U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program

Katrina Archival & Historical Record Team (KART)

Hurricane Katrina, 2005

Interviewee: BM2 Ronald Mancuso, USCG

Coxswain, Station Grand Isle

Interviewer: PA3 Susan Blake, USCG
Date of Interview:  17 October 2005
Place: Station Grand Isle, LA 


Q: Could you please state your first name, your last name, and spell your last name out?

BM2 Mancuso: Sure, it’s Ronald Mancuso; M-A-N-C-U-S-O.

Q: And your rate is?

BM2 Mancuso: BM.

Q: And how long have you been in the Coast Guard?

BM2 Mancuso: A little over four and a half years.

Q: And what’s your career path? Why did you decide to join the Coast Guard and where have you been?

BM2 Mancuso: I joined the Coast Guard a little later than most people. I was originally working for a local sheriff’s office and there was a good friend of mine that was kind of in the same position -he was working at a restaurant that I did security at - and he was the same age as I was and he just kind of upped and joined the Coast Guard. I talked to him a couple months after he got out of boot camp and he said he loved it and so I just kind of put the thought in my mind and just one day I got home and started researching it online - I researched it about six months - and decided to make a call, and next thing I know I was on a plane going to boot camp [chuckle].

Q: How old were you?

BM2 Mancuso: I was 27 when I called the recruiter and I was in the delayed entry program and then I turned 28 like a month later, so I was 28 when I went to boot camp.

Q: Okay.  Prior to Katrina hitting the Gulf Coast, what were you doing and where were you?

BM2 Mancuso: I was stationed here in Grand Isle. I was a duty coxswain and we were just doing our Coast Guard everyday missions, you know from law enforcement to homeland security; stuff like that. I was actually on duty weekend the Friday they told us that we would be leaving and we got that phone call where the XPO came in about 10 or 11 o’clock and got everybody together and we started deciding what we were going to do and who was going and where, and about midnight they made the decision that we were leaving at 6 o’clock the next morning with the two 41s to go up to Baton Rouge and I was one of the coxswains on that boat.

Q: So you went underway and you took it up to Baton Rouge?

BM2 Mancuso: Yes. We got whatever we could; our personal items. Most of our families lived on base and we were waking up our families telling them to start packing because I knew I was leaving at 6 in the morning and that I wouldn’t have a chance to get any of my personal stuff taken care of. So the two 41s, we left around 6:30 on Saturday morning, the 27th I believe, and then started heading to New Orleans and about halfway there we got a phone call that said, “Just continue onto Baton Rouge”.

Q: Now your family, did they drive to Baton Rouge?

BM2 Mancuso: No, my family, actually they went to Meridian.

Q: Okay.

BM2 Mancuso: No, actually they did, I’m sorry. Since we have family in Baton Rouge my wife and daughter, they went and stayed with family in Baton Rouge.

Q: Okay.

BM2 Mancuso: Most of the other families went to Meridian.

Q: Now after the storm came through you got back on the 41s and came back to Grand Isle?

BM2 Mancuso: No, we stayed on the 41s the whole time. The two days before the storm we were moored up next to tug boats and barges and we moored up next to two Coast Guard cutters; construction tenders, and then we waited out the storm in Baton Rouge. Then the next day a big flotilla of boats steamed down to New Orleans and then we started evacuating people that same night; the day after the hurricane.

Q: Okay, so you were in that flotilla.

BM2 Mancuso: Yes.

Q: You went to New Orleans. And tell us what happened, what was it like when you first came there; what you saw?

BM2 Mancuso: We were kind of wondering what it was going to be like and the two cutters that we were with couldn’t do a very fast speed. Their base average speed was about 12 knots so it took us a lot longer than we expected and we didn’t really realize until that evening that we were going to be pulling into New Orleans at night. We were all steaming in formation and the other Grand Isle 41 and the 41 I was on, we were talking on the phone and we decided that we were going to kind of ease up above the flotilla because we wanted to, just for our satisfaction we wanted to kind of be the first ones to see what was going on. So we steamed about a couple hundred yards in front of all the rest of the boats and we came to what they call the GNO Bridge; the Greater New Orleans Bridge, or CBD Bridge, which is the big New Orleans bridge where the toll is at, and it was just pitch black. We could see the flames off in the distance. We could see people in the two hotels next to the casino. They were trapped on the sixth or seventh floor and they were flashing us with flashlights and we finally got somebody over there and they were saying how they’d been there for like three days trapped in the hotel. They couldn’t get out. They didn’t have food or water. But it was a very, very eerie feeling to pull into New Orleans, the Mississippi River into New Orleans. You know any other time it’s lit up and you can see all the lights on all the buildings, and it was just pitch black. It was almost like a movie.

