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U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program

Katrina Archival & Historical Record Team (KART)

Hurricane Katrina, 2005

Interviewee: CAPT Frank Paskewich, USCG

Sector Commander
Sector New Orleans

Interviewer: PA3 Susan Blake
Date of Interview:  18 October 2005
Place: New Orleans 


CAPT Paskewich wore many hats as Commander of Sector New Orleans. His responsibilities included Captain of the Port (COTP), Officer-in-Charge of Marine Inspections, Federal-on-Scene Commander, Search and Rescue (SAR) Mission Coordinator, and Federal Maritime Security Coordinator. The COTP manages the lower Mississippi River to ensure that the system is safe and notifies the industry when it is time to take precautions prior to a storm. He was also responsible for sending marine information bulletins to the industry advising them of port conditions. By Sunday August 28 he shut down the entire waterway under his command. As this would affect four of the largest ports in the country, the economic implications were enormous. They began mobilizing small boats from all over the country-other units brought in their equipment- the air stations were all set and ready. They positioned vessels in Baton Rouge, Sabine, and Abbeville in preparation for the SAR operations. The condition and safety of the waterways were another major issue. Paskewich said that whenever you close the waterways and the winds come through with the high water, you’re going to have lots of vessels that are going to sink, or clog the waterways, and knock down or damage the aids-to-navigation. Moreover, there are the petrol chemical plants, pipelines, and ships that could cause massive environmental damage. So a structure must be put in place to address all of these issues simultaneously. Between 60 to 80 people worked with the Eight District staff in Alexandria. They had key people working with state officials and Paskewich was getting feedback from his liaisons in the New Orleans EOC.

There were thousands of people in need of help. “I knew that I had total devastation at proportions never seen before in the Coast Guard and that I would be responsible for managing all of these aspects at once. Now that’s impossible for a single person to do.” “To accomplish this, you put the right people in the right place.” 

Quote:  “It was apparent to me that this was going to be the storm of the century- the big one as they call it. We knew that we were going to be rescuing lots of people by air and lots of people by small boat.” 

Captain Frank Paskewich flies over the Superdome in New Orleans after the passage of Hurricane Katrina. Q: Can you state your first name, last name, and spell your last name?

CAPT Paskewich: Frank Paskewich; P-A-S-K-E-W-I-C-H.

Q: And your rank in the Coast Guard?

CAPT Paskewich: Captain.

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

CAPT Paskewich: Twenty-four years.

Q: Can you give us a brief overview of your career which led you to Sector Commander here at New Orleans?

CAPT Paskewich: I am a 1981 graduate of the Coast Guard Academy. I served onboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Hamilton, first tour as a student engineer. After that, I began my marine safety career starting in New Orleans from 1983 to 1987 where I did a variety of work as a marine investigator and a marine inspector. From that point I went to graduate school where I received a Masters degree in Naval Architecture & Marine Engineering and Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan. Upon graduation, I served in the Marine Safety Center in Washington D.C. where I did hundreds of reviews of tank vessels and tank barges and gas ships; conducting plan review on them to ensure their stability and structural integrity, and I was a member of the Marine Safety Center Salvage Response Team. From that point, I went to the Marine Safety Office Galveston where I was a department head serving as Chief of Inspections and Investigations and then later as Chief of Port Operations. After that in 1997, I was assigned to New Orleans at the MSO and served there for five years in a variety of positions including Chief of Inspections, Chief of Port Operations and Executive Officer. After that tour, I was assigned to the District office where I was the Inland Waterways Coordinator, responsible for basically six inland river Captain of the Ports and managing the entire river system. Subsequent to that in 2004, I was assigned as the Commanding Officer of Marine Safety Office New Orleans. Then after one year on the job, we combined into a Sector on August the 18th 2005 combining three of the largest commands in the Coast Guard; Group New Orleans, Marine Safety Office New Orleans and MSO Morgan City into a sector 12 days before the hurricane hit.

Q: Now can you recount the story of the morale fellowship party you had going here just prior to the hurricane?

CAPT Paskewich: Well it’s been an extremely busy summer, which is normally the case here in Louisiana. Whether you’re doing marine safety work or whether you’re doing search and rescue or law enforcement work, it’s always very busy. Leading up to the change of command there was an awful lot of work that was being done in support of that. On the Friday, I believe it was August the 26th, we had a morale party to celebrate the creation of the Sector and to basically have some good morale between multiple folks at the unit who had not had the opportunity to get together much, so we had a great cookout right over here at the Southern Yacht Club located just around the corner from us. As one of my parting discussions, they handed me a microphone so I got to speak to the crowd, and I thanked everybody for their support and said they had done such a tremendous job that they needed to take the afternoon off and go enjoy a nice weekend and that we’d see everybody on Monday. At that point, Katrina was forecast to hit the panhandle of Florida, so we just needed to keep an eye on the storm. No sooner had I put the microphone down, someone came running up and said, “Captain, we need to talk. You need to see the latest trajectory. Hurricane Katrina is coming off of Florida and the revised trajectory shows that it’s going to impact Louisiana.” At that point, I had to change plans for the crew and cancel that liberty and immediately implement our hurricane plan in its entirety. So I went back to the office and took a look at it and looked at the models, and sure enough, it had strengthened considerably and was making a beeline at that point for New Orleans or close to it in the area, so from that point on it was ready, set, go.

