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U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program

Katrina Archival & Historical Record Team (KART)

Hurricane Katrina, 2005

Interviewee: CDR Adam Shaw , USCG

Interviewer: David Rosen, Ph.D.
Date of Interview:  16 December 2005


A photo of a flooded street in New OrleansAbstract:

CDR Shaw was amazed at the devastation to Bucktown, the NOLA Coast Guard station where he served after volunteering from his PACAREA assignment as the Branch Chief of the 11th District's Waterways Management Branch. He also praised the will of the Coasties to work like horses 14-16 hours a day and return for more. The SAR was considered a "once in a lifetime opportunity." 

CDR Shaw: Good Morning.  My name is Adam Shaw. I’m a Commander in the Coast Guard. I’ve been in the Coast Guard for 18-and-a-half years and currently I’m the Branch Chief for the District 11 Waterways Management Branch.

Q: And where and when did you end up participating in Katrina? When did you find out about it?

CDR Shaw: About a week after the actual hurricane; maybe four or five days, they sent out a message requesting people to come out and assist and they identified specific skill sets; what rank and what skill they needed, and I closely matched one of the skill sets. And as a commander there were only a couple that they were looking for and they were actually looking for shore operations but I was afloat operations, but I thought it would be something very interesting to do. 
The job I’m in right now, at that time we had kind of a lull because in the branch everyone works real good so I had some opportunity; some down time at work, and I thought, “Well I’ve got the skill sets. I’ve got the time. I think this would be a good idea to go out and try to help out.” So that was on a Thursday or a Friday. I put my name in the hat. I guess it circulated around here of who they were going to send and who they could afford to send, who had the skill sets, and by Sunday they let me know that I could go and that they wanted me. Monday was like Labor Day; that was the 3rd?

Q: Yes.

CDR Shaw: Monday I got on the airplane, or was it Tuesday? Maybe it was Tuesday I got on the airplane and I flew from San Francisco to Louisiana and I checked in at the, what’s the name of the . . . ?

Q: Alexandria.

CDR Shaw: Alexandria, that’s right. I checked in at Alexandria and they said, “Well we could use your skill set in New Orleans” at what they call the Forward Operating Base. That was the old station.

Q: Bucktown?

CDR Shaw: Bucktown.

Q: Yes.

CDR Shaw: So I spent that night at a church and the next morning I again checked in. They drove us out to the airport. We got on an auxiliary air and they flew us down to the air station at New Orleans. And even at that point I still hadn’t seen a lot of damage and destruction. It just didn’t . . . I saw a lot of people. It was very interesting at Alexandria to see all the people who were mobilized but I hadn’t seen any disaster yet. I flew into New Orleans and I saw a lot more people. It was very chaotic. There were just people running around doing a lot of stuff. And then we got on a helicopter and they flew us from the air station actually to the station and it was on that over-flight that I saw all the destruction and it was really obvious that there were two types of destruction; one was what the hurricane did and two was what the flooding did.

Q: Right.

CDR Shaw: And so I’m glad I got that over-flight because it gave me a greater perspective of what I was getting into. And they took me to the air station and I checked in there, not at the air station, the station; Bucktown.

Q: And what happened then exactly?

CDR Shaw: They were pretty much in a disarray and in chaos and that’s why they asked me and Commander Davidson to show up specifically there to set something up. What happened is, just before the hurricane came the station personnel evacuated and then they came back after the hurricane had gone through, and just as the flooding, or before - I don’t know for sure if they came after the flooding or before the flooding – but when they got back there were people at the station; looters, and I guess they started out as squatters. They were just trying to get out of the hurricane. But the longer they stayed there they started destroying things; did damage. The station building received more damage from these people than the hurricane itself.

Q: Geez.