Q: About what time was that?

BM2 Mancuso: That was around 8/8:30 at night when we actually got into the city . . . .

Q: And how many people were in your formation in this flotilla?

BM2 Mancuso: We had two cutters. The one that was in charge of us all was cutter Pamlico, which was just a big barge that works pylons, and there was cutter Clamp that was a tugboat pushing two barges. And then we had, I think, eight 41s from different stations along the Gulf Coast from Gulfport to Venice to New Orleans and from us in Grand Isle, and we each had at least two boats and I think Gulfport actually had three boats. They actually had to tow a boat because they were rebuilding one. And so it was between eight boats. There were ten of us between eight boats and the two cutters that steamed all the way from Baton Rouge.

Q: Now was there a plan discussed along the way of what you were going to do if you found people, or what went on?

BM2 Mancuso: The CO of the cutter Pamlico [CWO3 Robert D. Lewald] kept updating us. He was very good at updating us. We didn’t have a specific plan. It was just kind of a broad plan that, “If this happens then we’re going to do this”, and it changed probably like four times on the way down to New Orleans, and even while we were waiting out the storm we didn’t really know what we were going to do when we got to New Orleans. However, once we got closer to New Orleans they were saying there were people at the naval air stations, there’s one that’s on the East Bank and one that’s on the West Bank, and as soon as they found . . . the biggest thing was where we were going to moor up at. And as soon as they found a place those cutters were able just to push up on the bank and all of the small boats just tied off to the barge or the cutter and we weren’t tied off about 20 minutes when they came over the intercom saying they needed some volunteers to start evacuating people right away, and that was at about 9:30 at night. My boat got underway. I volunteered and I think the two other 41s did, and then there were some aids to navigation boats; they’re called 55s, and I think one of those were on the way, and we just started evacuating people that just walked up to the air station from the East Bank where the levee broke and all the water was at. They would just walk up and ask to be ferried over. And the Navy had some security guys in place and that’s what we did for two hours that first night is just start evacuating. We just started bringing them on the 41s and I think . . .

Q: And you’d take them to the West Bank?

BM2 Mancuso: . . . we took them to the West Bank and dropped them off and the Navy escorted them down the levee somewhere. We probably evacuated 300 people that first night between all of the boats that were doing it. I believe I made three runs. The 41 can only hold so many people and then they had all of their whatever; luggage and bags that they could carry, basically everything that they owned, whatever was left. So we probably only took 45 people . . . 

Q: In your . . . .

BM2 Mancuso: On my boat, yes.

Q: And how long did that operation go on?

BM2 Mancuso: That night it went on for about two, two and a half hours and I think we tied up for the night around 11:30/11:45 that night and then got up first thing at daylight the next morning and started. By that time they had a St. Bernard Parish - down there where it was really bad - they had a ferry landing and they had thousands of people waiting to be evacuated. So that’s what we did. All the 41s got in a line, or basically all the 41s and the 55s got in a line and we’d just sit in the river and we just kept going. We’d pull up, we would load as many people as we could and we would take off down the river, we’d bring them from one spot where they were congregating at to a big warehouse where they were trying to get some supplies, like water and MREs for these guys to eat because by now it’s been two days, almost three days now that they were out of food and water, or were running out of water. And of course it was 95/100 degrees every day and they were sunburned really bad. And so we did that for about a half a day and then as things started progressing and more things started coming together - things were starting to roll and they started bringing the ferries in and tugboats with barges and we were putting five and six hundred people on those barges and the ferries. And our job at that time went from not actually transporting people but just kind of providing an escort just in case somebody fell off a barge or fell off one of the ferries. You know the small boats would run and pick them up out of the water. And then we were under the tasking of the cutter Pamlico and the CO, if somebody needed something down the river or an official with the sheriff’s office or any department needed a ride anywhere they kind of tasked the 41s to do that, and we did that. I actually did that for a full day. I was bringing the sheriff and his deputy commander of St. Bernard Parish around to different spots and then they were trying to get supplies. We went all the way up the river trying to find supplies and whatever they could ask us . . . they were asking for assistance on different tugboats. So basically when they started rolling the barges and the ferries evacuating people, our job was just to help them on and off the ferries from one point to the next. 

