Katrina Archival & Historical Record Team (KART)
CDR Robert Tarantino
Interview Length: 1:01:33
CDR Tarantino has extensive experience as an operator in the USCG. His orders were to “take tactical control of the Coast Guard units on scene and facilitate evacuation from New Orleans.” Spencer provided not only command and control, but logistical support as well for 22 USCG units. Ship moored in the vicinity of the River Walk. The city was generally dark and quiet at night with the exception of some occasional gunfire. The ship also engaged in some barter, fixing AC units in exchange for water from a barge. Spencer was involved in moving approximately 6,000 people from St. Bernard’s Parish to Algiers. Spencer did send armed LE detachments ashore for coordination. The ship still needed to be adequately manned in order to move her and to fight fires. Spencer also interacted with the nearby USS Tortuga.
Quote: “The guys who were the first on the scene did some phenomenal stuff.”
Q: Commander Sir, if you could give your name and spell your last name please.
CDR Tarantino: Sure. It’s Rob Tarantino; T-A-R-A-N-T-I-N-O.
Q: Okay, and you are the . . . ?
CDR Tarantino: Commanding Officer of Coast Guard Spencer.
Q: And could you give me sort of a paragraph on your career to this point; are you Academy, OCS? How did you get to this point in the Coast Guard?
CDR Tarantino: I graduated from the Academy in 1987 and all of my tours thus far have been either operational on cutters or operational staff supporting cutters. I was on cutter Acushnet out of Gulfport, Mississippi; followed by XO of cutter Chincoteague out of Mobile, Alabama; PAC Area Operations Center duty; followed by CO of Long Island out of Monterey, California; followed by PAC Area Operational Forces Cutter Management Section; followed by, I had a one year tour as operational analysis for PAC Area and then XO of cutter Seneca; followed by District One Operational Planning and Readiness; followed by cutter Spencer.
Q: So are you from the West Coast originally?
CDR Tarantino: No, I grew up in Connecticut.
Q: Oh, okay. So you finally got back after they . . . . [chuckle]?
CDR Tarantino: After, yes, four years on the Gulf Coast, eight years in California and now I’m coming up on just turning six years in Boston.
Q: I noticed reports that you had been up the pass into New Orleans before. When did you do that?
CDR Tarantino: In 1990 I was XO of Chincoteague and we had been in New Orleans several times before usually going up MRGO, which is Mississippi River Gulf Outlet or working our way up to Bollinger Shipyard. But in 1990 we went to Mardi Gras as one of the Coast Guard visiting ships and we decided to go up Southwest Pass, so we went up Southwest Pass in 1990.
Q: And this time I would guess that things looked a little bit different when you came upriver?
CDR Tarantino: Well it was very different. In fact one of the biggest . . . there were two real significant changes. One was when I went up in February - it’s after the rains - and there’s about a five knot current and I expected a five knot current coming down the Mississippi River, which would have some navigational challenges. A 270 doesn’t handle very well in the current.
Q: Why is that?
CDR Tarantino: Certainly going into them we’re fine and actually going down current we’re okay, but if we had to turn or something and then trying to bring this bow through a five-knot current is very tricky. It doesn’t do it very well.
Q: Was that complicated also; I would imagine you really didn’t have a lot of visibility, and what was in the river at this point?
CDR Tarantino: You know we expected a lot of debris. We saw some. We were more concerned about what we couldn’t see in the river than what we could see.
Q: Do you have sonar or a depth sounder?
CDR Tarantino: We do have typical depth sounders but you know in the river with all the sediment in the river . . .
Q: It wouldn’t have made a lot of difference anyway?
CDR Tarantino: . . . they don’t do very well, and at that point if it’s underneath you . . .
Q: It’s too late.
CDR Tarantino: . . . it’s already too late. The other difference was that there was nobody else on the river. I mean there were a couple of small tugs but the first time I was up the river you had all the normal commercial traffic and this time there was no commercial traffic. It was us and a couple of small tugs that we saw. And then of course the almost complete lack of navigational aids.
Q: You could see that they were out?
CDR Tarantino: They just didn’t exist. I mean they were marked on the chart and they were gone.
CDR Tarantino: And also the pilots that we had onboard, you know we conferred with them as to what we would expect and see and they’d say, “Yes, there should be an aid here. There’s one marked on the chart but there’s nothing.”
Q: Did you see any floating ATNs or nothing had broken loose?