CDR Shaw: They were slightly affected by the flooding but not much. Debris showed up but there was no structural damage from the flooding. But the people in there, they trashed the place. Some of the rooms in the barracks were unlivable based on what they did. So now the Coast Guard comes back and there are squatters in here so there’s concern of safety. Then there were the shots being fired at the helicopters; people not wanting to be rescued. So there was a lot of concern that we needed armed security at the station so they brought in the MSST. So now you have the station personnel. You have the MSST personnel. They also brought in a port security unit; another 300 people. You have almost 400 people there now without any guidance of what to do. Then all the people on the, because of the flooding all the people need to be rescued. So the station started rescuing people and they would just bring them out of the water, put them on a levee and a helicopter would take them out, and the PSU would do that. Some of the PSU were doing some of that operation, some were doing security. That went on, I think for three days, two or three days and there was no formal command because everyone had evacuated from the sector and from the station and all the senior people left who were in Alexandria, so it was just the station personnel being headed by a warrant and the PSU. So I guess two days before I showed up they sent a captain down there to kind of run things. Then I showed up with Russ and the captain said, “Organize. We’ve got 400 people here. We’re just doing stuff. I’m sure everyone’s doing good things but I don’t know what they’re doing and I don’t know if we have priority of what we’re doing, so organize it.” So Russ and I spent about three hours the first day and we decided we were going to follow the ICS; the Incident Command Structure, and develop an ICS. And Russ said he would take the operations, I would take the planning, and then there was a warrant from the strike team and he said he would do the logistics. We kind of did away with the admin at that point. There was just so much craziness going on we didn’t have time for admin. So that’s the way we worked it out. Every morning Russ and I would . . . I guess before I go to that, by that point FEMA had come in and set up a base at the New Orleans Saints training field and we call that Zephyr Field. FEMA was there. From all over the country they had fire rescue teams. They had boat teams. When the people from the Coast Guard showed up with their work boats they went down to Zephyr Field. So they had a lot of boats and a lot of people down at Zephyr Field. They would . . . and then we had people with boats and we had 400 people. So Zephyr Field would work with FEMA overnight and they would say, “Here’s the grid area we need to search tomorrow”, based on how deep the water was or where the flooding receded or where they had reports of people. So Zephyr Field would say, “Here’s a grid. You need to search this grid”, and FEMA would say, “Who has a boat and who has the crews?” And they would identify how many boats they had and how many crews they needed. Then they would call up to FOB New Orleans where we were; Forward Operating Base, and they would say, “Based on all the volunteers we have, we need an additional 20 boats and crews for those boats.” So Russ and I would develop a plan to get those 20 boats and all the crews out to Zephyr Field the next day to do the searches. What made our job complicated is that in each of those boats you had to have a coxswain to drive it. You had to have an EMS person to handle people and then they also wanted an armed security person in each boat to run security because at that point there were still people we were rescuing that didn’t want to be rescued or they were afraid of people getting shot. So the rescue workers didn’t want to go in there without protection and they wanted the Coast Guard to take them. Naturally urban search and rescue is not something the Coast Guard does. 

Q: Right.

CDR Shaw: Sending out an armed guy to rescue is not something the Coast Guard does, so that was something we had to work with our crews and our boarding teams and everyone to get an understanding that, “You’re doing a humanitarian thing but you need security for it.” That was tough. So in addition to that we also had, around the base we had to have a perimeter because people were coming in who had no homes and they wanted to come live with us, and we had a hard enough time finding food, showers, sleeping facilities, air conditioning, sanitation; everything for all . . . we couldn’t handle anyone else. So Russ and I were working on a watch schedule to make sure that we had an armed perimeter and that we had people to go in each of the boats who were weapons-[qualified], people who were coxswain-[qualified], and then after that everything that popped up during the day we needed to manage.

Q: Sounds like a lot at once.

CDR Shaw: Yes it is. For me the day would start at around, I’d get up at 5 and we’d have our morning brief around 6 and then I would start wrapping things up at around 2 and get to bed around 3, and that was for the first week. The second week it got better. I could start wrapping up around 11 and get to bed around midnight.

Q: Oh boy. Now who was doing the logistics; was that Kelly?

CDR Shaw: No, she was doing logistics but she was at Alexandria.

Q: Right, okay.

CDR Shaw: So I was with the warrant. Boy, his name escapes me right now. His name was Johnson; Vern Johnson. And I would say, you know when you look at these, he’s fantastic. I don’t know how he showed up. He said he wasn’t even supposed to be there but his command said, “You know we might need a guy like you there”, so they sent him there.

Q: Where’s he from?