Q: So when did you announce what the plan would be to the service personnel around here?

CAPT Paskewich: Well, we recalled some of the key staff at that point and basically said, “Okay, it’s time to implement the hurricane plan and lets go ahead and start to put things in motion”, make everybody aware that there was a hurricane out there; start advising our Stations, which are located in low lying areas, that they needed to prepare for evacuation in short order if the hurricane kept on it’s trajectory and to get all personnel who are an essential and part of our Watch, Quarter and Station Bill to start preparatory actions so that we could be ready for the hurricane. Part of that response requires that we set up our alternate command post located in Alexandria, Louisiana, so we had that advanced team ready to go at first light the next morning. The rest of the staff here in New Orleans was making preparations along the way, notifying the maritime industry that, “It looks like the storm is heading this way. Start to take precautions and actions and implement your hurricane plans.” We made some preliminary phone calls to some key people in the port and then waited for the trajectory that next morning at 0800.

Q: Now the evacuation plan for the various units, that was predetermined because you do have these type of storms blow in prior, or did you decide at that time when you were preparing with the staff, “Okay, we want this unit to go here”? When was Meridian; one of the major points for an evacuation point, when was that selected? How did all that get worked out; was it prior to or did you decide on it prior to the storm coming?

CAPT Paskewich: No, those arrangements are made prior to. That’s part of the 8th District’s hurricane plan as well as our own hurricane plan. We’re very well schooled in the Gulf of Mexico because we’re impacted by hurricanes every single year. Certainly just last year we had Hurricane Ivan, which was another Category 4 storm, a huge storm, so we have lessons learned from these storms every single year. So it’s part of our normal planning process that we try to evacuate the low lying units, the dependents, and put them in safe havens. 
We start implementing our COOP Plan; our Continuity of Operations Plan. We send people up to Alexandria to set up in advance; get phone lines, get connectivity with computers, get the Command Post set up, hotel rooms, etc., and then when it looked like it was going to hit here, then I notified the staff and determined, “Okay, we need to make the decision to pull the trigger and start evacuating personnel to head out of town.”

Q: And when did you eventually start your evacuation to Alexandria?

CAPT Paskewich: At the 0800 meeting on Saturday, it became very apparent that this was a storm of tremendous strength and that it was headed this way, and that we needed to act quickly and not wait to see if it would change its track. So we decided at that morning meeting on Saturday that we needed to evacuate not only our low-lying units but to start getting our folks here in New Orleans out of the area and just keep our operations center at Bucktown running for as long as we could with the idea that if the storm continued on it’s track line we’d be out of here on Sunday. Now part of the normal preparations is I wear a lot of different hats as the Sector Commander. I wear the Officer-in-Charge of Marine Inspection hat, I’m a Captain of the Port, Federal Maritime Security Coordinator, Federal On-scene Coordinator, and SAR Mission Coordinator. So as part of my Captain of the Port Authority it’s my responsibility to manage the lower Mississippi River to ensure that that system is safe and that the word has gotten out to the industry that it’s time for them to hunker down, to take necessary precautions, and that in the next 48 to 72 hours the storm would impact this region and that by Sunday, if the storm had continued on it’s track, that I’d end up shutting down the entire river to vessel movements and cargo operations, which is not insignificant if you’re familiar with the Mississippi River.

Q: Okay.  What other things did you have to . . . you said you wear these different hats. What other responsibilities were you taking care of at this time?

CAPT Paskewich: Well as we mobilized up to Alexandria we have to send out Marine Information Bulletins to the industry advising them of port conditions along the way as part of our normal hurricane plan. We notify the industry to set Hurricane Condition Whiskey first, which I think is 96 hours in advance of the storm…. as the storm starts to approach; when it gets within 96, 72, 48, 24 hours, these port conditions start to change and we ratchet up certain requirements for the industry. So when we go to Condition Yankee, we’d be requiring of the industry to double up their lines, to prepare to stop cargo operations, to move to safe moorings or to leave the port if necessary. When we get to condition Zulu, essentially that’s a hard shutdown of the port. Nobody can move. There are no more cargo operations. You need to be hunkered down. You need to provide emergency phone numbers. We contact our vessel traffic system, find out what’s in the port so that once the storm passes through we can take a quick look to see exactly what the post-impact damage could be, where we need to focus our efforts on, particularly if there’s tank ships or tank barges or things of that nature .

Q: Yes.  So on the environmental issues, what kind of precautions do you put out to the industry; like the oil rigs and things like that?

CAPT Paskewich: The offshore industry does things well in advance of the storm. They had evacuated, as of that Friday they started their evacuation process offshore. It’s a normal part of what they do. And the entire Gulf was virtually shut-in. If you look at the number of platforms offshore, which number about 4,000, and not all of those are manned platforms - but of the manned ones that were offshore it was in the high 90 percentile of those who evacuated. So they shut-in and then they evacuated.

Q: And what environmental issues concerned you at that time that were like very high, risky situations in this area that you were thinking, “We have to watch out for this or that?”