There were several EMTs that were certified EMTs to the Coast Guard that were giving medical treatment to anybody that needed it, and then if anybody was in critical they would call in a helo and then we would airvac them.

Q: Did you have any EMTs on your vessel?

BM2 Mancuso: I did not, no.

Q: Okay. Were there any situations where you had to treat anybody for a medical condition, or there was a medical incident on your vessel and you had to rush them . . . ?

BM2 Mancuso: No, never on my vessel. We had one call where there was a burn victim that was on the levee and I just happened, all the 41s were tied up but they were all tied up together and I just happened to be the one that was on the outside. So my boat rushed to that position but we never found him. I think the helo got to him before we did. But as far as my boat; we never had any major medical concerns, just the average dehydration and fatigue and stuff like that.

Q: So the Pamlico was running the show there and had teams?

BM2 Mancuso: The Pamlico was running the show for all the small boats on the river and by this time; by Wednesday or Thursday during that week, we had an MSST team that had, I believe, five 25s. And so the Pamlico was running the show for all of the small boats on the river, just tasking. You know he was getting tasking from the Admiral or whomever and he would just task it out, and then they finally got relieved, I believe on Thursday, by the cutter Spencer. And then we just started, doing ferry operations and the evacuation on the tugboats for two and a half days and then on Friday evening our boat crew got relieved at about 7:00 that night, or actually all of the boat crews got relieved.

Q: Okay.

BM2 Mancuso: Those initial guys on the 41’s had been sleeping on the 41 since Saturday before the hurricane.

Q: That’s quite a long time.

BM2 Mancuso: A very long time with four people on a boat and it’s hot, humid, and there’s no A/C on the boats. And there was no shore power to hook up, so all you had was . . .

Q: The great outdoors and the heat [chuckle].

BM2 Mancuso: The heat. We were lucky enough that we had . . . the Sunday before the hurricane we went; the two boats from Grand Isle, went to Baton Rouge straight and we didn’t stop but the flotilla stopped about 60 miles south of Baton Rouge and there was a miscommunication there of where we were supposed to stop where they stopped and by the time they realized that we weren’t with them it was too late to go back 60 miles; basically another four-hour run down the river to meet up. So that was Saturday night. Like I say, we went to Baton Rouge and Sunday we had like a little break waiting for the flotilla to meet up with us so we were able to go to the store and we all chipped in and we bought ice because we kind of knew that we wouldn’t be going back to Grand Isle right away. We just kind of had a feeling that if it’s as bad as they said it was that we wouldn’t be able to bring the boats back and that we may stay on the boats. We were thinking at least two or three days. We never thought it was going to be seven days. But like I say, we were lucky enough, or blessed enough, to get supplies from Wal-Mart that Sunday and we had stocked up on drinks and ice and stuff because that was a big issue too when that whole week was trying to get water to all of these thousands of evacuees and the Coast Guard trying to take care of their own people at the same time. So I mean we put all our resources together and it all faired out pretty good.

Q: So you pretty much stayed on the Mississippi; you didn’t go on any of the vessels that went inside the different, like St. Bernard’s Parish where they had the flooding?

BM2 Mancuso: Correct, we stayed strictly on the river.

Q: And what would you say was the most challenging portion of this entire event for you personally?

