Katrina Archival & Historical Record Team (KART)
Responsibilities were quickly divided up. These included port issues and pollution, operations, and prevention. From these three areas of responsibilities, they determined where to put their assets. Mueller worked the operational side. Many of the stations evacuate often, such as Venice and Grand Isle. Everyone expected to be back to his or her units the next day. No one expected the city to flood and the infrastructure to collapse. Everything was underwater; boats were everywhere. The helicopters were working tremendous winds but still taking people off of roofs as early as two or three in the afternoon on that first day. “It was stunning; just when you thought it could not get worse it did.” The logistics were very difficult. All of the supplies that the units had before did not exist anymore and phone numbers no longer worked. Approximately 210 to 220 Coast Guard people at the sector lost their homes. They lost everything except for the clothes on their backs but continued to work for two weeks. “I’ve never seen people work so hard in my life.” There were many port issues. Barges were scattered everywhere and a tanker looked like it was on top of a levee. The Captain of the Port (COTP) needed to be in direct communications with everyone such as the port authority, the oil companies, the salvage companies, etc. Mueller was very concerned about safety and wanted to ensure that the crews had body armor and weapons. Unfortunately they were not fully equipped at Zeypher Field. Weapons qualifications were very valuable. The Port Security Units (PSUs) were a big help. They said this was much worse than Kuwait and Iraq. Security was huge concern. Looters took weapons out of a SWAT truck. “There were 400 people at this base fulltime-people in tents- people on cots- the looters had destroyed everything.” By day five the Spencer arrived and assumed command of river operations, which really helped the 41-foot boat crews. The Harriett Lane later relieved Spencer. They moved thousands of people to safety. They were not only moving people, they were providing crowd control and confiscating weapons and drugs. One of Mueller’s biggest concerns was exhaustion. It was 100 degrees everyday. Sanitation was also a big concern.
Quote: “I’ve never seen people work so hard in my life. . .There were a lot of lessons learned. . .The Auxiliary was amazing."
Q: Okay, can you state your first name, your last name, and spell your last name?
CAPT Mueller: Robert Mueller; M-U-E-L-L-E-R.
Q: And your rank in the Coast Guard?
CAPT Mueller: I’m a Captain.
Q: How long have you been in the Coast Guard?
CAPT Mueller: I graduated from the Academy in ‘82.
Q: And can you give us a brief overview of your career path that led to being stationed here at Sector New Orleans?
CAPT Mueller: My first ship was the Boutwell out of Seattle; a 378. I was an exchange officer on the USS Horne out of San Diego; a guided missile cruiser. Then I went to the Intelligence Coordination Center in Washington for four years. Then I went to Joint Task Force Five in Alameda doing drug ops, then I was assigned at Base Operations Officer in Puerto Rico for a year and a half. Then I went over to Italy for four months to work the Bosnia war with NATO, and back to Puerto Rico and became the Assistant Operations Officer. And then, let’s see, I went to Newport, Rhode Island, to the War College. I went to Headquarters for two years and then went to the Pentagon for two years working with the Navy. Then down to Mobile for three years as XO of the group and then Atlantic Area for two years as the Executive Assistant to the Area Commander. Then I came here this summer in July.
Q: Okay. So prior to Katrina hitting the Gulf Coast what was going on here; what kind of preparations were you making here at the Sector?
CAPT Mueller: Well prior to the storm we were standing up as a sector. We stood up, I believe it was August 18th, and the focus was getting ready for the sector standup. There were a couple minor hurricanes that came through but nothing; you know usual evacuations, usual hurricane plan ops, but nothing really dramatic when we stood up the sector. Then a few days later Katrina started spinning up and we started preparing. We followed the hurricane plan. Thursday before the storm hit it was still going to Florida and we were giving people we know in Florida a hard time saying, “You better come over here where it’s going to be safe because clearly Florida’s going to get hammered on this one.” And then by Saturday morning it was obvious it was coming here and not going to Florida and we had a quick staff meeting, and the senior staff decided we had to get moving quickly so we started the evacuations. We split the senior staff; half went to Alexandria immediately that afternoon and half of us stayed behind until they established the watch up there. Then we shut down the watch here on Sunday and then we evacuated up to Alexandria too.
Q: And once you got to Alexandria what was your task and what were you doing there?
CAPT Mueller: My job here is the Deputy Sector Commander. I relieved the Group Commander as the operations guy and as the Deputy Sector Commander so that’s why I stayed later on Sunday to handle the search and rescue stuff, which was quickly winding down because of the storm. I mean everybody was evacuating. There were gas shortages. Gas stations were out of gas. People were standing in line for hours trying to get gas. It was a real mess. Roads were clogged. We had a real hard time evacuating the last group out of here simply because you couldn’t get there from here, you just couldn’t do it. A lot of our people took seven/eight hours to get to Alexandria, which should be a three-hour drive.
So I got up there. I was still the Deputy Sector Commander. So I became the Deputy Incident Commander and we were standing up the incident command structure and it was hard. I was really amazed when I got there Sunday afternoon late after a long day of driving all day trying to get up there of how fast they had stood up the structure. I mean they had a room assembled. They had the tables. They were getting computers. They’d gotten phones. They had charts on the wall and things were getting operational. Logistic folks were getting settled. People were making contact. We had, I would guess, a couple hundred hotel rooms up there. I mean they turned that place into a Coast Guard base in about 24 hours, which was very, very impressive. I got there, like I said, late Sunday afternoon. The storm was coming. We were all watching on CNN and checking all the units making sure everybody was safe, making sure Grand Isle had all their stuff out and all the units were ready to go and in good safe places. And we had units scattered all over Southern Louisiana; patrol boats in Texas, because we were afraid if we had one safe haven or two safe havens and they got hit, they could be damaged beyond repair or we’d lose our resources. So we had them scattered, which was probably a good idea, because with the roads down and closed after the storm, having alternate routes into the city proved to be pretty worthwhile.
Q: Okay. So how did you coordinate those units? How did you decide . . . who did you sit down with? Captain Paskewich and you sat down and you decided what units were going to be remaining in place and where they’re going to be. How was the game plan set up?