CAPT Paskewich: Well that’s what we do on the Mississippi River. If you look at the Mississippi River it’s one of the largest port complexes in the world. It’s a combination of three very, very busy industry types. You have a huge outer continental shelf industry in support of the mineral and oil industry located out of Venice and Fourchon. You have one of the largest towboat and barge industries that move barges through the heartland and along the Inter Coastal Waterway east and west, and of course it’s one of the largest shipping ports in the world. You have ships drawing up to 45 foot in depth moving from the mouth of the river 235 miles inland up to Baton Rouge, which is pretty remarkable in and of itself. And there are four major ports in this area; Port of Plaquemines, Port of New Orleans, Port of South Louisiana, and Port of Baton Rouge, and SOLA Port is the Number One ranked port in the country by tonnage. New Orleans is Number Four, Plaquemines is Number Seven and Baton Rouge is Number Ten, and we own it all. You add that up and it dwarfs the next closest port in the country. So the economic implications here are huge and there are a lot of petrochemicals which are coming in by ship, coming in by pipeline, numerous refineries which are producing and refining crude stock into chemicals. So from an environmental point of view this is a key, key area whenever you have a big storm that passes through. 

Q: Okay.  Now you’re in Alexandria prior to the storm. What are you doing there before the storm hits; are you setting up communications or . . . ?

CAPT Paskewich: Yes, when you’re in Alexandria certainly everybody mobilized up there and we had most of the staff in place and we held some preliminary meetings. It was apparent to me that this was going to be probably the storm of the century; the “Big One” as they call it, and we basically got the staff together, certainly the night before the storm hit - and the dependents - and pretty much told them that I felt we were about to embark upon a new historical era; that this would be unlike anything any of us have ever seen in the past and that this would be huge and could probably change the country or change the City of New Orleans permanently. At that point, we were ready to deal with all our mission areas and forecasting what we were expecting from the storm. We knew a storm of this magnitude would come across and probably cause incredible devastation within the city so we would have probably a very, very large search and rescue portion to deal with, particularly in the inner city with urban flooding. We knew that we would probably be rescuing lots and lots of people by air and that at some point we would be rescuing lots and lots of people by small boat, so we began mobilizing small boats from around the country to come in; little John Boats or Flood Punts with small engines on them, other units brought in their equipment, and of course we worked with Air Station New Orleans. They were all set and ready to roll on the search and rescue air side. They took their aircraft to safe locations outside. We took our vessels, positioned them up in Baton Rouge, some west of here in Sabine, some in Abbeville, Louisiana, so that when the storm passed we could reconstitute very quickly. So we were well prepared to handle the search and rescue part of the equation. 

The other part, which I thought would come out in full force, would be the waterways issue. We had closed a major waterway. Whenever you do that and the winds come through with the high water you’re gong to have lots of vessels which are going to sink or clog the waterway, or go aground, extensive shoaling, and aids to navigation will be completely devastated. Also, you potentially could have no waterway with which to move vessels. So those were key, key aspects. Plus with all the petrochemical plants, all the pipelines, all the ships and all the vessels, I was concerned that there would be a massive environmental impact with significant environmental damage. So we had to put the structure in place to deal with all of these issues simultaneously. 

Q: Now what was your staff like there in Alexandria?

CAPT Paskewich: It was a pretty large staff. Our hurricane plan is designed to basically ramp up depending upon the situation so we can make it as small as we want or as large as we want. We have that flexibility to stay here in New Orleans for a very small storm or to leave the entire area for a very big one. For this storm, because of its size, we implemented the plan fully and we evacuated this station, moved everybody out of the city up to Alexandria and required our full complement to implement our hurricane plan, which numbered, I’d have to say, somewhere between 60 and 80 folks. It might have even been a little more then that. Plus we knew that with the impact that we would have that we would need a lot more people. So we started working with our District office to preorder in additional folks to help us ramp up to deal with all these missions simultaneously. We ultimately had a command post with approximately 400 people in it at its peak.

Q: And after the storm passed through here what kind of reports were you getting, how were you getting them, and how were you addressing them?

CAPT Paskewich: Day One of the storm made landfall that Monday morning at 0630 and surprisingly enough, that morning I still had pretty good connectivity with our folks. Not only did we move people up to Alexandria but we had key people in liaison positions with the city Emergency Operations Center and with the state office of Emergency Preparedness. So I was getting some instant feedback along throughout that morning and I knew immediately that the “Big One” had occurred when the reports started rolling in from my liaison in the city EOC. I was getting reports like, “Charity Hospital flooded; windows blown out; 17th Street Canal breeched; Lakeview: eight feet underwater; twenty foot surge in Bayou Bienvenue; ship Chios Beauty broke it’s moorings at Algiers Point, now aground on the right descending bank; flooding everywhere,” you know, numerous reports of looting and the extensive impact to the city. So these reports kept funneling in every couple of hours and then I’d get reports from other folks about impact on the waterway; ships adrift, barges run up on the bank, barges which sank. All of this is going on simultaneously, with reports like “a drydock has struck a tank ship”. We documented all these reports and we’re trying to keep track of them. I went though an entire notepad in that first day from all the reports.

Q: Now how were you able to get these reports; was it through cell phone or satellite phone?

