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U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program

Katrina Archival & Historical Record Team (KART)

Katrina, 2005

Interviewee: PA1 Kyle Niemi , USCG

Public Affairs Specialist
Eighth Coast Guard District Public Affairs Office

Interviewer: PACS Pete Capelotti, USCGR
Date of Interview:  2-3 November 2005
Place: Eighth Coast Guard District Public Affairs Office
New Orleans, LA 

 


Abstract:

Prior to Katrina, the Eighth District Public Affairs Office was planning to keep their PAs in New Orleans. By Sunday their plans changed and they pre-positioned PAs in different locations. Some went to air stations. PA1 Niemi went to Alexandria with the Sector Incident Management Team. There were six or eight PAs working there. Niemi and the other PAs responded to inquiries, coordinated media “ride-alongs,” and managed imagery and video requests. “It was completely insane. The operational tempo and the requests that we were receiving were very intense.” They were responding to all kinds of questions and were inundated with media requests to ride on aircraft. The first requests were not honored because they were conducting search and rescue flights and there was not enough room. Niemi went on one of the first damage assessment over flights. He also rode along on a search and rescue flight where the helicopter crew rescued eight people. This was the closest he had ever come to search and rescue operations. He had both video and still camera and was harnessed in the helicopter trying to get different angles of the rescues. “I was trying to make the most of the situation.” They later transported the evacuees to the Cloverleaf. He said that there were helicopters everywhere; helicopters were landing on the highway. “It looked like the evacuation of Saigon.” 


Q: If you could give me your rank, your rate and name and spell your last name please.

PA1 Niemi: Sure. Public Affairs Specialist 1st Class Kyle Niemi; that’s K-Y-L-E, N-I-E-M-I. I’m here at the 8th District Public Affairs Office in New Orleans.

Q: And could you give me sort of a paragraph on your Coast Guard career to this point; how you got to this position.

PA1 Niemi: Okay. I enlisted in December of ’99. Basic Training at Cape May. I reported to the Coast Guard cutter Boutwell in Alameda, California in March of 2000 and completed two years aboard waiting for Public Affairs Specialist “A” School. I completed that in early 2002 and reported to the 8th District Public Affairs Office in New Orleans.

Q: And you’ve been here since then?

PA1 Niemi: I have, with various TADs thrown in.

Q: So you’ve had some experience with a hurricane or two since you’ve been here?

PA1 Niemi: Last year was pretty big. Hurricane Ivan was the biggest response that I’ve been involved in but I mean it paled in comparison to this one. For one I didn’t deploy anywhere. Hurricane Ivan we definitely were organized and we pre-positioned PAs and we pre-positioned assets. I slept in my office for four days and I was just kind of at the info hub and also I was receiving and processing imagery and video and releasing it. So there were two or three of us that just stayed in the office and we, like I said, we slept here for three or four days and just worked from here. That was kind of the plan for Katrina as well. As the storm was coming up we were putting PAs on this side and that side and making sure they could access the impacted areas after the storm.

Q: So you were actually separating folks out similar to say what the cutters and aviation folks were doing; just getting out of the way so you could come in behind it? 

PA1 Niemi: Yes, we were putting people in Mobile. We got people ready in Houston.

Q: With what? I mean how were they planning to get back into the area; did they piggyback with the aviation guys or what? How do PAs make their way back behind the storm or what was the plan for them to come back; were they just going to drive back? And was there any consideration if everything gets waxed and there’s no where to go or no way to get back in?

PA1 Niemi: Everybody pretty much had transportation depending on where they were located, but soon after the storm we found that the roads were inaccessible so it was the PAs that were pre-positioned with the air stations that got in early enough, followed days afterwards by the folks that were on the surface assets in the boats.

Q: So you had a PA at Belle Chasse?

PA1 Niemi: We had people in . . . no, this year New Orleans was a ghost town. We all left New Orleans. Again, the plan this year was to keep people here and that was the plan up until Friday or Saturday; the 26th or 27th. It wasn’t until Sunday the 28th that the District Hurricane Incident Management Team was going to evacuate to Alexandria with Sector New Orleans. They had a forward team go to St. Louis so that they could take the watch while the people here in New Orleans moved and then the Sector New Orleans Incident Management Team moved to Alexandria. Then there was a Sector Mobile Incident Management Team and the District Incident Management Team in St. Louis. It wasn’t until that Sunday that everybody left New Orleans and there was a group of PAs in Mobile and there were people in Houston that we could tap into, and there were people in St. Louis and people in Alexandria.