CAPT Mueller: Well it was clear this was going to be an unprecedented storm. I mean we hadn’t had a CAT 4 hit New Orleans ever that anybody could remember and the Captain of the Port issues were just huge. They were absolutely huge. You know this is, I think, three of the top five ports in the U.S. are located right here by tonnage. I mean the oil industry is just huge here. So we kind of divided it up and he worked a lot of the Captain of the Port issues and a lot of the potential pollution issues, getting things ready, and I was working on the operational side with Commander Stump who’s the response guy and Commander Parody who’s the prevention guy, and the three of us were figuring out where we were going to put all the units. And of course I was keeping Captain Paskewich advised of what I was doing and he was keeping me advised of what he was doing. And because it was so huge it was kind of a team concept and it was the only way we could get the amount of work done that we had to do because it was just too big. There was too much going on. And we hadn’t been a sector very long so we didn’t have good cross-pollenization yet as to how everything was working on the other side. The Legacy “O” guys didn’t have a good handle on the “M” stuff and the Legacy “M” guys didn’t have a good handle on the Legacy “O” stuff so we kind of went to our strengths and back-briefed and kept each other informed and it worked out pretty well. But we were concerned about egress back into the city and we were concerned about getting people far enough away to be safe and yet still be able to get back. So there were a whole lot of discussions with the units and where they were, how they were doing, if they had enough equipment, what their fuel state was and things like that, where are all the dependents. It was just a huge issue. I mean we’ve got the whole sector of New Orleans pretty much.
Q: I know that in some of the interviews some of the units have stated that they really just came with the shirts on their backs. I mean they really didn’t have supplies or anything with them. How was that evolving there at Alexandria? Is that one of the first things that you coordinated is trying to get these people supplies after the storm, on their way to New Orleans, or in New Orleans? How did that work?
CAPT Mueller: It was pretty much a standard evacuation. You know people in the 8th District do it five/six/eight times a year, it’s just normal. I mean Grande Isle evacuates all the time. Venice evacuates. It’s just one of those things. So again, we didn’t have enough supplies early on for the units to evacuate. Everybody took what they would need and expected to be back the next morning at their unit getting their stuff and going and making rescues. That’s what everybody expected to happen. None of us expected the city to flood, you know the infrastructure to collapse. It wasn’t planned. And in hindsight that was probably a failure. We have a lot of lessons learned now. The standard Sector New Orleans Hurricane Outfit includes food and water on all the boats, it includes solar showers, it includes chainsaws, includes dead man sticks, axes. You know all the people will be taking changes of uniforms with them, changes of underwear, and especially socks. All those things have been incorporated. That’s our standard new sector outfit. But before the storm we didn’t realize we were going to need all of that. We weren’t prepared for such a dramatic event. But this has never happened before so it’s easy to beat ourselves up, but we made do with what we had and it worked out pretty good.
By Sunday evening we realized this was going to be a big one and the logistics folks were already ramping up trying to figure out what they thought we would need and the operations folks were talking to units like, “Hey, what do you think you’re going to need?” Of course getting supplies on a Sunday night before a hurricane is impossible but at least they were going in the right direction.
As the storm hit Monday we realized it was going to be really bad and then Captain Paskewich and I made an overflight Monday afternoon, right after the storm passed, and in fact there were still tropical force winds in the city and we were flying over it in an H-60 and it was stunning. Every single thing was underwater. It was just absolutely stunning. And each place we went it was like, “Oh my God, this is the worst I’ve ever seen”, and then the next place would be even worse than that. And we flew over the station here and everything was underwater. The station building was standing proud and the roof was still intact but there was water everywhere. Everything was underwater.
We kept going east and the water kept getting deeper and we saw the yacht club on fire; flames out of it, and boats piled everywhere. Coast Guard helos were starting to make rescues and they were being buffeted all over the place because they were in horrendous winds. You know 65s aren’t that big and they’re just getting hammered but they’re hoisting people off of roofs as early as two and three in the afternoon, which was just amazing. We kept going east and the water kept getting deeper and when we saw the I-10 twin spans it was collapsed. It was just gone. And it was very surprising because that really complicated us getting back into the city because the units to the east couldn’t get there from here. We flew back and flew the length of the causeway to make sure it was still standing because it’s near the station and I figured, “If that’s standing then we can get back in”, and it was standing. Of course you know, 150 knots, you can’t tell if it’s drivable but at least it was there. As we flew back we both realized, “This is unbelievable”, and we started making preparations accordingly to get as much logistics as we could down here. But it was hard because the CNN reports were coming on and they’re showing people getting really antsy and they’re showing the riots starting and they’re showing what’s happening at the Convention Center and the Super Dome. We couldn’t get suppliers to bring things in. So even if we could find fuel we couldn’t get it here because the truckers were, “I’m not interested in going down there. I’m sorry. I’m not going to do that”, and it was really, really difficult. So our logistics folks were trying to buy heaven and earth and you couldn’t get it here those first few days. I know the first fuel truck we got here at the station drove down the causeway but it couldn’t get into the city because of course the city’s underwater, so they turned left and drove on the levee, which is pretty gutsy from the trucker’s point of view, and got here just as they’re siphoning the last gas out of their personal vehicles; the ones that were destroyed and sitting underneath the building when it was flooded. I mean that’s how close it was. It was that way in a lot of things. We could get stuff here just in the nick of time to keep things going and it was an amazing logistics effort, you know just the obstacles they had to deal with. They couldn’t find companies. There was no infrastructure left down here so all the suppliers they dealt with didn’t exist anymore. All the phone numbers they had weren’t any good and they’re trying to call Baton Rouge; the nearest civilized place, and that place was swamped. Now they had hundreds of thousands of people, more then they’re suppose to have in Baton Rouge, and all their suppliers are absolutely too blocked as well because they are supplying what’s needed in Baton Rouge, so they wouldn’t come here either. So our Logistics people were calling to Texas, they were calling Northern Mississippi, they were calling all over the country getting supplies to focus to New Orleans because you couldn’t buy it here. It didn’t exist anywhere close to the city. So it was a huge logistics event.
Q: Well this action in your lessons learned, this is something that you’re going to address because this region’s going to get hit again and how can we get our units the supplies needed and figure out a logistic . . . .