CAPT Paskewich: It was a cell phone and it wasn’t probably until the afternoon where it started to drop off a little bit and the phone lines started becoming harder and harder to use. I think some of that was because of systems which were down; antenna systems, and some were a result of just the volume of calls clogging the system so to speak.

Q: So what was your next step; to follow up on these reports and then provide resources to deal with this?

CAPT Paskewich: Yes, certainly you had to have the infrastructure in place to deal with that; to categorize it, to document it and to pass it on up so you’re painting the picture for the nation. We were the ones, in my opinion, that maintained the bubble on what was going on. We knew what was happing from the maritime point of view and we’re taking that picture and we kept passing it up. 

Now additionally one of my responsibilities is to go and assess the damage, so I was poised to do a flyover as soon as possible once the storm had passed and fortunately the storm passed with enough daylight hours left so that at 1600 that day I got to take an overflight on an H-60. My deputy and I both got on the helo and we flew back into the city along with air station assets. Air Station NOLA decided they wanted to come up the back way behind the storm from the mouth of the river northward because the winds were still a little bit high at that point so it wasn’t totally safe to come in from the north. So they came in from the south and our H-60 pilot said that he felt comfortable taking us from Alexandria downriver. So we got to head downriver a little ways and it wasn’t until we got to just above the airport at the Luling Bridge on the River, where I saw my first damage, that was three ships which looked like that had just been tossed into the batture; that’s the land in between the levee and the river, and you could see that. Then as we cut across you could see the massive flooding and the city was completely inundated with water. And as we flew around we had to land to pick up the FEMA rep; Mr. Marty Bahamonde. Essentially he was the President’s front man. He needed to get up in the air to do an oversight so he could report back up to Director Brown and then on up to the President as to the situation. We were his first overflight. We stopped at the Super Dome, picked up Mr. Bahamonde, went up on an overflight and started touring the city and we could see more destruction and damage. And at that point, you could hear the chatter on the radio from the other pilots from Air Station New Orleans who were there; you could hear on the radio, they were saying, “There’s thousands of them. There are people all over the place. We’re picking them up. We need everything. We need more helicopters. We’re hoisting them and we’re putting them on the levees or over by the lakefront.” So the H-60s are a good asset, a good platform for that. Our H-60 pilot sort of asked and said, “I can fly you around or I can go rescue people.” So I looked at the FEMA rep and I said, “I can’t argue with that.” So he dropped us back off at the Super Dome and then they went on to rescue people. He dropped us off back at the Dome and proceeded to rescue 17 people on his next flight. But we had to get up on an overflight so that we could complete the brief on up to the highest levels of the government. The next H-65 came in we commandeered it and told the pilots, “I have FEMA here. I need to get him up on an overflight.” So myself, the FEMA rep, and Captain Mueller, went up on that overflight and Mr. Bahamonde wanted to try to go see Slidell. And as we headed east you could see that New Orleans East was definitely impacted tremendously with huge flooding. I could see over in Chalmette, water just rolling from the Inner Harbor Navigational Canal into Chalmette, completely flooding it. Then as we started heading towards Slidell you could see the Twin Span and as we got closer to the Twin Span you could see that it was just down. I’m pretty sure we were the first ones in the country to see the Twin Span just leveled like it was going to Slidell. Then we went all the way to Eden Isles in Slidell and you could see the flooding there. Then we bee-lined it back to the Super Dome and at that point we started briefing on up. I knew the FEMA representative was going to call Director Brown and that was his first phone call, and I certainly called up to Alexandria trying to relay the information that I could. 

Q: So once you relayed this information how did you respond to all these structural and possibly environmental issues; impact issues, after the fact?

CAPT Paskewich: Well I knew at that point that I had to maintain the bubble at the 50,000 foot level. I knew that I had total devastation of proportions never seen before in the Coast Guard and that I would be responsible for managing all of these aspects at once, and that’s impossible for a single person to do but we had to have the infrastructure in place to be able to handle that. While you’re saving thousands of people you also have to be concerned about the environmental impact, you have to be concerned about opening up the waterway, you have to be concerned about restoring aids to navigation and you have to be concerned about pulling vessels out of the channel. So it’s not that you do one mission and then you move on to the next mission, finish that one and then move on, that’s not what we do. We have to do it all at once. Fortunately the Coast Guard is blessed with some phenomenally talented people so the idea was to orchestrate that and to put the right people in the right place. And Captain Bruce Jones, the Commanding Officer at the Air Station basically handled the air search and rescue with minimal oversight and minimal tasking; he knew exactly what he needed. My main goal was to try and support him in the way of getting people and assets that he needed and let him do the job as best he could. Similarly on the surface search and rescue it became apparent that this could become a very tedious operation, that besides the difficulty in getting back into the city because of downed power lines and downed trees and flooded roads, that you had a mix of a number of different people from all over the country, all other agencies, and that someone had to weave that together; try to combine that in any way that they could. So Captain Bob Mueller; the Deputy Sector Commander filled that role. He came down on-scene after a few days to try to bring that together because that’s such a key piece. So the search and rescue portion was being worked on by some very competent Captains, which is tremendous. I felt very comfortable that that was being handled and I could support them in any way I could by them reporting to me what they were experiencing and what needed to be done. 