CDR Shaw: He’s, I think Atlantic Area Strike Team or maybe Pacific but he’s on one of the strike teams. And his command just said, “They need someone like you, just go”, and it turned out he was the best person to have there. I would say to him at 8 o’clock or 9 o’clock at night, “I need a bunch of Tyvek suits. I need protective equipment for everybody and I need it for 150 people and I need it tomorrow.” The next day it would be there. I don’t know how he did it. I don’t know who he called or what he did but if anybody in that 400 group of people, if you needed anything he could get it. I don’t know how he did it and I don’t know where it came from and sometimes he just said, “Don’t ask.” You got it. But he was fantastic. There was no engineering because all the people who ran the engineering at the base evacuated. That’s another thing; all the 400 people who were here, none of them were from that area. These were all volunteers so no one knew the area. No one was familiar with the equipment at the base. They just did it. There was no power to the base so we had all these generators. We were able to get the power back on the base and he went in and connected the power and we lost power and he did it again. So here’s a facility he’s never been on before but he’s running the power for it. We had trailers come in that had shower facilities. He managed all that. He brought in double-wide trailers. He put down rock so there was a stable base so that when the rain came in; the flooding, we wouldn’t track mud everywhere. He set up decontamination stations. It’s amazing all the little things he set up. 

At the very beginning we had anywhere between two to three hundred/four hundred people sometimes. People would transfer; coming in and coming out. That was one of my jobs; to track who we needed and get those skill sets in and I would call up Alexandria and say, “I need this type of body. I need people who can do this”, and Alexandria would send me those people. In the beginning the flow was very slow. I couldn’t get a lot of people. Then midway through everyone just showed up and I’d have people who I didn’t know why they were there, they just showed up. And so we’d have to find a place for them to live, make sure they’d get food and then give them assignments and then let other people go. And we had to track who was coming in and who was leaving. So luckily I had the Port Security Unit; the PSU, and they were able to assign me a lieutenant and he helped me with that, so that was very helpful. 

At the very beginning everybody wanted to help but no one knew what they were doing. They just wanted to help and they were all willing to do anything. They just did everything. If I said, “You, you, you, do this, this and this”, and they would leave and I knew it got done. By now, you know my work now, “I need you to do something”. “Well why”, and “When do you want it? Well I can’t do it, I have this going on.” It was so refreshing to be in that type of environment, I said. “Just do it”, and they wouldn’t come back with questions. They wouldn’t come back with complaints. It would be done and they would come back and say, “It’s done, what else do you want me to do?” And that kind of . . . but it was all the Coasties who volunteered, Coasties who wanted to be there and they wanted to do good things. They just needed to be told what to do. And really, when you get that many people who want to do something good and they’re all hard chargers, you know they’re flying off in a hundred different directions and that was where Russ and I really needed to be careful, is that we had priorities and we had goals and we had to assign them every day. “This is what needs to be done for the day. Unless you’re directing that don’t be going off in these other directions. Work towards the goals.” And I think that really started pulling everyone together once we identified, “Here’s the goal for today. Here are the five things that are the top priority. All emphasis should be on that.” And as soon as they had goals we really progressed a lot. We got more rescues. We were able to clean up the base. We were able to get people back into the barracks. We were able to start looking at a long term plan of bringing people back in from Alexandria. So it really helped. 

One of the things I’m very . . . unfortunately for the people of Louisiana but fortunately for me, this was a very good time because I worked with a lot of people who are hard workers and wanted to do good and just did everything.

Q: A once in a lifetime opportunity.

CDR Shaw: Yes.

Q: Did you go back for Rita, I’m just curious?

CDR Shaw: I stayed through Rita. One of the things we started noticing was that there was another hurricane coming. We were completely isolated from the news. One; I didn’t have time, and two; we had no communications, so we didn’t have the news. But when we found out there was this other hurricane coming we started tracking it and my job as the planning branch was to plan the evacuation of these 400 people. So now we had all these people here. We had a whole infrastructure; showers, berthing, food, we had all this, but now another hurricane was coming in so we had to evacuate. So I had to come up with a plan of, “Where we’re going to put these? Who are we going to leave back to continue operations?” The idea was to send them to Alexandria but we realized half of the hurricane would go right back to Alexandria and most of the people were in trailers so we didn’t want to send them to that so we ended up sending them to ATC Mobile. So we evacuated, I think it was 300 people and we kept a core of 32 or 33 people at the station. So Russ and I stayed there and actually that was the calmest it was when everyone was gone. Actually it was very nice. And as soon as the hurricane passed; Rita passed, we brought everybody back and reestablished camp. At that point we were able to start bringing more people back from Alexandria who held the jobs that we were really doing and as they were able to come back . . . another thing; that was real tough because as people came back they were the people who lived there . . .