CAPT Mueller: Oh, huge lessons learned. One of the things we’re doing is all the units . . . for instance; we’re going to an expeditionary mindset here. All the stations lost all their parts and tools because they’re all on the ground floor because that’s where you have to have them because they’re heavy and you need to work on the boats. So unless they had it with them they lost it all. Down here the water was four or five feet deep and everything in here was ruined. At Grande Isle the ground floor was wiped cleaned. Gulfport: the whole station was wiped cleaned; hence the ground floor was destroyed. So with Admiral Duncan’s support we’re going to expeditionary trailers for all the stations so they’ll have a trailer with roll out and roll on cabinets like they do for racecars. When a racecar team goes to a track they set up a garage, roll it out and set it up and it’s there within an hour, so we’re trying to do that in reverse. And CU’s going to design buildings, the ground floors have to be built around these carts with the tools and the critical parts in them so you can button them up, roll them on the trailer and get them out of here in about an hour so we won’t have the problem where we come back and we don’t have anything. And there’s also room on these trailers for food and water and for critical supplies. So each station and each patrol boat will have one of these trailers, and each ANT [phonetic], because they all lost everything too. So now we can get away quickly and when we come back we’re going to have supplies, not everything you need, but light years ahead of what we had this time because this time we had no parts, we had no tools, we had no water and we had no food. And good Coasties did amazing things. We’re definitely learning the lessons that are going to make it much more expeditionary for the next time and it’s got to be fast and easier or it’s a waste of time, because we still have to evacuate the trailerable boats, the 41s, the crews, the families. So we’re going to make this a quick parts and tools evacuation so it’s easy on the crews.
Q: And how was the communication chain going up? What was Headquarters asking of you; you were you doing SITREPs?
CAPT Mueller: Going up the chain was very, very good. I was in Alexandria the first three days and we had good Comms at D-8 in St. Louis and the Admiral was with us in Alexandria quite a bit; Admiral Duncan and his senior staff, so that worked out very well. I mean base-to-base communications were good. Cell phones were abysmal because anything with area codes for down here weren’t working at all. During the hurricane most of the cell phone towers fell down. The ones that didn’t had like a 24-hour battery backup. So about Monday night they all died too so it was impossible. We quickly bought cell phones up there and distributed them everywhere so everybody had cell phones there. Headquarters was going . . . you know the D-8 staff in St. Louis handled most of the Headquarters’ requests. We had very few coming to us, which was good, because we had our hands full trying to work down the chain; get units reestablished, and it was just exploding.
We had some national tasking. At one point the Secretary needed to know what was going on in the Convention Center so we sent Coasties to go find out because that was a national issue and nobody had visibility of what was happening in New Orleans except us. So we were supplying a lot of information, I think, that was worthwhile up in Washington to those people.
Q: And they came down; Secretary Chertoff and the admirals came down. Can you tell us about any incidents about the VIP visits?
CAPT Mueller: Well they wanted to see what was happening. I think the President was here on Day Four at the station; President Bush himself, and that was a big morale booster for our crew. They really appreciated that because they were pretty tired by that point. They’d been running hard. You know it took them almost a whole day to get back here because there were trees down all over the roads. They couldn’t make it back. And when they got back they had to chase out the looters. They didn’t chase them. They rounded them up, took the weapons away - they had a lot of guns and knives - they took the weapons away, took the drugs away, fed them, doctored them and got them to the local police. So it was quite an operation. And they had rescued hundreds of people when the President came and that was really good.
Several days later - I forget what day it was, maybe Day Eight or so - the Vice President came and Secretary Chertoff came and the Attorney General came, and it was neat. They saw, they talked to the troops, they cheered people up a little bit and improved morale. The Commandant was here. Vice Admiral Crea was here; the Area Commander. Later on Admiral Rochon came through. So we had a lot of very high profile visits.
Q: And Coast Guard Legal is coming through now to help people with any kind of assistance.
CAPT Mueller: We had huge support from Legal and D-8 Legal was a huge player. They had legal support from all over the Coast Guard come and help us out. We had lawyers visiting all the units. We had Coast Guard Mutual Assistance visiting all the units. We had chaplains everywhere. We were awash in chaplains and critical incident people and those were both absolutely required because we had people just working tremendous hours and seeing things that are very difficult to see, you know dead bodies and that sort of thing, rescuing people in horrendous circumstances. So we used the chaplain support and the critical incident stress support tremendously and I can’t thank those people enough for what they did. It enabled our people to get back on the boat the next morning and keep going.
Q: And how is the morale today of the sector here?
CAPT Mueller: I would say morale is amazingly high considering what just happened to us. I mean we were a sector and then we got destroyed pretty much. And almost every unit . . . and I think I got the Pelican in Abbyville, which was undamaged, and even they’re not totally untouched, but every other unit suffered damage, most of them catastrophic damage. But Coasties are getting the job done. The morale is high and they’re focusing and they’re getting the job done.
Q: Do you know how many Coasties here were affected by the storm; had their homes wiped out?
CAPT Mueller: I think we had like 210 or 220 who are homeless at the moment; either their houses were destroyed or suffered such major damage that they’re uninhabitable, and that’s hard. People at the station here, a number of them lost their houses in town or their apartments in town were destroyed and everything they own was totally wiped out. Then the looters came and stole all their uniforms out of the station, out of the barrack’s rooms, because a lot of them pre-staged uniforms in the barracks knowing they were going to go away and come back the next day and they’d be ready to operate. So all that was gone. And then their cars were submarines under the building when the flood came because we had cars scattered all over the place. So those poor young petty officers and non-rates lost everything. They had the clothes on their back and that was the only thing they had left and they worked for two weeks straight without even blinking an eye.
Q: Now were you personally affected? Did you have any damage to your home?
CAPT Mueller: I was very lucky. I live on the North Shore. So the price of the commute was I didn’t have any real damage; trees, fences, but nothing of any importance. So I was very fortunate.
Q: Now would you say there’s, working in Alexandria, any Coast Guard procedures or policies that could have been improved to make things work even smoother?
CAPT Mueller: The Coast Guard rules work pretty well. I won’t say we followed everything to the letter because we didn’t have them available but we followed the spirit of them as best we could and that worked out pretty good. The only glitch was in the food because we didn’t have time to leave the IC to go eat, we couldn’t buy food to bring in and we weren’t allowed to take donations - there were legal issues - but the spouses overcame that by forming a corporation to feed us. That worked out pretty well.