Similarly, I had to bring in strong people to be able to deal with the environmental side. As reports came funneling in it became apparent that we had ten major or medium environmental incidents. A major incident is one categorized as anything over 100,000 gallons of product or oil spilled. A medium is anything over 10,000 gallons. We had hundreds of National Response Center reports, each and every one we had to fly on to see what the extent of the environmental impact was. Fortunately, over time, most of these were very small unrecoverable sheens. Unfortunately we had the ten major oil spills that we had to deal with so I brought in strike team personnel to help ramp that up and that organization spun off into a massive organization in and of itself where we had 1000 personnel doing nothing but responding to oil pollution, that includes responders; local, state and federal agencies. 

Also, there is the salvage portion of this, which includes debris removal and salvaging all the vessels. The severity of that mission became apparent to me as we went out and started surveying the channel where there were hundreds and hundreds of these vessels all over the place. You had barges on the levees. You had ships that had gone aground. You had shrimping vessels that were piled on top of one another clogging the waterways. We had vessels leaking oil. So we had to bring in a lot of folks there to help us with that effort, so I brought in the Navy Supervisor of Salvage who is an expert at conducting salvage, and then we brought in members of what we call ASA; the American Salvage Association - it’s a conglomeration of salvors who have formed basically a trade association, some of the biggest and best and most competent in the world - and they came and integrated with us in our unified command center up in Alexandria, and categorized, prioritized and evaluated the risks of what we had out there and what needed to be done.

Q: And what is the state of those cleanup efforts today? You said you had ten spills. What is the status right now?

CAPT Paskewich: It’s still ongoing and that was the part of the process that we put in place. If you go back and look at our search and rescue mission, we know that a search and rescue is not one that lasts forever. That’s one that you go in and you do the job and after a week, maybe two weeks in this case. I think it was close to a week and a half before the air search and rescue effort ended. The air had basically finished that particular portion of the response sooner then the surface side ended by about a week. But now we’re into this some 45/50 days later and we’re still cleaning up oil and we’re still salvaging vessels and we’re still doing other stuff.

Q: Do you have any kind of estimate as to how long this is going to go on?

CAPT Paskewich: Well, the outer continental shelf industry is still coming on line so that’s a little bit of a wild card there. The major spills that we’re working on are still ongoing and we’re close to getting into what we call the maintenance phase or the recovery phase of the operation. At that point, most of the free floating oil will have been removed and when we get to that point we’ll turn it over to the Environmental Protection Agency for long term remediation of those sites. Plus, we’re still assisting the EPA with hazmat recovery of thousands of drums, tote tanks, and tanks located in the marsh.

Q: And the water inside the city; the contaminated water, were you involved in dealing with that or was that the EPA?

CAPT Paskewich: Well as the Federal On-scene Coordinator I certainly bear some responsibility in what goes into the waterway. I had to ensure that EPA granted a waiver to allow the pumping of the water inside the city to Lake Pontchartrain. So I had our attorneys draft up a decision memo and basically say that it was approved and then we asked for a letter from EPA that they had granted that waiver since that’s their jurisdiction. Once we got that then I felt, “No problem”.

Q: And how soon after the storm did you open up the Port of New Orleans and the Mississippi River?

CAPT Paskewich: That absorbed an awful lot of time post-hurricane. As I said earlier, these ports are huge and opening the river up to traffic movement, both deep draft as well as barge traffic via the Inter Coastal Waterway, is huge. And there’s a lot of pressure to try to open the river and ICW up as soon as possible. So immediately, as soon as the storm passed through, we started doing surveys of the channel. We got the Army Corps of Engineers’ survey vessels. NOAA also assisted us in that. We did overflights of the area and then we used the industry to survey as well. We had prearranged agreements with some of the harbor tug companies in the area who were pre-positioned along the river and once the storm passed they went out and surveyed a section of river. These harbor tugs would go out, go up and down the river and say, “No obstructions” or “No damage”, and that it was all clear. And that’s important because in 235 miles of river I wanted to be able to quickly determine where the damage was. If there was no damage in certain spots we presumed that the waterway was not impacted either from a shoaling point of view or that you didn’t have to worry about sunken vessels. Once we received all the reports, I could determine the damage line as you got closer to the city of New Orleans that that’s where the damage started occurring and that’s where we had to focus more on doing much more detailed surveys of the channel and determine if there were any sunken vessels or if there was any shoaling. Similarly our aids to navigation teams had to go out and do surveys down at the mouth of the river in what we call Southwest Pass below the delta. Those always get hit very hard in a hurricane and when those aids go down you can’t move big ships in because the ships don’t know where they’re going and they don’t have the aids to rely upon. We mobilized probably one of the largest assemblages of aids to navigation assets ever undertaken to restore the aids along the river and Intracoastal Waterway; to get them up quickly so that ships could move. By day four – Friday after the storm - is when we first opened up the river to deep draft traffic, daylight hours only at 35 foot. The ACOE and NOAA survey teams determined the channel was not blocked. However, to be conservative, and even though the channel had been deemed clear up to 45 foot, the river Pilots were willing to try 35 and then we incrementally increased draft depending upon their comfort factor. They evaluated whether or not they felt, “Hey, this is good. I can go a little deeper.” I think a couple of days later it went up to 39, then 43. Finally, they felt real good that we had restored enough aids that they could go to full draft. By 29 September there were no operational restrictions in place to traffic.