CDR Tarantino: We saw remnants of ATN but we didn’t see any floating. We saw a very large oil spill; a thick oil spill, dead animals, alligators, and that was about it; a couple barges sunk in the river and a couple of commercial guys that were anchored pretty much in the middle of the channel.
Q: Yes. You arrived in New Orleans I believe on the 1st?
CDR Tarantino: It was the evening of the 1st, yes.
Q: And what did you find when you got there?
CDR Tarantino: Well when we showed up - and I’m not sure that outside of a very small group of people this is widely known - but we showed up and our direction was to take tactical control of the Coast Guard units on-scene and facilitate the evacuations from New Orleans.
Q: Take it from whom?
CDR Tarantino: Coast Guard cutter Pamlico. Chief Warrant Officer Dave Lewald was the senior guy on-scene and they said, “Okay, go up there, take tactical control of all the units and do good things.” Well when we showed up there we had just anchored and we hadn’t even secured from anchor detail and Mr. Lewald came onboard and he looked at me and the first words out of his mouth were, “We are so glad you’re here.” And of course we welcomed him onboard and then we went into Combat and he gave me a brief about what they had been doing and it was just phenomenal. There were Coast Guard personnel from about 14 different units. Many of the Coast Guard Coasties that were there just had the uniforms that they had on their backs. They were short on supplies. They were short on not only supplies for food and everything else but they didn’t have any spare parts and for about two or three days before we got there they had actually set up an evacuation site. They had worked with local officials on the Algiers side. They had worked with local officials down at Chalmette, St. Bernard Parish, and they were taking people from St. Bernard Parish over to Algiers, sometimes on Coast Guard cutters but usually a tug and a barge and a ferry. They were providing them medical care. They were providing food. They were providing the security. They basically had set up themselves a complete process for moving people and we followed that same process for the next couple of days.
Q: I would imagine that these were folks also that had lost homes and . . .
CDR Tarantino: Many of them did. In fact many of them had not heard from their families or anything. Cell phone coverage was almost nonexistent. What we did, that night we asked them what were their immediate needs and a couple of small boats needed to be fixed and we set up teams here to fix that. But we did a collection of stuff; anybody with extra coveralls, shirts, whatever, we put together toiletry bags and everything else and a boat came alongside and we just started giving them everything that we could.
Q: Was there anything in your preparation that, from reading the After Action Report I got the sense that you were sort of, because ISC New Orleans was gone, that you were suddenly turned into a kind of floating ISC yourself?
CDR Tarantino: We were. We were not only the command and control but the support for 22 Coast Guard units and what we did was we capitalized on the experiences that we had onboard and we also shared everything that we had, whether that was parts or uniforms or anything.
Q: Did you have any sense that you were going to be acting in this capacity when you left Gitmo. Gitmo is not exactly, I would think, the best place to restock for a mission like this?
CDR Tarantino: Well actually I mean for Spencer we topped everything off that we possibly could. We also carry all of our AMIO supplies and those proved to be somewhat useful.
Q: And those include things like toiletry kits?
CDR Tarantino: Toiletry kits.
Q: First aid kits?
CDR Tarantino: First aid kits, baby formula; all of those things that we carry for AMIO. I mean really when you showed up there one of the eerie things that we saw was at night because normally in a city like that, you know, it’s just like daytime.
CDR Tarantino: Everything is so well lit up and along the river everything is so well lit up and there you have nighttime and the only lights that you saw was Spencer who we have lit ourselves up as much as we could, and then over by Algiers just off the dock where the riverboats spudded down, they had lights and that was it. And that was just a very eerie feeling and it was dead quiet aside from some gunshots in the background. I mean dead quiet.
Q: Do you have spotlights, searchlights you can light up?
CDR Tarantino: Yes we did and on occasion we did use them to light up Algiers if we were trying to work a little bit farther into the night. I wouldn’t say it was going into a third world but no water, no sewage, no power and minimal traffic on the river.
Q: Does that force you into a mode where you need to conserve your own fuel supplies not knowing when you might be able to get that stuff and water?
CDR Tarantino: Yes, fuel we were okay but on water we didn’t take showers. The only people we allowed to take showers were our cooks, our medical personnel and then the folks we sent ashore. You know they’re in all their LE gear and everything else, they come back and they just have sweat and salt stains all over them.
CDR Tarantino: One of the things; it wasn’t like a bartering system but it was making contact and you know some of the key things that we were able to do that I think proved us successful was that we could go out and make contacts. We had maneuverability and mobility that nobody else had. If you were on land you were locked but we could go up and down the river. We can go from points to points. We could make contact with folks, find out what they needed and find out what they had.