The spouses were amazing. They supplied all the food for everybody up there. I know my wife was doing all the laundry. Just things that the spouses saw the Coasties needed to work and they couldn’t be wasting time washing their clothes or whatever, so they figured it out. They got it done and that enabled the Coasties to keep working around the clock.
And the hours up there, you know everybody says, “Well they were in a hotel”, but they were just working tremendous hours because everybody knew the people down here in the city needed all the help they could get and they were determined that they weren’t going to be the weak link to stop something from getting there. I’ve never seen people work so hard in my life. They were just absolutely killing themselves trying to get stuff down here as fast as they could; get people down here, get more boats down here, more weapons, more body armor, all those things as fast as they could, and that was the first three days. By Day Four I was flying down here because I had to see what was happening and I think by Day Five I was here fulltime because this place was growing so fast.
Q: Was Captain Paskewich still in Alexandria?
CAPT Mueller: He stayed in Alexandria.
CAPT Mueller: We had to kind of divide it because the search and rescue was here and initially we sent the best people we could down here. We hand picked particularly Lieutenant Commander Gilbreath to go to Zephyr Field. He had a strong command presence and he would fit in with the operation down there. So we picked him and I said to him, “I can’t tell you what you’re going to be doing exactly but when you get there you’re going to understand what needs to happen with the boats and the search and rescue. So go there and do the best you can and we’ll send you everything we can”, and those were his orders because we had almost no communication with him at all. It was extremely difficult because all the cell phones were down, the land lines were down and the radios were kind of ineffective. So we sent him off saying, “Do the best you can and we’ll be in touch as soon as we can.”
And security was the same way. Lieutenant Commander Sean Regan; we desperately needed security down here and he was the MSST CO. So I grabbed him and said, “I can’t tell you what you’re going to do exactly but go down there and do it because we need security. You guys are the heavy hitters in the security game. You’re highly trained for this. Go down there and take care of our people”, and he came down here and did a magnificent job despite the fact the Comms were so bad.
And then I came down because this is where the search and rescue was. But Captain Paskewich stayed in Alexandria because there were huge Captain of the Port issues. I mean New Orleans was . . . the waterways are probably one of the most important in the country and there were barges scattered everywhere. There was one tank ship; a pretty large tanker, and it looked like it was on top of a levee. As we flew over the river that first day there was stuff everywhere, not as polluted as I expected but you could see it was going to come, it was jut a matter of time. So he had to be in a place where he had outstanding communications with everybody, because all the industry, the port authorities, the oil companies, the salvage companies, everything needed his direction to do what he had to do, so he had to be up there. In fact a lot of the people we needed to talk to were relocating up there. The salvage companies relocated in Alexandria because Captain Paskewich was there. The port authorities were sending people up there because he was there. It was all moving where he was so he had to stay there. But I had to be here because of the search & rescue. So we kind of divided and conquered and it worked out pretty well.
Q: Now you were dealing with operations here. What concerns were you passing down to the people; the boat crews that were doing these evacuations and the search and rescue?
CAPT Mueller: I was very concerned about safety. The station had body armor and weapons - because that’s what stations do -and they took it with them and they came back, but the crews we were getting from Zephyr Field weren’t as well equipped. And before I left Alexandria we were frantically trying to get body armor down here and weapons and weapons kits and belts and stuff. It was a trickle. I mean we’d grab a couple here, grab a couple there, and we were sending them to Zephyr Field as fast as we could. And I think we didn’t get them fully equipped until probably Day Seven or Eight but we were sending what we could as fast as we could. I was very concerned about them. They were with FEMA so they had halfway decent supplies because FEMA brings . . . the operation they sent to Zephyr Field, there were a lot of truckloads of equipment they brought with them. The Station was not as fortunate as we were trying to get supplies here to set this place up and it was growing at a phenomenal rate. We had tents all under the building; little pup tents everywhere. Then the PSU arrived; PSU 307, and they were wonderful. They brought a lot of boats and they brought heavy security, and they’d been to Kuwait and Iraq twice so they were experienced campers. They had the camper thing figured out and they had a great staff and a lot of experience, and when they arrived that was a big, big help because we were clearly amateur campers. We hadn’t done this before and they had done it before, although they told us this was much worse then Iraq or Kuwait, than what they saw; the devastation was much worse than the war zone, which was interesting from our point of view because we didn’t get to go there. They said this was a worse situation.
Security was a huge issue. People all throughout New Orleans were pretty unhappy with what had happened so they were pretty grumpy, and there are a lot of weapons in New Orleans anyway. Then when the criminal element took over the SWAT trailer and stole all the weapons and body armor out of that, that was a huge concern for me because I had people down here who were not very well armed. When the city released a lot of the inmates out of the jails, that was a huge concern, again, because we had people all over the city.
We had three main search and rescue nodes here in the city. We had the station here where CWO Dan Brooks was running in the search and rescue operations and LCDR Sean Regan was running the security. Then later, Captain Jeff Bower with the PSU provided a lot of the security operations and we had people from four different MSSTs here at one point.
Lieutenant Commander Shannon Gilreath was running things out at Zephyr Field, a huge, huge operation, and he was pretty much running things as far as I could tell. It was a FEMA operation but he was the boat guy so he became the defacto boat guy for everybody, and we were sending security people over there every day. We were sending boat crews over there everyday because they didn’t have the footprint there to house them so we housed them here. We had 400 people here on this base at one time, living full time.
Q: And they were staying on cots or on the ground; wherever they could sleep, or . . . ?
CAPT Mueller: We had people in tents. We had people on cots under the building. We were trying to renovate the rooms up here because when the looters came through they destroyed everything. There was feces on the walls. I mean it was just uninhabitable. And we gradually worked that up to make it suitable. The health and sanitation people came and helped us clean that mess up so it was sanitary. We had people in tents everywhere. The PSU had big, big tents. We just had people scattered all over the place, you know, sleeping in offices, anywhere you could put a sleeping bag down or a cot down, that’s where they were living. Four hundred people are a lot of people on this base and that was before the RV’s showed up. We had porta-potties but we couldn’t get a contractor to empty them, which was because you just couldn’t get people to come down here. It’s not that logistics wasn’t trying, it’s the venders weren’t interested. This was not something they wanted to do [chuckle]. And unfortunately the Vice President got to use one of our very full porta-potties because it was all there was and I apologized. He said, “That’s okay.” So he got the full FOB New Orleans experience because that’s all there was. There was no option.