Q: Do you know how many aids to navigations were affected and how many discrepancies there were and how many have been restored to date?

CAPT Paskewich: I do, but I can’t quote those numbers off the top of my head. Eighty percent of the aids below the city of New Orleans were destroyed. It was in the hundreds. We restored all the critical aids, what we considered critical. All aids are important but there are certain aids that are absolutely critical that you can’t move the ships if you don’t have them. We tried to focus on that just for expediency purposes to get the waterway open. Plus, we had to open the Inter Coastal Waterway. Even before the deep draft channel, we had to reopen the Inter Coastal Waterway, so we surveyed that to get barge traffic moving. So we actually opened up the barge traffic first. Well let me back up. We opened up the upper part of the river first because there was no damage and that allowed barge traffic to head up north into the Heartland and from the Heartland down through the Morgan City area. Then we opened up the Inter Coastal Waterway within the city of New Orleans. Then we opened it up for deep draft traffic up river but that doesn’t do you a whole lot of good if you can’t get out of the river. Then finally on the third or fourth day we opened it up to deep draft traffic.

Q: And what kind of economic impact . . . do you have any estimates of how much this has cost economically by shutting down the ports and the waterways around here?

CAPT Paskewich: That’s a hard question to answer. The economic impact is huge. Millions of dollars is what’s at stake here every day. Every day the river is closed that’s a huge, huge, economic impact. The fact that the Port of New Orleans is only operating at 35 percent capacity right now and the fact that Port Plaquemines is basically shut down, Port of St. Bernard is only at five percent of what they normally operate, that’s significant to the river, so the economic considerations are big. The river is coming back and a lot of ships are moving up river into the Port of South Louisiana and Baton Rouge but we’re not there yet. I think the number of ships which have come in is about 80 percent of its normal load but some of those higher value cargo container ships are just starting to roll into the Port of New Orleans right now.

Q: Are there any estimates as to when they’re going to get everything up and running at 100 percent?

CAPT Paskewich: The Port of New Orleans: within three months of the initial hurricane was operating at 80%, so about another two months they’re anticipating to be back on line. Their limitation is not the fact that there’s damage to the port infrastructure, it’s bringing workers back; truckers, stevedores; those stevedores are those who do the work, who offload the cargo, getting people back into the city to do the job to move the cargo off the ship and then drive it away, that’s the limiting factor.

Q: Yes.  Now as far as Coast Guard policies and procedures, are there any procedures that could have been improved or actually helped you in performing your job more effectively?

CAPT Paskewich: Well we’re still developing those lessons learned. I think there’s going to be a number of lessons learned that come out of this. I’d say for the immediate point of view, just internally as a unit on how we respond, we can certainly help our crews on-scene with responding quicker in the urban search and rescue environment. And I know we’ve taken steps to purchase some of that equipment in advance for the next one, like fire axes for example is a good one and certain other equipment that would allow us to get into an area very quickly. 

Similarly, in hindsight, we’re trying to make our units more expeditionary so that you can pack up and leave quickly and not go year after year of getting ransacked with a hurricane and rebuilding from scratch. So I think those particular areas are important. 

From a policy point of view we’re still weighting and determining and evaluating some of those areas which need to be changed so that we can act quickly. In particular I would say, from the debris removal point of view, that’s an area that needs to be addressed nationally so that we can get to action much quicker then we have right now. I think that’s going way too slow.  I think our environmental response is a very sound structure and as a result of what happened post-OPA 90; Oil Pollution Act of 1990, the infrastructure there to deal with environmental response is very sound and I think was showcased in this particular event; We had enough equipment, we had the training and we responded adequately to be able to handle it. So I think that’s a positive.

Q: You think the Coast Guard would consider developing training for its crew operational people in an urban search and rescue type environment, aside from providing expeditionary type supplies and readiness, but also provide additional training to work within that kind of environment.

CAPT Paskewich: I think you’re absolutely right. We do do that in the heartland of the country, most, or a lot of the assets that we got are what we call the Darts and those Darts were brought down from units located in the Midwest, including St. Louis, I think Louisville, and a couple other areas upriver, and they trained in that because in a riverine environment a lot of times you get flooding which overflows its banks and those small Flood Punts have proven very useful to being very, very productive in responding to search and rescue efforts on the urban side. In fact they’re the most practical assets to be used. So the crews are trained and when they arrive and they come down self-sufficient. They trailer them down, bring in their own crews; that’s what they do, and I think they’ve proved their worth. And I think in looking at this, one of the lessons learned is that’s an area that we really do need to keep current and probably build upon and make that part of our normal search and rescue repertoire everywhere.

Q: Now on the command side of things, how where communications flowing with Headquarters and you? You were dealing with Headquarters through cell phones. Who were you dealing with directly; Admiral Duncan or . . . ?