Q: In the District IMT is there a PA designated for that; in the IMT, and is there a PA designated to do PA in the IMT structure?

PA1 Niemi: Well the Incident Management Team uses the Incident Command System so there is the Incident Commander and then the Information Officer and then the various department heads; Operations, Planning, Logistics. So there is a spot for an Information Officer and a Joint Information Center; a JIC, so yes. 

Q: Did they pull that person out of this office or who did that job? 

PA1 Niemi: Originally it was Lieutenant Rob Wyman, the District Eight Public Affairs Officer.

Q: And so you were evacuated also to St. Louis?

PA1 Niemi: No, I was in Alexandria. I went with the Sector New Orleans Incident Management Team to Alexandria.

Q: How long were you there?

PA1 Niemi: I was there for two to four weeks.

Q: Can you give me a sense of what life was like there for those first few days; what you were doing and what the team was doing?

PA1 Niemi: Well I was one of six or eight PAs that were there. We brought in help from all over the Coast Guard. I think, when all is said and done, about half of the PAs in the Coast Guard were involved in this response but it was basically like any public affairs job fielding media inquiries, coordinating media ride-alongs, managing imagery and video requests. It was completely insane - the operational tempo and the requests that we were getting - and it was the same for us wherever we were and the same for anybody that was involved in this response, completely insane. But I mean as far as I feel it was incredibly hectic because being in Public Affairs we’re kind of the “know it all guys”; we know what’s going on. People would come into our office and say, “Hey, what’s going on with the levee breach? How’s this, how’s that?” I’d say, “I don’t even know.” I mean we had a TV in our office and I wasn’t even watching it because all I knew was the requests that I was dealing with, that’s all I knew, and of those five questions that I was finding out. I didn’t know anything else beyond that. So that was pretty crazy. I’m used to being on duty - I’m on duty right now, I’m on call - and I’m used to being that guy that knows all about that case so I can field all the questions, if not I know exactly who to call. But in this it was impossible to wrap your head around the whole response and know what was going on and who was where and what was happening, so it was really, really intense.

Q: What sort of requests were you getting and how did you attempt to fulfill them?

PA1 Niemi: Besides the requests for information, which was constant, people wanted to know what was the status of the ports and waterways; what was open; any accidents and sinkings; any rescue cases. It became kind of difficult to put out new information because you were responding to the calls that you had gotten, and with that, people know that we have a very important role in doing damage assessment over-flights to assess the status of ports and waterways and reopening waterways and reopening ports and things of that nature, and we got a deluge of requests to get on these over-flights.

Q: You mean from reporters?

PA1 Niemi: From reporters who wanted to go on over-flights, yes. That became completely unfeasible. We tried to put people on aircraft as much as possible so that we could take their footage and photos and give it to everyone. Anybody who was going on this aircraft needed to share; they needed to pool it, but our first few requests to get media onboard were squashed because, in conjunction with the damage assessment flights, they were doing urban search and rescue. So the thing that we kept hearing and the thing we kept telling the news crews that wanted to go was, “For every additional person we put on that helicopter, that’s one less person we can take, so no, we’re not putting reporters on helicopters right now.” So it was a couple of days before we could get the media on helicopters.

Q: Did any Coast Guard Public Affairs go up and did you fly over the city or over the area?

PA1 Niemi: I went on probably one of the first damage assessment over-flights on an HH-60 Jay Hawk from Aviation Training Center Mobile. It landed in Alexandria and picked up myself, Captain Frank Paskewich, who’s the Sector New Orleans Commander, and Captain Bob Mueller, who’s the Deputy Sector New Orleans Commander. We flew to Baton Rouge and then kind of snaked down the river and went downtown. We flew around downtown and landed at the Superdome. They had some business there. They needed to meet with some people. We had to drop something off. Then we picked up a representative from FEMA; Marty Bahamonde and we took him up for only a couple of minutes because we started getting calls for the need for evacuations. So we dropped Mr. Bahamonde off as well as Captains Paskewich and Muller and then the crew then asked me if I wanted to stay or go - I didn’t have a radio on at that time - and I asked, “What’s going on?” They said, “We’re going to go do some search and rescues.” I said, “I want to stay.”

