperative. We met with the mayor and asked them whenever we had a need. For instance, we had a long term need for berthing and there was an empty hotel that was partly owned by the city or the city had control over it, which is a little unusual but that was the situation, and we met with the mayor to try to convince him to open that hotel back up and let us fill it with responders. In the end, the amount of time it would take for them to make it habitable, by that time the Coast Guard had started ramping down so it didn’t transpire. But the city of Alexandria itself, the town really is a better description. It was very responsive to us. They were very kind to us. Anytime I went out in public - and the same thing - when we sent our purchase agents into the community to buy things, which we bought cots, we bought pillows, sleeping bags, constantly, those things actually became consumables because they would become damaged and basically we needed to issue them to every new person coming in. We cleared out Wal-Mart almost nightly of the certain things that we needed and actually established a relationship with the Wal-Mart and K-Mart managers. We went at night when it was easy to get special attention from them and they were very cooperative. Some of the things that we had to buy, it was actually troubling. The station in Bucktown; Station New Orleans, which is actually where the sector command is normally, was actually broken into by locals. I don’t know if you heard that.
Q: No, I haven’t heard anything about that.
CDR Kachele: But they were broken into and their armory was robbed and they lost their weapons, their ammunition, and uniforms were taken. And the responders in those areas had no uniforms so one of our jobs was to try to find, first clothes. We bought underclothes [chuckle]. We bought shoes. They had nothing. They had what was on their back. They had no power. They had no running water. They had no toilets. They were totally minimally existing. And meanwhile what was in the station had been stolen from them; no food. So our job was to provide those things to those people; the Coast Guard responders, as quickly as possible, not the evacuees. They were not our responsibility. That belongs with FEMA and Red Cross and whoever else. So our responsibility was to support the responders. And it’s the first time in my history, 18 ½ years in the Coast Guard, that Coast Guard members were part of the affected victims.
Q: The locals.
CDR Kachele: Yes, which totally changed the nature of the incident command post and what we did. We were feeding our people. We were buying clothes; underclothes for our people, buying uniforms for them, shoes, cots. And meanwhile many of the Coast Guard people who had evacuated from New Orleans were working in the command post with us in Alexandria and that created, for me, a unique dynamic because these people were evacuees and at the same time they were responders. And the response business over time is high stress and they’ve just been through a hurricane. They have no idea what the status of their home is or any of their belongings.
Q: Were their families evacuated?
CDR Kachele: Their families were evacuated. Sometimes the families were with us in Alexandria. Some of them went somewhere else. So the stress on the family of being relocated and some of them knowing daily . . . it was a comfort to know if the family was there but also stressful because after a day or two of hotel living, with a dog maybe or whatever pets they might have brought, totally the Coast Guard people that evacuated, to me, were incredible in their ability to proceed with the SAR response for the people of New Orleans. Meanwhile many of them lost everything they had. Their whole lifestyle changed and many of them didn’t even know, just like the evacuees, they didn’t know what the status of their home was. They didn’t know if they had a car still parked in New Orleans. And it was very stressful for them. The environment is stressful to begin with, compounded hugely by their own personal situation. And one of the amazing things to me that happened at that command post in Alexandria was a lot of the spouses; the husbands and wives of the active duty members, it didn’t take them long to decide they wanted something productive to do and the things that they did were incredible. They took a room in the command post, which was part of a convention center and converted it basically into a . . . it was a mess area; an eating area, and they compiled donations from various contributors in the area and what it did is it provided the responders who were working 24 hours . . . basically as the response process stabilized we went to two 12-hour shifts and so that’s what we worked most of the time. The shifts were seldom truly 12 hours but that was what you were scheduled. Truly it was a 14 or 16-hour day. Anyway the space, they stocked it with personal items like toothbrushes and toothpaste, things that . . . because we continually got more people in the command post who had been evacuated; Coast Guard people, and it provided them some of just the staples that they might not have. And they had refreshments, they had fresh fruit, snacks, and it really was a huge morale boost. They organized a laundry service for people because you didn’t have time to go take care of your laundry. And after a couple of days most people expect to be able to do that every…. you know however you’re prepared and a lot of those people didn’t expect to be in that situation.
Q: So the civilians were helping out?
CDR Kachele: Yes, the dependents, and it was a huge impact on the rest of us. They arranged for the USO to come and have a night of a band; a local band came and played. You know they put together this cookout and local band sponsored by the USO. There were about 300 people or so assigned to the command post at that time and it was a huge moral event. Even just to leave the command post for a little while and have a change of scenery was just great [chuckle]. So I was impressed by those people who in fact were evacuees but then immediately they started trying to take care of other people.
Q: How was the weather?
CDR Kachele: Actually it was very hot and I’m from the South so I loved it.