CAPT Paskewich: Admiral Duncan was located with us. We had part of the 8th District staff up there in St. Louis and that’s who we were dealing with mostly. The Command Center was certainly the busiest command center that I’ve ever been a part of. There was an enormous, enormous amount of information management going on and us getting reports from the field of what was going on, taking that information, correlating it, and then presenting it up in the form of SITREPs or during conference calls. That was a huge, huge tasking; a huge load for us up there to maintain the bubble. It was a very stressful environment.

Q: Now is there any particular training that you fell back on that proved to be most useful?

CAPT Paskewich: Well I think being brought up from the marine safety side of the house, I’m a student of the incident command system and using that, and I think we used that very well in this case to kick off the response. It was essential to maintain command and control to maintain the bubble on what was going on and that was no easy or insignificant task to do. And I think by creating the ICS structure we were able to harness and manage the information as it flowed in and it allowed us to get into a cycle where we could receive information on what needed to be done, tasking from above; from the Commandant level, from the 8th District level, from the Presidential level, take that and then go into our planning meetings and disperse that information so that it could be dealt with by that evening. As we progressed with the incident command system, I think it proved very useful for resolving issues and problems and that was a good forum for us to get information out. So I thought it was very successful. As time went on and our organization matured it started to splinter, or it had morphed, so we moved the surface portion of the search and rescue part of the equation down to New Orleans. It had to be done. It had to be done on-scene and my deputy took on that role so he could understand that picture and weave it all together and connect the dots. Similarly we had the huge pollution cell up there. That had to spin off to Baton Rouge where they were co-located with the State On-scene Coordinator and the Environmental Protection Agency, and that they could manage it on their own because the organization started to become so big we didn’t want to make too unwieldy. So we had an organization for pollution in Baton Rouge. We had an organization down here in New Orleans to deal with search and rescue. Obviously the Air Station already was in place with its system and then we ran the remaining tasks out of Alexandria.

Q: Okay.  And how long were you in Alexandria?

CAPT Paskewich: I was in Alexandria . . . I probably got down here permanently on Day Nine or Ten, somewhere in that range. However, I overflew the area about every day from when the storm hit and went on-scene at least every other day to check on the crew and the status of the response. With such a large staff in Alexandria which had superb command and control in place, I had to spend time there to set objectives, priorities, attend briefings, and maintain the big picture. On day 9, I setup permanently at the Port of New Orleans and integrated a small staff with the Principle Federal Official down at the cruise ship. The PFO was being thrown a lot of questions about Captain of the Port issues so we set up a cell right there so that we could deal with that, to reengage with the port community and to remove that burden from the PFO cell.

Q: Now I understand your wife was involved with other spouses in creating an organization that could get supplies in. Could you tell us about that?

CAPT Paskewich: [Chuckle] Yes, our wives are very . . . you can tell they’ve been married to us for a long time. I think part of the Coast Guard mentality is engrained in them and they took it upon themselves to support all of our staff up in Alexandria. One of the interesting fallouts from a big organization that’s under stress and doing a lot of work is you don’t take the time to rest. You don’t take the time off to go out to lunch, to dinner to eat, so you’d find people weren’t doing that. So the wives saw fit to start taking care of us. They went out on their own, formed their own 501C corporation, started getting donations from the local community, other areas; Coast Guard Foundation as well as other businesses, and started with that money and basically started feeding us in the way of snacks and cooking for us. They also did laundry for us. They went and took care of those simple, simple amenities that you forget are so important. So they’re heroes in this as well and their character came out and they were as busy as we were.

Q: Are they still collecting donations or what’s going on with that?

CAPT Paskewich: Yes, they’re still collecting donations and we’re trying to take care of our troops here locally. The aftermath of this whole hurricane is incredibly significant to Sector New Orleans. We’ve got three of our four Stations and 4 of our 5 ANT Teams virtually destroyed totally. We have our remaining Aids to Navigation team which is just about destroyed as a result of the second hurricane which came through; Hurricane Rita. And of our more then 700 people here within the sector, we’ve got 222 folks who cannot return to a house. Their homes are uninhabitable yet they still come to work. So it’s part of that Coastie spirit, that Coastie mantra of duty, honor, loyalty and serving your country. That’s just come out like I’ve never seen before in my life. The wives have helped to try to support them, put on morale events, trying to work with the Auxiliary to get them to come and cook for us. They’re doing a great job. And just where we can, just instill a little bit of morale; just to make someone smile for that one day, take the pressure off just a little bit, I think it means a lot to them that someone’s thinking about them. I don’t know if we can ever do enough for what some of our folks have done but we’ll try to do whatever we can.

Q: Now you also had VIPs visit here and President Bush. Can you tell us about that?

CAPT Paskewich: President Bush came, well it had to be Day Two or Three, and CWO Dan Brooks was fortunate enough to be the individual here to receive his visit, which was quite an honor. I think that’s just so tremendous that the President saw fit and was comfortable enough to land here and then shake the hands of every single person. This particular station has seen an awful lot of people come through. In addition to the President we’ve had the Vice President and Secretary Chertoff come in. We’ve had the Attorney General come in, numerous Senators. We had the Commandant and Senator Snow sitting at my desk for a long time. I’ve just seen more congressmen then I’ve ever seen before.

Q: Now to get back to dealing with what was going on around here, tell us about coordinating and working with other agencies, how did that go; smoothly?