And then Spencer was working the downtown river operations. The first few days
Mr. [CWO3 Robert] Lewald on Pamlico was supervising river operations and he had evacuated up north with the
Pamlico and the eight 41-footers and I think a couple of the 55s, and that was our hurricane spot was to go up to Baton Rouge. So they came back down and immediately starting getting to work moving people and that was quite the operation. All the 41 crews were staying on the
Pamlico. They were working horrendous hours. And they had good Comms with each other because their boats had installed radios.
I think Day Five I believe the Spencer showed up.
Q: Was the Pamlico getting tasking from you folks?
CAPT Mueller: We had limited Comms with them. I had spoken to them, I think, once or twice early. He was there and it was obvious that people had to be moved out of the flooded areas. Now he’s a smart guy and he had a lot of senior experienced people with him from the ANTS; the senior chiefs, the OICs, and of course he’s a CWO himself, and they could see what needed to be done. So my orders to him were just like everybody else. Comms were miserable, so I told him “You know what you’re supposed to do. You have all the Coast Guard training. Get the job done”, and that’s what they did and they moved thousands of people to safety. You know it wasn’t easy because these people were very, very unhappy with what had happened - and all the criminal element had leaked back here when they emptied their prisons, and many were armed, either on their own or when they took the SWAT team trailers and stuff - so they were not only moving people but they were doing mob control at the same time; making sure the strong people didn’t kill the weak people. And those were issues; trying to de-arm people as they moved them, which was very difficult because they didn’t want to be de-armed; trying to get the drugs out of the way, which would only cause more problems, so a tremendous, tremendous operation. They did an outstanding job and you just can’t say enough about what they accomplished. It was a multifaceted operation. We had the river operation; we had the station operation on the lake to move people off Hamilton Beach; getting people out of Slidell; getting people out of the city because they were doing some ops in the city from this angle. You had Zephyr Field coming in the city from the other angle with all the FEMA boats and the Coast Guard Flood Punts as soon as we could get them down here, and then the river operations.
Spencer arrived, I think it was Day Five or so, and they assumed command of the river operation, which was really good because the 41 crews were just dropping. I mean they were exhausted. So Spencer’s guys did a great job. They gave them food and rest and helped take care of them, helped fix the boats up. Then Harriet Lane relieved Spencer, again doing the same kind of thing; serving as control commander, and that was a blessing for me because when you get a major cutter like that with a lot of experience, they can handle that. So I didn’t have to focus so much on that. And we had help from all over the country. The 9th District sent the ice boats, which are basically air boats with heavily reinforced hulls and they were down here working over in Algiers, and I wasn’t even sure they were here the first day or so. We figured out what they were doing. They were doing just great stuff, just absolutely heroic, rescuing hundreds of people, because they’re highly specialized, they knew what to do, they were good Coast Guard people doing the right job, and we folded them into our operation so we had it coordinated and everybody knew what each other was doing. We had people from, I think, 60 different units here on the base at one point and the Vice President was walking around and the hats were saying Kodiak, from Key West and Puerto Rico, and he was astounded. He hadn’t realized that the whole Coast Guard was here pretty much and they were cycling through as fast as they could get people here and they were relieving people who were simply worn out.
One of my biggest concerns was exhaustion. It was like 100 degrees every day or at least pretty darn close to it and we were getting plenty of drinking water. Showers were a real problem. Some people were taking bottled water showers and sanitation was becoming an issue too. The first couple of days weren’t bad but then the water started getting polluted because the sewers had broken. Every garage has weed killer and various chemicals, gasoline, you know in everybody’s garage. You have things in there. Well they were all underwater and all this stuff is floating out into a toxic soup so keeping people clean was a real issue. We got the shower trailers down here just in time again. As the soup got really toxic the shower trailers arrived and I know logistics had been working those three days in advance to get them here because that’s how long it took to get them here. And once you get shower trailers you’ve got to have enough water and the initial supply of water ran out pretty quick. Logistics up in Alexandria was doing phenomenal work just getting water here to follow the trailers.
Fuel was a big issue; getting fuel down here. Human safety was really important. We were working overtime on that.
Q: Yes. What were you telling the crew members about the hazardous materials that they were going to be exposed to out there?
CAPT Mueller: Oh, we had a couple of “All Hands”. We talked about the poisons we knew were in the water. CDC was down here. They sent a rep to do testing and they were looking to see what happened to us, which is not very confidence inspiring when we’re the guinea pigs. But sanitation was huge. The officers were instructed to check their people’s feet; to keep people out of the water. Obviously people were getting wet anyway; to make sure everybody took a shower everyday; to make sure clothes got washed as best you could, you know, just cleanliness. We had hand sanitizers everywhere. It was just being clean as best you can. “Don’t touch anything. Stay out of the water.”
We rescued some dogs as we were rescuing people and there was one here that everybody kind of liked. It was a black Lab kind of dog, pretty chopped up from his experiences, but happy, and he rolled around in the water and drank it before we could catch him and the next day he wouldn’t eat raw hamburger. So that’s what we were dealing with. We, of course, had to dispatch the dog. But health and safety was a huge issue.
I was talking Commander Gilbreath at Zephyr Field and the communication was face-to-face. I couldn’t call. I was carrying five cell phones and I couldn’t talk to anybody. The best thing that worked was the Nextel Direct Connect and that’s how I talked to most people who were lucky enough to have one. Unfortunately most of the Sector staff had gotten rid of their Nextels just before the storm to get the new Trios, which were bricks basically because they couldn’t talk to anybody anytime. So the few of us that had Nextels left, those were really valuable.
So I’d drive over to Zephyr Field to see Commander Gilbreath and see how he’s doing, see what supplies he needed, and talk about safety issues. Then I went over to the Harriet Lane and talked to them to see what they would like. You know it was just you had to go places to talk to people because you couldn’t talk to them on the phone, and even when you could you couldn’t get the impact of what was happening it was just so massive.
I think we rescued something like 22/25,000 people by boat and the aviators were doing unbelievable work from the air. I think they got seven or eight thousand by air, just a tremendous, tremendous effort.