BM2 Mancuso: The most challenging I guess would be, on a personal issue, was trying to keep a clear and level head about everything because while we were evacuating all these people, everybody that was a part of this flotilla didn’t know how their house made out and their families. Some people were still worried about their families so that was the most challenging thing that we had. At the end of the day we were just kind of venting to each other and that kind of helped us out a lot because we’re here helping and that’s our job and that’s our mission, and we felt really great at the end of the day but then it started hitting you, well you know we may not even have a home to go home to. So that personally was the biggest thing. But like I say, nobody actually just broke down and couldn’t do the mission. We all knew what our job was and we did it and then at the end of the day we got together and just tried to be a little support group, at least for our own. 

And then we started bringing in the other boats and we would just kind of talk at the end of the day about what they have heard about their station and what we have heard about our station, because we, for four or five days, we didn’t talk to anybody in our command and we were told that we worked for the cutter Pamlico who worked for whoever his boss was and that our command right now is not our command basically until things settle down for some part. But as far as the mission lies, the biggest, I guess, hindrance was communications. And it was just unbelievable because we were on five different channels. We would be on one channel and then all of a sudden it would get overrun because the helos, you know they needed the radio traffic more than what we did. And then just the not knowing what we were going to do. Every day we didn’t know what we were going to do the next day until we got up that morning and then they just said we were going to keep doing what we were doing. They said we were making a big dent in evacuating people from one point to the next. 

The biggest thing is the communications and that wasn’t just for us, that was every agency. And people were making . . . some of the elderly and old-timer people were making jokes about, “Well now New Orleans is back to the way it used to be where the only form of communications is going up and down the river”, because if you had to get a message to somebody you either had to tell one of the boats to go to Point Wherever and say, “I’m delivering a message”, because cell phones didn’t work. You couldn’t get a word in over the radio. So that was probably the biggest as far as the mission-wise went. I don’t want to say problem. I guess it probably was a problem. I mean we worked through it obviously and we made it work and we found our little working channel that we could talk on and let everybody else do their thing, because there were hundreds of helos flying all around and it literally looked like a war zone because it wasn’t just Coast Guard helos, it was the big Hueys that you see from Vietnam and the big double rotor . . .

Q: Chinook.

BM2 Mancuso: Yes, exactly, and it just looked like a war zone flying over it. And then now there’s more; there’s like three or four fires that are on the Riverwalk. The whole section of a pier, or I guess you call it a pier, it was all on fire for two days and that hindered us from evacuating people because the way the wind was blowing, it was blowing the smoke all across the river and you couldn’t drive through it. It was just too thick and you didn’t want to bring any evacuees through there. It actually was blowing right on the Point; they call it Algiers Point, where we were dropping the evacuees off. So that was a hindrance. We had to tell the people that have been out of food and water for four days that they had to wait a couple hours because there was no place to bring them because of a fire that somebody set on Riverwalk, as they call it.

Q: Would you say that’s one of the biggest risks that you encountered during this operation, or is there something else you can think of?

BM2 Mancuso: The biggest risk was crowd control. For the most part the people were very, I wouldn’t say . . . most of them were very understanding and very thankful that we were there but the problem was is that we were evacuating them so fast from one point to the next and at the point where we were dropping them off, to get them off of that point to where the major evacuation drop-off point, that’s where the slowdown was at. And then there was that one time like 3,000 people at Algiers Point waiting for buses to show up to get on and the crowd control got out of hand for about 30 minutes and then finally when we got more Coast Guard people down there and the sheriff’s office, and we had Wildlife and Fisheries, and you know, got them under control. But that was probably the biggest concern from everybody and especially the . . . our supervisor was . . . we didn’t know what kind of state of mind these people were going to be in because they’d been on top of their houses for three days and they’re mad at the government, and we’re the first people they see as far as the government-wise and they want to try to take their anger out on us. But we didn’t run into any problems on the river to where we actually had to use any force besides that one incident at Algiers Point and it was just more of a presence of different agencies with weapons and stuff, because we were fully armed from whatever we had from shotguns to our personal defense weapons, just as a deterrent for whatever we might have run into. But besides that one incident we didn’t have any other problems.

Q: Well did any of the evacuees state why they stayed and didn’t evacuate?