CAPT Paskewich: I think it went very smoothly. We certainly work closely with our partners that we work with everyday like the Army Corp of Engineers on the waterway side, so that was key to have them come in and help us do surveys. We don’t work with them on the levee side of the equation but certainly on the waterway side we do. 

NOAA is absolutely tremendous at what they do. They’re a huge support agency for us. They came in and helped us out with maps, charts, with imaging of the area and supported us also with surveying channels as well, and then their environmental response expertise is unsurpassed. They did a phenomenal job in just understanding resources at risk and the right strategy to use in cleaning up pollution. They played a huge roll for us. 

U.S. Fish and Wildlife is another one. They help us out whenever we have a big incident. 
Urban Search and Rescue folks: I’ve never had the pleasure of working with them before but they are a class act and they did a great job coming down, working with our folks to tie our boats and crews together with their expertise to go out and do the urban search and rescue. That was a real success story.  Plus, we always deal with all the local folks. We work closely with the Parishes, the Parish Presidents and the port authorities. So maintaining close ties with them is always good.

Q: Well is there any particular incident or story that you could share out of this whole event? I know there’s so many that stand out in your mind that you would like for us to know about.

CAPT Paskewich: Well let me give you two, maybe three, but probably two. 

Q: Okay, as many stories as you like, go ahead.

CAPT Paskewich: This one was kind of interesting. I get a call from one of our Ensigns who was at the city Office of Emergency Preparedness and she calls up and says - this is not your typical young, young ensign mind you - She’s a Reserve and has been around for a long time and she’s a local, just does a tremendous job for us - and calls up and in her typical calm voice and says, “Captain, I just want you to know that there’s no 911 operators here in the city and I’m answering 911 calls. I just want to know if I’m liable. I just want to know if I should be answering calls?” So I said, “Well Tara, how many of you are up there answering 911 calls?” She says, “Well there's me and two others.” I said, “Well how many calls are coming in”, and she goes, “Oh, about one a minute.” I said, “One a minute! You’ve got to be kidding.” I said, “Do you know what you’re doing?” She goes, “Captain, I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I know how to do it. I’ll go rustle me up a couple cops and a couple of firemen and I’ll take care of business.” I said, “Well go do it.” So here we’ve got an ensign answering 911 calls for the City of New Orleans for an entire night until a new batch of folks arrived. 

Another one; we had basically charted helicopters to go do surveys of the area to find out vessels that had sunk or were blocking the channel, etc. So I get a call. Someone runs up to me and says, “Sir, Lieutenant (jg) Moore would like to know if he can go rescue his wife.” I said, “What? What do you mean rescue his wife?” “Well she’s in the hospital and he hasn’t been able to contact her but he knows she’s working and wants to know if he can land the helicopter on top of the hospital and go rescue her in a commercial helo.” I said, “Absolutely, go rescue your wife, please.” So it turns out that he ended up landing on top of the hospital, getting out with one of our big gruffy salvors, going down ten flights of stairs, pitch black, going into another part of the hospital where there were no lights, people all over the place, found his wife and ran into her face-to-face in the pitch black and grabbed her, and said, “You’re coming with me.” So she grabbed two of her friends and then they ended up going back down, then up and got onto the helicopter and made it to safety. 

So those two stories for some reason just keep staying with me, at least in my memory. Of course I’ve heard them all from what’s going on in the urban search and rescue side and from the air station side. You know a sight for me was to be at the Air Station on day two and just seeing helicopter after helicopter taking off and crews coming out of the helicopters soaking wet, and just those survival swimmers just coming in, hearing what they had done from their stories. Those guys and girls were pretty amazing. 

So the whole thing is surreal and unlike anything I’ve ever seen before and I hope I only have to do this one time in my career, or my life.

Q: Well finally, is there anything that you’d care to share with us that we haven’t covered here?

CAPT Paskewich: I think I’ve hit about everything you can hit. You know this was something, I think, that no one’s ever been through of this magnitude before. I am just absolutely floored and awed by just how incredibly well our folks performed. It’s magnificent how we can train our folks and empower them to go do a job and for them to have the confidence to carry it out and remain safe and know their bounds, and do what needs to be done. That to me is so awe inspiring and I think that says a lot for our organization. And the fact that on all fronts, not just search and rescue, but every other mission, that we can handle things simultaneously; that you can basically take a unit, move it out of the city, destroy the whole city, destroy it’s stations and put everything of biblical proportions on the map for what we’re responsible for and still come through with shining colors, I think is a real testament to the strength of our organization. 

Q: Now were you personally affected by the hurricane? Did you have a home here and did you have any damage?

CAPT Paskewich: Yes, I have roof damage so I need a new roof. I’ve got a fence that’s down. Fortunately my house is livable but like a lot of people my family had to move away. We had to decide to enroll our children into other schools so they’ll probably be there for the next few months. So I’m a Geo Bachelor in reverse in my own household. There are a lot of folks that are impacted that way. It’s going to be a long road to get back to normalcy but I’m here for the duration and I’m comfortable that the city will be rebuilt and it’s going to be better then before.

Q: Great. Well thank you Sir. 

CAPT Paskewich: Thank you.


Last Modified 1/12/2016