Q: Did you have a camera; video or still?

PA1 Niemi: Yes, both.

Q: Both, yes.

PA1 Niemi: So we immediately took off and started participating in what would most likely be the largest rescue operation ever. It was completely insane. You would look up in the air and there were 40 helicopters going in every which direction. We did a lot of jumping around. We picked people up off roofs and we took them to the airport and we picked people up at the Superdome and took them . . . we did a lot of . . . there were only two or three loads of people that we did that day. But we landed at the Clover Leaf, they were calling it, which I think was the intersection of Veterans Boulevard and the Causeway in Metairie and that was apparently a large gathering point that they were picking people up at, and it was just crazy because helicopters were landing on the highway and they were picking people up and it was just . . . I looked at it and I said, “This looks like footage from Vietnam” It was so insane. There were helicopters all over the place just moving people around.

Q: Were the pilots talking at all; were you getting any chatter from the pilots, and what was the character of the conversation with the crew as they’re going through all this?

PA1 Niemi: I wasn’t plugged in to the radio but everything I saw and heard and was fortunate enough to witness, everybody was calm and cool and very professional; the rescue crews were, aside from the flight that I went on where the rescue swimmer was not feeling well; he was getting sick [chuckle].

Q: So can you describe what you were seeing on the ground?

PA1 Niemi: Sure, during the rescues or during the over-flights?

Q: Yes.

PA1 Niemi: The rescues?

Q: Yes.

PA1 Niemi: I don’t know what the process was for priorities; who’s picking up whom and what was happening. I think the first couple days it was just, “Get out there and pick people up”. So once the crew picked out the house they were going to go to and they were spotted, the swimmer actually never left the aircraft. The flight mechanic dropped the basket and they were picking people up, two kids at a time or one adult at a time, and the one flight I think we picked up like eight people. And I was so lucky to be right there getting it and I’m very satisfied with my photos and my video. I’ve seen it on TV, newspapers, magazines, internet. And as a matter of fact, besides the accomplishments that I had as a PA and being able to get there and not being scared, I mean it started happening and I kind of told myself, I said, “Alright, I need to be assertive because I’m not going to get this opportunity ever again”, so I was moving around. I was just kind of taking control; moving people around and getting my shots and doing what I needed to do and I knew at any time that the crewmen could say, “Get out of the way”, and I would, because they’re in charge of the safety in the aircraft. But besides just being so excited as a PA doing this—just being involved in the situation it was the closest I’ve ever been to actual search and rescue. I was on a 378 and we never had any search and rescue and to be inches away from these rescues to know that if the Coast Guard crews weren’t there these people might not live. You know we’re that link of living and dying, you know, because of them these people made it and it was kind of emotional and I kind of got choked up for a second there.

Q: Did you look to photograph this from different angles; did you go down in a basket at all to photograph back up the hoist or were you able to get that far?

PA1 Niemi: [Chuckle] I asked them that. It was pretty much the same thing, it was fitting through my little space in the door and that’s what it was. I had the harness on - and talk about trusting equipment - I had it measured out good and I was trying to stay steady so I wasn’t rocking. So I was trying to keep it steady and I had both the video and the still camera and I was pushing as hard as I could out the door to reach. “Phew”, like I said, talk about trusting your equipment. 
But yes, I tried to get to the other side and I tried to get other angles. 

Q: Did you have a harness on your camera?

PA1 Niemi: I had them both around my neck and I had my bag in the back with my lenses and my other batteries and stuff. But I was trying to get other angles and I was shooting out the door stuff just of the people and then shooting from inside the aircraft of the people and the flight mechanic. I was trying to make the most of the situation and I’m satisfied with what I was able to capture. 

Q: How were you able to farm your footage out; I mean what was the process for bringing it back, processing it, getting it out to either the media or back up through the chain to Public Affairs?