BM2 Mancuso: Yes, a lot of them didn’t have a way to evacuate; they didn’t have vehicles. But from St. Bernard Parish, they didn’t evacuate because they didn’t feel like they were in any danger. They might have got a little street flooding but the reason for all the flooding was because the levee broke and they didn’t anticipate the levee breaking, and so that’s why a lot of the people from what they call Chalmette and St. Bernard Parish didn’t evacuate because they were like, “Well we’ve been here for however many years”, and they were like, “We never had a need to evacuate.” But the reason that they were in the position that they were in was because the levee broke and then all the lake water from Lake Ponchartrain was what flooded all those houses. So that kind of caught them off guard. And of course you hear the news saying . . . for 20 years they’ve been saying how a major hurricane could break the levee but they didn’t really take that into consideration that the levee did break.

Q: And I think they had three prior evacuations from storms that were going to come in. 

BM2 Mancuso: Yes.

Q: Now during this time did people want their animals transported?

BM2 Mancuso: Yes, we saw a lot of animals; a lot of dogs, cats, a few parrots, but yet they had their animals with them. They evacuated with them. We didn’t see any stray animals swimming in the river or anything like that that we had to pick up or anything but most of the people that had their animals, of course we took them. Now I don’t know if they . . . because some of them were big Great Danes and I don’t know if they got on the buses. I’m sure they did. But no, we didn’t have any problems with them.

Q: So you took them over there and you pretty much don’t know what happened to them once you dropped them off on the West Bank. Is there any incident you’d like to recount for us that was memorable in all this activity?

BM2 Mancuso: Not one thing really stands out in my mind. You know just everything. I mean I can remember like it was yesterday everything that we did and nothing really stands out. It’s just seeing the faces of the people when we started evacuating was probably the hardest for everybody because they were bringing garbage cans full of stuff that they could salvage and basically they were holding on to their garbage bags or garbage cans for three days. I guess what sticks out in my mind the most is when we were finally there to help, we were helping them onto the ferry or onto the barge and we were trying to help them off, because they were walking off a little makeshift, what we call a brow; a makeshift from the boat to the pier.

Q: A gangway.

BM2 Mancuso: Exactly, a gangway. And you know they were carrying, you know the women would have their kids, their babies in their arms and trying to carry their bag and we were like, “
Ma’am”, or “Sir, we’ll take your bags and we’ll walk up with you”, and they didn’t want to let their bags go. I didn’t understand at first until after a couple times, then I realized that they were probably holding onto this bag for the last four days and this is probably everything that they own or that they have left and it was like their lifeline to them. So that kind of sticks out in my mind the most is how we were offering to help them and it was just that little thing of helping them carry their bags; they didn’t want to let go of it because that was their lifeline. You know that sticks out in my mind and I probably think about it every day or something, or at least when we talk about it. But as far as major incidents, nothing sticks out.

Q: Or just people that you met or something that happened that . . . but that’s a good example. 

BM2 Mancuso: Yes, that’s something.

Q: Were you personally prepared for what you saw when you went in there or were you just shocked?

BM2 Mancuso: Yes, I was definitely shocked. Being from Louisiana and being in New Orleans all the time, yes, I was totally shocked because we heard stories of how it was going to be and then we didn’t really see the major flooding because we were on the river. But yes, it was just a humbling experience watching the people that were just, you know bringing them from one spot to the next and just the looks on their faces, and it was very humbling and not a whole lot of people talked during the day. We just were kind of all quiet and then off on our own little thoughts. But as far as prepared, I mean you know you prepare as much as you can. I mean we actually . . . there was really no training for this. They train you the best they can and then you kind of try to mentally prepare yourself as best you can. I think that everybody . . . and being a senior petty officer I guess we were, myself and the other coxswain were tasked to making sure our boat crews were not losing what we call the bubble and starting to just break down and not be able to do the job, and we all did a good job of watching out for each other. And there were incidents that we would talk about that would kind of get us laughing and our minds off of what we were doing, at least for a few minutes.

Q: But pretty much at the end of the day it was like you had enough and . . . 