Q: Right.

CDR Shaw: . . . who had houses that were destroyed and who evacuated. Now they didn’t evacuate and go on vacation. They evacuated and were working 12-hour days at Alexandria so they haven’t had a break yet. So now they come back and see the destruction of their house and everything. Everything is just in upheaval and they’re tired and we tell them, “Okay, you’re taking over our job. Hit the deck running at a hundred percent.” That’s what we expected. And after the first day we realized that was not going to happen. That was a big mental shift for a lot of the people who were responding because they figured, “Okay, all the work’s done. Everyone’s come back. I can go home.” But they couldn’t because the people coming back were not in a position to start work again because their homes were . . . mentally they’re tired, physically they’re tired, and now their house or their family . . . they couldn’t operate at a hundred percent. So there was a big difference in the mentality of the people that I had with me than the people who came back. And I’m not going to be unfair and say they were only operating at 50 percent. There was good reason why they were operating at 50 percent. But the guys I had were operating at 100 percent and were starting to get tired and they resented the guys coming in who had replaced them and were not working as hard as they were. So it took a couple of days for us to work through that and explain things to both the incoming guys and the outgoing guys why there was a difference and that we all had the same goal, we just needed to work better together.

Q: They were looking for their cars and homes and families.

CDR Shaw: Yes, and once we told them . . . and another thing is, as they stopped rescuing, because all the people were out of the city now, we would have only a couple rescues a day, pretty soon only one rescue a day, and then there would be no rescues. Then there were 400 people and the emphasis changed to, for me, “What am I going to do with 400 people to keep them employed? I can’t have them sitting down in a trailer all day. They’re here to do work and if they’re not doing work I let them go.” But I did need some of them because you can’t . . . someone’s got to clean the heads, someone’s got to take out the trash, someone’s got to do the janitorial work, so there’s a lot of work. So there were some hard feelings with some of the guys when they said they volunteered to come save lives but now they were cleaning the heads. So we had to work through that and “No, you’re doing a good job. You’re supporting the people who are rescuing.” So we had to rotate and make sure people got time out on the boats to rescue and also shore time to help clean up. So that took a couple of days to work through, but again, once we sat everyone down and explained the goal and why we were doing things, that made things better.

Q: You had a lot on your plate there.

CDR Shaw: It was busy, but again it was very satisfying and a lot of fun.

Q: How long were you down there all together?

CDR Shaw: Thirty days.

Q: Thirty days, and you got there pretty quick too; about a week after.

CDR Shaw: Yes, just about a week after.

Q: Anything you’d do differently or you pretty much got it all?

CDR Shaw: No, I don’t know that there’s anything, because we did what . . . one thing for Russ and I that was very good; the captain who . . . there were two captains there; one from the Port Security Unit and he just managed his people. He didn’t get involved with the day-to-day operations or the planning, which is good because Russ and I could do what we thought needed to be done. And the O-6; the captain who was in charge of the base, he dealt with the O-6s and the admirals above us and the political and everything outside. The planning and the day-to-day operations we managed. A couple times he would say, “I need you to do this” or “I need to get involved with this”, but basically he left it up to us. So we did what we thought was the right thing. So that made it very, for us it was very good. We could do what we needed to do and what we thought was right. 

There were a couple little things that I wish we didn’t get involved with just because, but politically the admiral tells the captain, the captain tells us and we have to do it. But no, I don’t think there’s anything I would have done different.

Q: That was a great improvisation. It was the greatest challenge since World War II. It’s amazing.

CDR Shaw: I would have packed differently. I brought a bunch of civilian clothes.

Q: [Laughter]

CDR Shaw: You know I thought I was going to go out to dinner at night or something, but no.

Q: [Laughter] Well it’s just natural, that’s what you always do.

CDR Shaw: Yes.

Q: Alright.  Anything else you want to mention?

CDR Shaw: No.

Q: Alright, I appreciate your time. Thanks an awful lot Commander.

CDR Shaw: Sure.


Last Modified 1/12/2016