CDR Kachele: But hot and humid. If you were not from the South then most people were pretty miserable. It was hot and humid; in the mid-90s during the day and that affected actually the responders hugely because they were not in air-conditioned places. Those people were in places like at the air station; Air Station New Orleans, at Bucktown and at Zephyr Field, which is . . . Zephyr Field, is in the city of New Orleans. It’s an area that was taken over by FEMA and perhaps the National Guard; several entities, and turned into a responders place where they stayed, slept. It was a tent city basically for responders and the Coast Guard had about a hundred people there. They slept on cots. They fed from the Red Cross chow line and part of our job was to try to get basic services to the Coasties in those three locations. Like I said before, Bucktown initially had nothing. We eventually got them port-a-potties. We got them a mobile kitchen that came in and cooked and provided food for the people there. And I remember we had mobile showers that we took down. They had been over a week without a shower. They’re wearing the same clothes.
CDR Kachele: The port-a-potties. It’s hot outside. Those people; the folks that were there, really incredible endurance I would say. And they were so appreciative when we got them the shower trailer down there so they could take a shower; the first shower the guy had had in a week. And if you look closely at the pictures of the Coast Guard responders, if you look at their uniforms you can see they don’t look like Coastie uniforms usually do. You’ll see they’re dirty, they’re trashed. They looked slept in because they were.
CDR Kachele: That’s it, that’s all they had. Those people in that first week really suffered a lot and I have a lot of respect for them.
What else can I tell you?
Q: Let’s see, anything you’d do differently or . . . ?
CDR Kachele: One of the things that I did, I spent the first ten days in Alexandria where the SAR mission was run from - that was the command post for the SAR mission in New Orleans - and after ten days the SAR mission had scaled down and at that time the oil spill response ramped up, and that was decided to be run out of Baton Rouge.
Q: Oh, okay.
CDR Kachele: So at that point I moved to Baton Rouge and did basically the same job there except with a different mission. The initial mission was the SAR response and now we were doing oil spill response, and a whole different type of logistics but the same needs. We had trailers and RVs. We had an RV park of 27 trailers that we packed Coasties into. They had power and they had water and sewer most of the time.
Q: In Baton Rouge?
CDR Kachele: In Baton Rouge. We were at a facility called Clean Harbors and basically that’s an oil response company that the Coast Guard was able to get space from. We worked out of trailers. When we got there basically they were crammed into some old mobile trailers - you’ve seen them on construction worksites - those kinds of trailers. And so one of the first things we did was get a larger space for us to work out of and we had the same problem there in Baton Rouge, even more exasperated than Alexandria with berthing because Baton Rouge, being so much closer to New Orleans, was packed all the more. And there were no hotel rooms. That was a joke. You could call daily. People were cooperative but they had no rooms and evacuees had nowhere else to go so people were not leaving the hotels. So we found a church camp. It was actually a summer camp and they actually were able to provide us racks and it was a nice place because it was about maybe seven miles away from the work location, so it was sort of a retreat and the people loved it because even though you had a little less privacy than you’d normally expect in a hotel room, because the location was great you could go out, you got away, it was refreshing mentally. It was in the woods. They provided food. The food was excellent. Anybody knows that if you get good chow when you’re working hard life is good, and they provided us great food. Everybody raved about it. And so that worked out really well. So basically in Baton Rouge we had berthing in two different locations.
And we ran ten commercial helicopters from that location there in Baton Rouge and their responsibility was to provide transportation into New Orleans. Still the roads were, most of the roads were closed. Transit was dangerous. There were still the issues of sniper fire for responders . . .
CDR Kachele: . . . and we had to very careful. In fact that happened often in Alexandria. When we had a logistics run to make to one of the locations; to Bucktown or the air station, we had to have an armed escort from the MSST and it was necessary. It was not frivolous. It was a serious concern. In Baton Rouge we didn’t have those problems there but whenever we had to go into New Orleans to deliver people mostly, it is was the greatest need. We had to be concerned about that. The Coast Guard helicopters were busy doing other things and that’s why we had commercial helicopters to provide the oil response. And basically it’s a group of the companies that had facilities that had been affected by the hurricane. This was the place where their strategy for recovering the oil that was filled and rebuilding their structures and getting the nation’s oil structure back online, that’s what the responsibility of this group in Baton Rouge was. So it wasn’t as high visibility in terms of SAR but on the other hand had a huge economic impact because the country lost a third of their oil producing capability, number one.
CDR Kachele: And number two; so that was the economic impact but also the environmental impact. I don’t have the number of millions of barrels; almost as large as the Exxon-Valdez in the end, and a unique situation as far as I know within the Coast Guard that there were so many different spills. Even Exxon-Valdez was one spill in one geographic location. This was in . . . there were seven large spills and hundreds of small spills in this whole geographic region. The Coast Guard, to my knowledge, has never dealt with a situation like that. So the oil spill response wasn’t as high visibility with the media.