Q: You don’t have an ATV onboard that you can go scoot around on?
CDR Tarantino: No, but over on the Cajun Queen, which was the command post for Chalmette, St. Bernard Parish, they had lost their A/C and their generator and they were talking with the Coasties over there and they said, “Well Spencer just showed up and they probably have A/C&R guys over there. They can probably help you out.” But we said we sure could use some water and they had a water barge. So we sent a couple of our techs over there, fixed their A/C, fixed their generator and they sent their water barge over to us to top off our water tanks.
Q: So it was the improvised command center that they had set up there on the ferry?
CDR Tarantino: Yes, over on the ferry, and I think that was one of the, you know trying to get a handle on the dilemma that you had was that all the - and I’m guessing here – but they all set up command posts and everything else. Well when this happened probably the locations that they picked were probably underwater so not only was the infrastructure a problem but streets being flooded was a problem. But then where everybody was going to need all the things they had set up there probably weren’t accessible so they just made do.
Q: So they were working on the third annex of the emergency plan which nobody had planned for.
CDR Tarantino: Exactly. It’s just one of those at the last minute you go, “Sure, this is what we’ll do.”
Q: If you could give me a sense Sir, when you drop anchor in a river like that, well right now we’re sitting in the wardroom and we’ve got the hum from the main engines. Is that it I guess; the turbines are spinning right now?
CDR Tarantino: The mains aren’t lit off but we have the generators on.
Q: Would this same level of sound be heard when you’re moored; the generators would be running like this?
CDR Tarantino: Sure.
Q: But you could still hear things going on, on either side of the river?
CDR Tarantino: Sure, particularly up on the bridge. I mean you’ve got the ventilation going and everything.
Q: So what were you hearing?
CDR Tarantino: Sirens, some shots being fired.
Q: So you could actually hear those from the Spencer?
CDR Tarantino: Sure.
Q: Could you gauge or did you have a kind of watch to gauge the level of gunfire you were hearing?
CDR Tarantino: It was sporadic but when it happens it’s fairly obvious that that’s what’s happening.
Q: Was that a surprise coming into a, well I guess you wouldn’t be surprised coming into a major American city, but surprised that you’re coming into an emergency situation and was it on your radar screen coming up the river that you were going to be dealing with a kind of force protection issue?
CDR Tarantino: It was. We have satellite TV on here and although we don’t get it everywhere, really a day or so before we came into New Orleans we were able to pick up the news channels so we could have an indication of what we we’re coming in to and we had force protection set up on here. We always had a couple of roaming guards. This is one of the reasons why we didn’t moor; tie up, to the pier when we first got here.
Q: Was there anything tied up to the pier when you got there?
CDR Tarantino: No, but A: we didn’t want to have the issues of a mad rush of folks coming onboard the ship. B: we had security issues of potential violence but also to support the other units. The units we were supporting maintenance wise tied up on the starboard side and then we left the port side open for logistics and the transfer of folks.
Q: And I guess the next morning or next day there was an explosion near you?
CDR Tarantino: Yes. I’ll tell you, it was one of those scenarios where every five minutes something was changing and it was for two reasons; A: because it was incredibly dynamic, but B: because of information flow. You know you’d get information that was two hours old as it was relayed to you and then we’d make plans based upon that and then five minutes later you’d get updated information. But no, it was about 4:30 or 5:30 in the morning there was a huge explosion and it woke up some of the folks on the ship. And I went up to the bridge and you could see the flames and you could see as soon as it started to get light, very dark billowing smoke. And at first we were okay in that the smoke was going over the city and it was staying clear of us but we knew the wind would likely shift as the sun came up, and sure enough about 6:30 or so the wind started to shift a little bit to where it was coming closer to us. So we did a sortie of all Coast Guard units. We got underway and we went downriver. We tried to balance a couple issues there; one was our safety. If we took ourselves out of commission we couldn’t help anybody else. But two was; we were in a pretty good spot. We were right by the Riverwalk. We could see Algiers. We could support the Coast Guard units there. But Algiers was where we were evacuating everybody from and down in Chalmette was where we had other Coast Guard units. So we were in key spots and we wanted to maintain that as best we could but when the smoke started coming towards us we just had to move and later that day we were able to come back [chuckle]. The smoke shifted again and died down just a little bit.