Q: And was there any way to coordinate with the aviation units because there were probably sections of the city that you couldn’t get to or maybe where you knew that people needed help? How was that handled?
CAPT Mueller: It was extremely difficult. Comms were very, very bad and a lot of our boats had no way to talk to the helicopters. But with the helicopters, a lot of times they’d fly over an area and they wouldn’t see anybody and then they’d circle, and as somebody heard them circling then they’d come out and stick out a hand or something. Then they’d put the swimmer down and where he thought there were two people there’d be 15 inside the thing. So a lot of times, even though the aviators could see really good, they might not be able to direct us because they couldn’t tell what was happing until they were right there. They were pretty much getting the ones they could see quickly and that’s probably the best use of their resources because I mean the 65s have relatively short legs and they’ve got to get out and make rescues and get back. And they were getting a lot of tasking, like helping with the hospitals and things like that or helping with the Super Dome.
The small boats at Zephyr Field; they were coordinating on our grid system and that was working pretty good. In retrospect, if we could link up those the boats and helicopter better . . . but things happened so fast. Things changed so very, very quickly that if you had the helos directing the small boats they would have made a few more quick rescues but there would have been sections of the grid that weren’t covered, which we would have had to go back to and may have missed some rescues that were there. So if we had perfect Comms we’d try to coordinate better but given what we had it probably worked out really well. I don’t see how we could have done it better given the circumstances we had to deal with.
Q: Now what future training do you see that would be most useful to Coast Guard members to anticipate future incidents like this? You talked about ICS, but for the regular Coastee that’s out in the field, is there anything in particular that could be improved upon or added to their training?
CAPT Mueller: Well that’s a hard thing because this is a once in a career event. I mean I’ve been in 20 some odd years and this has never happened before. Weapons quals were extremely valuable because of the security situation. Anybody with a weapons qual is twice as valuable than somebody who didn’t have a weapons qual.
And we had security on the boats. We supplied security to the FEMA boats; the boats at Zephyr Field from here. We had PSU guys and MSST guys from here going there because FEMA would not get underway without security onboard. So just the fact that we had people with weapons quals on their boats enabled them to rescue hundreds of people who would have died otherwise, because they would not get underway, which was a very valid concern considering what was happening.
Flood Punt operations would be good. They’re so easy to drive. People figured that out real quick.
Q: How about yourself; is there any training that you fell back on that you felt like was just invaluable to execute what you had to do as the CO here while all this event was going on? Was there something that you fell back on that you felt was . . . ?
CAPT Mueller: A whole Coast Guard career. I mean from the very beginning at the Academy you learn how to overcome and improvise, and the whole Coast Guard is like that. We send out a coxswain 20 miles offshore and he’s got to improvise and figure out how to make it work. We send an aircrew out and they figure out how to make it work. And the whole Coast Guard is like that and that was our strength. Everybody figured out how to make it work. It was an amazing thing.
Supplies: supplies are very difficult to get and you couldn’t buy it in the quantities you wanted. So where you might need a thousand gallons of something you might end up with ten thousand gallons of it because you couldn’t buy a thousand gallons, and even if you could you couldn’t get it here. They’d only come in a truckload. So we’d get the big truckload down here and then our guys would immediately start bartering and swapping for things they needed. I know at Zephyr Field we gave them way more diesel then they needed but they could swap it for things that they did need because other people had the same problem. They couldn’t buy in less then a truckload either. So people were swapping, people were improvising, people were figuring how to make things work. It was just a tremendous thing.
I know for the future we’re looking at a lot more body armor. We’re looking at a lot more . . . all the small boats will have chain saws; they’ll have sleeping bags; they’ll have tents; they’ll have MREs; they’ll have water; they’ll have dead man sticks; solar showers; the little porta-potty kits, not the big ones but the little ones. All those things will be pre-staged with every boat in the Area including the Flood Punts. We’ve got 23 Flood Punts now. As a result of this we’re keeping them and we’re going to stage some at Baton Rouge, some at Morgan City and some here in New Orleans. So the next time we’ll have everything we need and the crews will be 72-hours self-supportive so they can go into an area with everything they need right off the bat as opposed to trying to do a huge logistics search, because God forbid, if it happens again we’re going to be in the same situation of not being able to purchase anything right off the bat. So we’re going to have it with us for the next time I guess. That’s what we’re learning.
Q: Now is there any memorable moment or story that you’d care to share with us?
CAPT Mueller: Oh, there’s so many of them. I mean going up to my room in Alexandria on Day Two and finding my room full of laundry; hundreds of bags full of laundry everywhere, and that’s when I ask, “What’s this?” “Well we’re doing laundry,” my wife said. I laughed, “Oh, okay.” Everybody became a Coastie up there. That was an amazing thing.
And Captain Pete Simons is the District Legal Officer. He came and assumed the position of our Chief of Staff in Alexandria because clearly Captain Paskewich and I couldn’t do it alone, and Captain Gilbert had the night shift. So Captain Simons assumed duties as Chief of Staff for the IC, which was just invaluable. He didn’t have to but he did. He jumped in there and got in the middle of it -- he made things happen.
Coming down here and seeing the Coasties just working till they dropped, just going and going and going, you know people who lost everything, had only one uniform, which is the one they were wearing and it was getting pretty crusted, and they just wouldn’t slow down. They were just frantic to rescue as many as they could before the rescues were over. You know the tales of survival are just incredible. Seeing our operations commanders down here showing up; I remember getting to Zephyr Field and seeing Commander [Shannon] Gilreath, he’d been there for two days, and I made it there, which is hard to get there because you couldn’t get there through the streets blocked by trees, poles, wires, flooding, houses in the roads, etc. So I got there and said, “How are you doing”, and he goes, “Well Sir, I know I didn’t have your permission but I did this and I did that and we’ve done this and we’ve done this over here”, and you could see the look in his eyes as like, “You know I’m way out of the box.” [Chuckle] “I did way more then I should.” And I said, “You’re doing great Shannon. You’re doing just what I wanted you to do.” He said, “What do you want me to do?” I said, “Well keep doing what you’re doing. You’re doing great.” And you could see the relief on his face because obviously he was kind of concerned. This captain shows up and you’ve been way out on a limb doing everything on your own and it worked out very, very well. And everywhere I went people were just doing amazing, amazing things.