BM2 Mancuso: Yes, at the end of the day we had enough. We didn’t decide when we stopped. We were basically going 12 hours a day and then basically whenever they decided not to take anymore evacuees from Algiers Point is when we stopped bringing them over from the other position. We would basically have our routine. We would tie up. We’d find a place to eat dinner, whether it was on one boat or the other, and then we would basically decide how we were going to sleep that night and whether we were going to sleep on the 41s, and trying to find the best spot. And then we’d have our little downtime together and then we’d start back up the next day.

Q: And you had brought water and things like that before you came?

BM2 Mancuso: Yes, we had brought water and after a couple days it was running low and we didn’t have any ice anymore. So they were bringing us water as fast as they could from wherever else. Our supervisors, or like the Pamlico, they would say, “Yes, okay, we just got in cases of water”, so they would distribute them on the 41s. And I actually had a day that I was bringing the sheriff and his deputy commander from St. Bernard Parish around to different spots and we stopped at a couple tugboats and we were able to get ice and then food and water to bring back to some of the boats. So we made out what we could and we asked for help. Like the tugboats; we got on a few tugboats and they all gave us ice, which was a big morale booster because now I’m coming back with ice and then all our drinks and the one cooler would at least have ice for a couple days.

Q: Yes.  Now did you do any coordination with the air operations or was that totally separate?

BM2 Mancuso: No, that was totally separate. The incident with the burn victim; they were setting up to do an air . . . if we would have gotten him on our boat they were setting up to do an air hoist to take that victim off and fly him straight to the hospital. But like I said earlier, we never made it. The helo got him before we did. But we didn’t do any air coordination. That was all separate.

Q: Is there any aspect of your past training that proved most useful in this operation?

BM2 Mancuso: Yes. I was the coxswain so we were running up and down the river. You had to maneuver with the current and the wind; you know mooring up next to wherever we were dropping them off at. But just the whole training of just making sure your boat crew does their job. Like I said, we didn’t do anything major like picking anybody up out of the water but just the whole being the supervisor on my little boat there. You know the Coast Guard has trained me for that and to make sure that my boat crew is safe and is well informed and to make sure they know what to do. So overall that general training definitely kicked in, and of course in driving boats for a while because there were some times where the current would be a little stronger and you had to be careful because you didn’t want anybody that was stepping onto the boat to slip and fall in the water or anything, and stuff like that. 

Q: And personally you had your family in Baton Rouge. Were you able to salvage any of your stuff; pack it up and get it there?

BM2 Mancuso: My wife was able to get basically as much clothes for her and my daughter, as much as possible, and she was able to take the pictures off the wall and she got all of our important papers and loaded the truck up. But other than that, that’s all she was able to get.

Q: And she’s still there now?

BM2 Mancuso: Well she stayed in Baton Rouge for about a month and then we actually moved a little closer.

Q: Okay, so you got something in the area?

BM2 Mancuso: Yes. 

Q: Is there anything you’d care to share with us that we haven’t covered?

BM2 Mancuso: No, we pretty much covered everything.

Q: Any people that you’d like to include?

BM2 Mancuso: Well the CO of the Pamlico really took charge and he never got – well I say never got - he never showed that he got frustrated or just didn’t know what to do. He always was very calm. Every time he had an update he didn’t beat around the bush. He told us what he was doing and what was going on, and that right there really kind of made our situation a little better because he was just so, I guess you would say cool, calm and collective. You know he never, and even when people were hollering at him saying, you know the civilian officials and the sheriff’s office were just hollering at him on the radio telling him, “You need to get my people out of here. We’ve got people over here dying”, you know he never lost the bubble as we say and that really, really impressed me and made our jobs as the coxswains a lot easier, because if he was freaking out then we were going to start freaking out and then . . .

Q: And it would just spread.

BM2 Mancuso: . . . and it would be a chain reaction. And then he really cut off a lot of the headache and the hassle, and he specifically said, “You go do this, you go do that. We’re going to do this today and then wait for further tasking”, and everybody did what they were supposed to do. And so he - and I said this like after Day One - he just really sticks out in my mind. He was a great person to work for and he was a great CO of his boat and he ran that whole little small operation until he got relieved, and the best that I’ve ever seen anything in the Coast Guard run.

Q: Very good.  Alright, well thank you very much.

BM2 Mancuso: Thank you.

END OF INTERVIEW


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