PA1 Niemi: Well the flight itself was the evening of Monday the 29th, the first day, and the flight took me back to Alexandria and then we drove back to the Incident Command Post in Alexandria at the Louisiana Convention Center. And from there it was how we usually release imagery—I edited it and I enhanced it and I made a photo release and I released it and posted it to our website. I put out four pictures that day. I had two photo releases; one of my best rescue picture with a link to another one and one with the best over-flight picture with a link to another one, and I have upwards of 250 places that that’s been published that I know of and there could have been countless more, so that was pretty exciting. But yes, normal practice of putting out video and photos. Well the video, it was the same thing. We uploaded it and edited it and got the best five or ten minutes or so and then there was a local TV station that we gave it to and they shared it with everybody.

Q: Yes. Was there a point where the character of the public affairs changed? In other words, yes, the hurricane came through fine and then the levees started to leak and then through the rest of that week it becomes just sort of a catastrophe on the one hand but the moment of triumph for the Coast Guard on the other. Did that pressure to get on those helicopters, to get those photos, did that intensify through the week or was that right there from the beginning?

PA1 Niemi: Well there was a lot of pressure for us to get out there and get it done. We tried our hardest to get people out every day. I mean there really just wasn’t enough room in the office for six or eight people and we had two computers to use or whatever it was. So the plan was to get two or three people out shooting all day, everyday, just to document it all so we didn’t lose it.

Q: Did you interview Coast Guard folks or was it strictly still and video documentation?

PA1 Niemi: No, I didn’t interview anybody. We had, maybe the third week or so that became one of our priorities was to go out before we started losing people. We were told, “Just go and talk to people and talk about their experiences.” I did a couple. Some other people did a couple at other units. So once things slowed down beyond the immediate media interest we started kind of filling in the cracks with the historical documentation stuff.

Q: What was the most memorable thing that you remember?

PA 1 Niemi: I spoke to boat crews from Group Upper Mississippi River and Keokuk, Iowa, Marine Safety Detachment Quad Cities and Marine Safety Office St. Louis. They all kind of met in St. Louis and then got briefed and then kind of came down together, so I talked to a lot of the surface operations guys, which was neat because that was the side of it that I wasn’t able to go and capture. I did two over-flights and I did photos and video but I didn’t hook up with any of the surface operations crews, which is what I really wanted to do just to see that other side of it for myself, but also to get that experience as well. But there were some pretty amazing rescue stories that they had. Just some odd things as well—I heard somebody saw a tractor trailer on the roof of a three-story building [chuckle] because it had just floated up there. 

But a lot of people were amazed that so many people just didn’t want to go. We were not in the business of forcing people to go. But a lot of people said, “No, everything I have is here. I’m not going to leave. Stop by the next time you come through”, and they said, “We don’t know when we’re coming through again. We don’t know if we’re coming through again. You should really come”, and a lot of people just opted not to go. “No, we’ll stay. We’ll wait it out.” They were also saying that a lot of people had no idea how large and devastating the storm was because they just saw their block, you know, on the roof of their house or in their attic for two weeks or a week and a half and had no idea what had happened and how bad it was all over the city and how many people needed to be rescued. But as far as specific stories, there was one about, they had to break through the roof and the ceiling to get into this guys house because he was on the second floor of his house - he couldn’t get to the attic or to the roof because it was all flooded out; the first floor was flooded out - and he was in the second floor of his house and basically just standing neck deep in water for six days. So I think it was six days he was just standing in water. That’s all he could do. There was nothing else he could do. And they said, “Have you eaten anything?” He said, “No.” “Did you drink anything?” “Well the flood water.”

Q: Oh Jesus!

PA1 Niemi: And then a similar story he said, “I’ve been hearing a lady yelling down the road. Can you check on her?” So they went around and they heard her yelling and she was sitting on a stool on her porch neck deep in water and she had just been sitting there, and I guess they took her on the boat and she just fell right to sleep because she was just exhausted and they tried to wake her up [chuckle] and I guess she gave them some attitude [laughter].

Q: Was there anything that you wanted on this operation that you didn’t have? I mean if you were to do this in the future what you would recommend to other Pas; what would you recommend to them if they were getting prepared for this similar kind of response?

PA1 Niemi: Equipment or procedures? 