Hearing some of the stories, like I think there was a young non-rate boot crewman and they were trying to move some people and one of the gentlemen they were moving; the evacuees, had a big jug of alcohol and we needed to get rid of it, but he wouldn’t do it. And finely she asked him, “Well do have enough for everybody to have some”, and he laughed and said, “No, I guess not”, and then he set it down. You know things like that, just stories of everyday heroism; of people keeping boats running, people . . . when we evacuated for Rita, you know we’d been doing this for a couple of weeks, we had it figured out. The Rita evacuation was very smooth. I mean we had 30 something RV’s here. We saddled them up and got them out of here. The same with Grande Isle; got them out of there and got the boats out of there. And we had the 41 fleet and it was a pretty rag tag operation; those boats had been running so hard during the Katrina recovery thing. And I think we left out of here with Pamlico and all eight of them; six of them operating, and when they came back there was Pamlico and two of them operating and the rest of them were all dead boats. They had ingested sea grass. They had all kinds of things just break because they’d been run so hard. And NESU was doing heroic work keeping them running during the second evacuation, getting them out of here and then getting them back. Everything was just torn up. But within two days we had five of them back in operation and it was like that everywhere in the Coast Guard. Everything I saw, people were getting it done.
We had the corpsmen here making sure nobody got heat stroke, running around telling people, “You’ve got to clean up. You’ve got to wash. You’ve got to take showers. You’ve got to eat. You’ve got to drink more water. You’re not drinking enough water.”
We had the PGA golf tournament professionals here feeding us, which is amazing. We had MREs the first few days and then this golf guy shows up; one of the locals . . . Mr. Kelly; local golf pro, you know nationally famous, and he said, “How about if we feed you guys?” “Well that works”, I said, not thinking what they were going to do it. The next day they show up with a portable kitchen and the golf pros are cooking for us and feeding us, and it was really good chow. And I’m thinking, “This is probably not very legal; this posh organization feeding us meals”, and, “How’s this all going to work?” And the next day the Attorney General of the U.S.; Alberto Gonzales, was here with the Vice President and he was in my office for about an hour waiting for the Vice President, so I kind of mentioned, “This is what we’re doing.” And he says, “That’s great. I want to go shake their hands”, and he thought it was wonderful. So I figured that was legal top cover for these volunteers helping us out.
We had FBI living onboard here. We had ATF living aboard here. We were feeding National Guard people. We were feeding local police. We were feeding the fire department. We were supplying showers to everybody because everybody was filthy. I mean it was just a huge, huge operation.
Q: Now did you get involved with the incident as far as blue on blue and dealing with the local law enforcement?
CAPT Mueller: No, that happened . . . the one at the station happened on like Day Two and that was before I arrived. CWO Brooks did a fine job getting around that very difficult situation. I think the one at Zephyr Field happened on like Day Four and I had just gotten back to Alexandria so I was out of the loop on that one too. But again, LCDR Gilreath did a great job of handling that. And tempers were really hot and everybody was really stressed, and local law enforcement was taking fire from a lot of the criminal elements. It was happening all the time. We were fortunate. We heard from the local police and from the state police both that the criminal element thought we were SWAT guys because our guys were all heavily armed with body armor and weapons and whatnot on the boats, and there were helicopters everywhere. So the criminal element thought we were SWAT people coming to get them and so when they saw us they would turn and wade the other way. They’d have shootouts with the local police. They’d shoot up the state police and none of those people bothered them to much but they were afraid of us, which was an absolute blessing and we didn’t work to dispel that thought at all. We thought that was great. But I think that’s how the Coast Guard avoided a lot of the trouble that the other law enforcement had to deal with on a daily basis because we didn’t have people shooting at us directly and I think that’s maybe why; because the criminals somehow got the idea that we were SWAT team members. And our MSST guys kind of look like it and the PSU guys kind of look like it. I mean we have pretty heavily armed guys so criminals left us alone.
Q: Were you coordinating, once you got here, with any other agencies?
CAPT Mueller: Absolutely. As I said, we had FBI living onboard. We had ATF living onboard. We had police come in here all of the time. We were feeding the state police. We were feeding the firemen. So when they were here naturally they’d be discussing things, you know, and they were helping us out and we were helping them out. They were helping us with convoy support; getting trucks here, and there with police escorts. We could get a police escort in a heartbeat because we were feeding them and they were good guys.
Now some of the problems we had I think were, I don’t know, things getting confused at the senior level. I’m not sure. But the junior level; we got along great with everybody and things worked really, really well.
Q: Well since this is a region that has hurricanes that come into it, are there any kind of procedures that can be improved as far as evacuating people or doing rescues in an urban environment, since the city is surrounded by water, that have evolved since this event?
CAPT Mueller: We have lessons learned by the bushel and evacuation will still be tough because you have to rely on the civilian infrastructure to evacuate. There are only so many roads and there are only so many gas stations. But I think if we have a really large one coming here, headed this way again, you know Alexandria worked out extremely well. It was far away but that meant it was still civilized. We had good connectivity there. Obviously we put a lot of computer lines and phone lines into that space up there so we’ll be using that again, and the next time we go it will be set up. It will be ready to receive in ways it was not this time. I mean we got there to an empty Convention Center. Now we’ll get up there to a fully equipped one as far as computer lines and phones go, so that’s going to be a huge improvement. If we have warning, we’ll probably evacuate a little earlier; some of the senior staff, to get them set up. But that was not possible with Katrina’s course change.
And I mentioned before, all of our boats are now going to be fully equipped for urban SAR operations with chain saws and food and water and axes.
Body armor is a key. We had a little legal challenge at one point because you’re not supposed to wear body armor unless you’re weapons qualified but I wanted everybody on the boats wearing body armor, so we just did it, and it was decided that was the perfect thing to do after the fact. But there was no way we’d put our crews out there without some kind of body armor as soon as we could get it. It was just a safety issue. And if you’re wearing body armor everybody’s kind of afraid of you so they don’t bother you. It’s a preemptive thing. If you look like you’re equipped they’re going to leave you alone, so all of our crews will have that. Huge lessons learned. If this ever happens again we’ll be in much, much better shape, but hopefully it won’t, but you have to prepare for it.