CDR Kachele: But it was important. So those were our responsibilities in Baton Rouge; basically to get that done as quickly as possible, and I stayed there for about ten or twelve days, again, as the Logistics Sector Chief. Our limitations were the same thing: communications were huge. We had to try to negotiate with different entities to try to get communications just to have a safe working environment. If something happened to someone; a worker, someone working to clean up the oil, how could we save them? How could we get someone in there? How could we even call them? How could we communicate with them? There were huge gaps in the communication. You could do a little bit of Nextel but cell phones didn’t work and we handed out a lot of satellite phones but they’re awkward and expensive, and we provided those to a lot of responders. And we worked with all the other agencies. We worked with the Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA. So it’s a very much . . . the command in Baton Rouge was an integrated command with other agencies and I think that’s one of the reasons it was so successful. The state of Louisiana had representatives there; right there in the command post with us. So for a lot of Coasties that’s a new environment. It’s not new in the oil spill response community but it’s the way of things to come for the Coast Guard in that integrated agency response environment, and I thought we did very well with it. EPA was a big player in what we did and as the response progressed we became basically partners with EPA, and once we left Baton Rouge and moved into New Orleans, weeks later, we actually moved in and worked jointly with EPA in New Orleans. And that’s basically the HAZMAT responsibility that the Coast Guard has. We are responsible for it on the waterside and EPA is responsible for it on the shore side.
Q: Oh, okay.
CDR Kachele: And this is an interesting scenario as you can picture in your mind the homes and roads and all these places are flooded and there’s oil, and then they’re no longer flooded so you can see whose jurisdiction or whose job is this? Is this a Coast Guard job because it was on water or is it EPA? So that was the beauty of having a good working relationship. It never came to a finger-pointing. It actually was a very cooperative effort between the two agencies.
Q: Was most of the cleanup kind of in the Gulf . . .
CDR Kachele: No.
Q: . . . or was it in the canals?
CDR Kachele: Yes, and that was another interesting thing. If you flew over New Orleans there was a lot of talk about the levees being repaired. Well there were a lot of levees . . . well there were more than a couple of levees damaged. The levees that were in the news were the levees in New Orleans. There were many other levees that were broken further down through the region and weren’t repaired as quickly, and as a result those areas were still flooded. And a couple weeks after the hurricane you could fly down over and houses still had water, roads covered and levees being repaired. The Corps of Engineers obviously spent their effort on the highest demand areas first but there was a lot of work to be done. So that was part of the quandary . . . that’s another reason we had to use helicopters for transportation because the roads, many of them were still flooded because the levees weren’t repaired yet. They weren’t keeping the water out. So it was a tricky job.
Q: Staggering job, amazing.
CDR Kachele: It was truly overwhelming and the incident commanders that I worked with were impressive in their ability to maintain their demeanor, to have the vision and the big picture, to understand what needed to be done and stay focused on that, and not get sidetracked with all the other things that could distract you easily.
Q: What is HAZMAT, just for myself and the transcriber?
CDR Kachele: Hazardous material.
CDR Kachele: And in this case it was oil. The chemicals in the oil are hazardous to the environment and in certain quantities to people. So the need is to try to clean it up and mitigate the damage that it causes when it spills like that.
Q: Amazing. It was the most amazing thing the Coast Guard did since World War II in Normandy.
CDR Kachele: I think so.
CDR Kachele: I think so. And I think, you know when you talk about why . . . I think the Coast Guard was successful in their response. And you think about why were we successful and perhaps other agencies may or may not have had the same level of success that we did, and I think the reason is the Coast Guard has a culture of success. People in the Coast Guard expect things to work. You never go in wondering, “Is this going to happen?” You might be wondering how it’s going to happen. You going to have to figure out how you’re going to work it, how you’re going to handle this, but I don’t think Coasties go in questioning if it’s going to happen. And to me it’s a culture of success and I think it’s bred in the Coast Guard, and I don’t know that it’s necessarily a military thing or not but I think some of the agencies that suffered some pain in this process maybe weren’t as successful as they would have liked to have been. I don’t know that they have that culture; you know that each individual involved. I think if you asked any person in the organization; anybody there, if they had any doubt if we were going to achieve what needed to be done, there would be no question. It would be a matter of when or how but not if.
Q: That’s great.
CDR Kachele: And to me that was the difference. And I don’t mean that as a negative towards any of our other counterparts.
Q: Oh no, I understand.
CDR Kachele: They did great things. We worked with other agencies. The Joint Federal Office was in Baton Rouge and they were part of a cooperating effort. We worked with them a lot. But I think that’s where our success came from personally.
Q: Well thank you. That was great. It was very informative for me. It was a good perspective. So far I’ve interviewed mostly the pilots.
CDR Kachele: Oh yes, and you know it’s always different and actually I enjoy that though. I enjoy the logistics and support arena. I don’t mind. As long as they let us do that we can keep them flying and keep them doing what they need to do.
Q: Yes, that was great. It was a job well done. Thank you very much.
CDR Kachele: Sure. It was nice to meet you.
END OF INTERVIEW