Q: Were you able to get any kind of – and I imagine you were getting requests for this - situational awareness, intelligence, from what was going on in the city?
CDR Tarantino: Sure. We actually had an Intel specialist that came onboard and he was interviewing a lot of the Coasties. We sent him out to talk to the Coasties who were going off on land to either engage other command posts or doing search and rescue missions ashore.
Q: The Coast Guard Intel guy?
CDR Tarantino: The Coast Guard Intel guy, and he did some research on some force protection issues and things like that. We were feeding information as best we could but if you look at New Orleans there I think what we found was that the city of New Orleans was getting a lot of attention with FEMA, the National Guard, all of the other federal forces, but St. Bernard Parish was not and that was where we were focusing a lot of our efforts. Quite frankly it was just too confusing in New Orleans. There was a period the day before the mass evacuation occurred at the Convention Center where we had moved about 6,000 people from St. Bernard Parish.
Q: Over to Algiers.
CDR Tarantino: Over to Algiers onto buses and got them off. We had a process in place. We had hooked up with some National Guard folks and had plenty of water and MREs. There was a helicopter landing pad that we set up over there and helicopters could come in and take people off. And the day before the mass evacuation occurred from the Convention Center three times we sent the XO here over there to make contact with the command post to start moving people from New Orleans, and it was about 16:30 in the afternoon. We still had buses available. Our guys were dead tired. I mean this is about Day Five or Six for them. It’s hotter than you know what down there. The humidity is terrible. But we had buses there and it was the third time that day that the XO went over to the Convention Center area, engaged their command post and said, “Look, we’ve got boats that can move people. We’ve got buses over there waiting. I can move people from here over to there.”
Q: And you’re only what, a couple of blocks from the Convention Center?
CDR Tarantino: Well yes, not very far at all.
Q: They could have walked there if they wanted to.
CDR Tarantino: And with the security issues over there at that point they couldn’t help us. They could not get people for us to move. I mean if we could have continued to get buses we could have been moving all night; the 41-footers taking 20/30 people at a time and move them over.
Q: And it was just because the situation was so unsecure or were they just . . . ?
CDR Tarantino: Where the security folks were was secure but they had not yet gone into the Convention Center. They didn’t have a process. Over in Chalmette they had a warehouse. The local officials were in charge. People came in. They checked in. They got them coordinated. They moved them down to the ferry terminal. They got onboard a ferry. They moved over. We had total control over it. Over on the New Orleans side they didn’t have that yet.
Q: So there was basically nobody in charge of the Convention Center?
CDR Tarantino: Yes, I mean there was somebody in charge but there was still confusion. I mean every day, every hour, things got better but we were ahead of the curve in terms of that and it’s unfortunate that we couldn’t move more people, but you know they had a big problem over there [chuckle]. I mean there were tens of thousands of people. I don’t know what the final number was but it was tough for them to get a handle on it.
Q: Yes. How big of a security detail are you able to constitute from your crew? I would imagine like most cutters you’re probably not plussed up to your full strength when you arrive on-scene. Can you establish a kind of shore patrol?
CDR Tarantino: Well we have around 20 or so qualified boarding team members. We have more qualified on weapons.
Q: As part of the regular crew?
CDR Tarantino: As part of the regular crew. We did two things. We augmented the Coast Guard forces over in Algiers with law enforcement personnel; A: giving them a little bit of a break because they had been working very long hours. But then we also put together about a six to seven man team that we would send ashore to make contact with other command posts. And then we also put together humanitarian teams, so rather than trying to have the security guys provide humanitarian support we augmented so the humanitarian teams really focused on the medical care and helping the folks. So we were able to, all told, probably 50 percent of the crew ended up leaving the ship. At any given time we had probably between 20 to 30 folks off, which was a challenge in that we had to be prepared to move the ship and in fact we had to move the ship when we had a significant number of people offshore.
Q: How were your communications like with them; did they have VHF?
CDR Tarantino: VHF radios. They kept in contact either directly or through a relay with somebody else. There were times when they were out of communications. But when we decided who was going to leave the ship we knew that we had to, A: be able to fight a main space fire onboard the ship here and we had to have the fire teams onboard, and B: we had to be able to move the ship.
Q: And how many folks does that require?
CDR Tarantino: Well it requires qualified folks for those teams.
Q: How many qualified folks do you have?
CDR Tarantino: I mean normally if we fight a main space fire onboard and we’ve got 100 people there are jobs for 100 people.