Q: Both.

PA1 Niemi: Both. Well you can never have too much equipment. We started farming out our, you know we came with our large deployment kit of basically everything we could bring and then PAs came with their own equipment and some of it wasn’t compatible because it was different kinds and different sizes and different whatever. Some people didn’t come with equipment so they had to borrow our stuff. I would say if I was to go somewhere where I was expecting some other equipment to be jumbled up with mine I would label my stuff because I’m missing a lot of my stuff because people borrowed chargers and borrowed lens and borrowed batteries, so label your stuff. 
As far as just the coordination of the response; one of the largest lessons learned that we will have here is to just get on the same page with the operational folks. There were a lot of flights we couldn’t get on. There were a lot of boats we couldn’t get on because they didn’t know what we could bring. I was denied access to getting underway with the surface operations guys for several days.

Q: By whom?

PA1 Niemi: It was actually the Coast Guard command that was there at Zephyr Field, but they kept saying, “Its FEMA’s rule; no photographers on the boats, it’s FEMA’s rule, it’s FEMA’s rule. You can’t do it, it’s the JTF’s rule.” But I could sense that it was, “Oh, you’re going to take pictures of dead bodies.” I don’t know why I would do that, I don’t know. They just couldn’t understand what we brought to the mission.

Q: Was there any way to appeal that up through Coast Guard Public Affairs just to say that you were documenting Coast Guard operations, you know that’s really none of your business?

PA1 Niemi: They said, “Its FEMA’s rule.” But at the same time the 82nd Airborne had a media crew with them so there were a lot of contradictions we didn’t understand. If we were to assign one or two PAs to each unit and just say, “You let the command know what’s going on. Let them know what we can bring”, and just to embed us so that there was no issue with transportation. A lot of it was because we were stuck in Alexandria and it was, “Okay, even if Sector New Orleans says we’ll take you out on one of our boats, how do you get there?”

Q: Right.

PA1 Niemi: We didn’t have that many vehicles. We had one GV and one rental; that’s what we had in Alexandria for eight people. 

Q: Well if it was up to me the Coast Guard would have its own Public Affairs helicopter.

PA1 Niemi: [Laughter] So it was getting on a flight and then getting lodging and then getting back, so if we could make ourselves self-sufficient, if we had . . .

Q: Minimal capabilities to do that, yes.

PA1 Niemi: If we had three PAs in Sector New Orleans, three PAs at Air Station New Orleans, three PAs at Zephyr Field with an RV and water and food and we’re just self-sufficient . . . .

Q: And is there any discussion about trying to build that capability now since you know you’re going to be dealing with hurricanes from here until someday, I mean to get your hands on an RV, paint a big orange stripe on it, say Coast Guard Public Affairs?

PA1 Niemi: Not that I know of.  Yes, there was just a lot of logistics with the flight there and the lodging and the food, and it was very taxing on the units to set that up.

Q: Sure.

PA1 Niemi: So if we could be more self-sufficient that would be key.

Q: What do you take from this personally as you continue your career?

PA 1 Niemi: This is our job. Everybody did their job; the Coast Guard rescues and the reconstitution of the waterways and environmental protection; everybody did their job. We did our job too, which was to keep the public informed of what was happening and I don’t think anyone will argue that we, as the Coast Guard, doing PR/PA, whatever you want to call it, did better then anyone else. We just maintained that constant flow of information and being open and trying our hardest to get people on aircraft. I just have a great sense of pride in that with everything that didn’t work we still got it done.

Q: Yes.  Do you think the Coast Guard understands the role of Public Affairs, especially from the operational side?

PA1 Niemi: That’s not really a question for me. I would love to know that. I would love to see, even without the requisite equipment logistics, this is the product that we made and this is what it did. It reaffirmed the nation that response was happening. I would really like to see an increase in budget or numbers or whatever. You know it takes a lot to create a military billet but I would love the Coast Guard to make a push to say, “We need six more PAs because this is what they do.”

Q: Yes.

PA1 Niemi: Like I said, they reaffirm to the public that the U.S. is working on something, is doing something.

Q: At least part of it is. Thank you so much.

PA1 Niemi: Hey, no problem. Thank you.

END OF INTERVIEW


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