Q: Now do you know about how many operational hours in total were spent here at the Sector of surface search and rescue?
CAPT Mueller: No. We can probably round that up. I mean we’re getting statements from all the major units now, and you know, thousands and thousands and thousands of hours, thousands of people rescued. And the aviators had the advantage on us. When a helo comes in they know how long it flew and they have to for maintenance and stuff. Our boats were moving so fast; they were just shuttling people and moving, shuttling people and moving, just as fast as they possibly could because no matter how many they moved, there were . . . I mean when they move one, three would take the place of that one and we’ve got to go get those three. And we had nine people here the first day or so and they weren’t keeping track of how many they rescued. They weren’t keeping track of hours. They were just moving as fast as they possibly could. So I don’t have a good handle on hours. I know we do it on paper and we can get that for you but off the top of my head I don’t know.
Q: And the Coast Guard units that came in, how were they selected, how was that coordinated in the decision-making process, “We need this unit or that unit”? I’m not talking about the ones in this region but the one’s that came from other areas.
CAPT Mueller: That worked out really, really well. I mean we got all the local units back as fast as we could and it was obvious from that first overflight the first day that we didn’t have enough. So we had logistics immediately put out the call, “We need more coxswains. We need the Flood Punts from St. Louis. We need this. We need four of these. We need six of those flavored people. We need an SKC with a contractor warrant up to ten thousand dollars.” We put in our request. They gave them to D-8 and they made it happen. You know D-8 was awesome. They just made it happen. We don’t know where they came from or how they did it but people were showing up right and left, just what we needed to make the job happen. And they gave me the personnel Coast Guard-wide, which worked out really, really well. And we had some show up, like the D-9 folks, we didn’t know they were there to begin with, but they were a tremendous, tremendous asset. We had a lot of 41 crews from D-9 that came down to help. We had 41 crews from D-1. We had 41 crews from D-5. You know we were running those things literally around the clock and the crews just wore out, we didn’t have enough. We had to request out and then those people came and they got the job done. Of course that’s why, when we evacuated for Rita, all the 41s died because we ran them so hard, but a tremendous credit to NESU and the crews to get them back up and running.
Q: Now how long were you on duty here, like two weeks, ten days, before you got relieved?
CAPT Mueller: There was no relief.
Q: Well I mean when you finely got a day off.
CAPT Mueller: Well I don’t know. As I say, I got here about Day Five I think – I think it was about Day Five - and we were just going and going and going. After about two weeks the SARs started winding down but then we had demobilization issues. We had all these people and we had to start getting them home and it just kept going for a long time. It was probably a month before I took a day or something. There was just the way it was . . . you couldn’t relax. It was going so fast and there was so much to be done you just couldn’t. I went to Alexandria a couple times and briefed them because even though Comms were getting a little better we still couldn’t get enough plain voice where you could sit down for half an hour and talk to them and explain all the different things that happened. So it was very fast paced. And it wasn’t a problem at the higher level, we just got it done. Because you couldn’t stop doing it because nobody had the full picture of what was happening and that was true throughout the organization. Nobody wanted to stop because we were all doing the right things, rescuing people. . . we had to get it done. It was important. We had to take care of our people. We had to make it work.
Q: Now is there anything that we haven’t covered that you’d like to include?
CAPT Mueller: Let me glance at my notes here real quick because there was so much to be keeping track of. The Auxiliary was amazing. And the first day back here at the station - the station was obviously destroyed and there’s not much usable here - we had an Auxiliary boat; the Minyata [phonetic], and she came in, and Mike Howe, an awesome guy, he brought the boat here. He had water, he had fuel and he had some food. And he basically supported the station for the first two days and kept them going with water and showers and food. And then he had a satellite TV on the thing. So we ran a cable from his boat up to a TV on the 2nd deck of the station and was running TV for the crew off his satellite dish so they could get CNN and see what was happening, which was a huge source of information. A lot of the transport back and forth from here to Alexandria was via Auxiliary air flights. I rode in more Auxiliary air flights then I have in my whole life. In two weeks I flew every kind of airplane you could shake a stick at. It was an amazing thing. You’d call up and say, “I’ve got to get here now”, and they’d say, “Not a problem. Come on down.” We get in their plane and off we’d go, which was . . . it was incredibly essential because we had to move people to get things done but you didn’t want to take a rescue helicopter because there weren’t enough helicopters to go around. Half the helicopters in the Coast Guard were here and they were all hoisting and you didn’t want to take an operational aircraft, so you’d jump in an Auxiliary, on a Mooney or a Cessna or a Beechcraft or whatever, and they’d fly you down here, get you where you had to be, you could meet with the people, and it was really important because we had PFO meetings. They were setting up; Admiral Allen was getting his staff set up. The DOD was arriving. General Honore was getting down here and he needed staff meetings to see what was happening and we had to attend those. Supporting DOD was a ramp-up because they bring such tremendous capability.
But we had been here for a few days. We knew what needed doing and they were very, very helpful. We gave them the information, gave them what needed to be.
And the 82nd Airborne showed up, a tremendous capability. But we had to get them oriented and integrated into the operation so they could be helpful as opposed to just showing up. So there was a lot of coordination there and Auxiliary air made that possible.
The Auxiliary in Alexandria was great. They helped transport us. They helped feed us. They helped coordinate flights. They helped coordinate boats, just tremendous capability. And I haven’t worked with the Auxiliary that much before but I was very, very impressed. Now the Auxiliary guys, they were just Coasties, kind of like the wives, they were just Coasties. We expanded our personnel base dramatically with those people, just tremendous. The Reserves were unbelievably good. We couldn’t have done it without them showing up really quickly when they did, and they brought so much expertise with them.
And the logistics thing; we had . . . one of the managers for one of the companies in Alexandria was a Reservist who knew how to order everything. He knew all the local people. So he set us up. It was like that everywhere we went. We were clearly being taken care by the Good Lord. Everyone was looking out for the Coast Guard because we did so much so fast and nobody got really hurt, and that was an amazing operation.
Q: Very good.
CAPT Mueller: I guess that was about it. Anything else?
Q: I think you covered quite a bit. It was very good. Thank you very much.
CAPT Mueller: You bet. Thank you.
END OF INTERVIEW