CDR Tarantino: But we kept between 60 to 70 people onboard and we could provide security. We could do helicopter operations. We could fight a main space fire and we could move the ship and we couldn’t do all of them at the same time . . .
CDR Tarantino: . . . but that was 60 to 70 people we kept onboard.
Q: At some point you liaised with the Navy base there to tie up or conduct operations out of there. Did you have any issues with those folks?
CDR Tarantino: Yes, we did have some issues with them. When we had to move because of that fire, the smoke was filled over Algiers which was our evacuation site. Well now we had to move, which was okay, but now we didn’t have a location to take these people to. So the XO went ashore to NSA West Bank to engage their commanding officer and say, “This is what we want to do.”
Q: Would that be a commander or a captain?
CDR Tarantino: I think it was a captain. They were agreeable to providing support to Coast Guard units. They were not agreeable to us bringing people onboard; on the base, to evacuate off. The XO was very adamant about it but he equally said, “No.” We talked to Sector New Orleans though; Commander Kurt Van Horn. I talked to him about it and they started working the issue from the other end. About four hours later when the smoke changed direction and we could open up Algiers again and we were actually reestablishing Algiers, the Navy actually called us up and said, “Yes, you can bring people over here”, although at that point it became a mute point because we could move folks over.
CDR Tarantino: Other aspects; we worked with the USS Tortuga. They provided some logistical support for us allowing the 41-footers to moor in their well deck and allowing the Coasties to berth on there, showers; just anything that they could provide. They were very, very good in that regard.
Q: What are they compared to the Spencer; what was the Tortuga?
CDR Tarantino: It’s like an LHD.
Q: Was the CO of the . . . ?
CDR Tarantino: He’s a commander.
Q: He was a commander.
CDR Tarantino: He was a commander CO. I mean they’ve got a . . . you know it’s a lot bigger than the Spencer. It’s probably 500 feet long. They have a very large helo deck and a couple hundred people onboard. They had SEALs onboard. They have their Mike boats that they could put down to go into the city and search for survivors. They had SEALs onboard. I mean they just bring a huge capability.
Q: Yes. Were you called upon to act as a relay point for information for D-8? Everybody was at . . . because where was Sector New Orleans at this point; were they still in Alexandria?
CDR Tarantino: Alexandria.
Q: So they’re 90/100 miles away and D-8 is in St. Louis. How much information were you being asked for and how much could you provide to them? It sounds like you guys were the only people who had really any kind of situational awareness and that you also had the capability of transmitting this information.
CDR Tarantino: I think we basically became a sub-sector for them. We didn’t have much interaction with the district. We had a lot of interaction with the sector. We had VHF comms with them. We had INMARSAT and about a day or two into it we had e-mail connectivity with them. We were also sending them message traffic. We basically replaced them on the river, not to the full extent that they could do but we were the Coast Guard presence on-scene. So any commercial traffic, we stood up the VTS on our bridge and we were operating a VTS, getting calls about river status and getting permission to move. A lot of “M” related activity came up but our chain of command went from us to the sector and that’s who we dealt with mostly.
Q: Did it surprise you that the river tenders really had no ability to communicate with anybody?
CDR Tarantino: Well it surprised me. VHF comms were a problem. Primarily the biggest problem was frequency management because you had a lot of helicopters talking to all the rescue swimmers and the last thing we wanted to do was get between the helicopter pilot and his rescue swimmer. And frequencies started, I mean there were helicopters on every frequency you can think of. There was also commercial traffic on a lot of Coast Guard working frequencies. The fact that we couldn’t go to the DES coded frequencies where we could talk secure was a problem.
Q: What is DES?
CDR Tarantino: The MCX-1000. You know there is an AM 32 . . . .
Q: And river tenders don’t have any of that stuff.
CDR Tarantino: They don’t have any of that. They just have the regular frequencies. It was a challenge. It made things difficult. But those . . . I’ll tell you, the guys that were on-scene, they did phenomenal stuff. I mean if you haven’t interviewed Chief Warrant Officer Lewald or Senior Chief Noyes . . . .
Q: I know we’ve gotten Noyes, yes. I don’t know if we’ve gotten Lewald yet.
CDR Tarantino: Yes, just great guys. I mean before we got there they were literally on their own. The sector hadn’t stood up. They didn’t have good comms. They were literally on their own. One of the . . . after the first day . . . .
Q: And the Pamlico and those other vessels staged out of ISC New Orleans, typically is that where they were . . . ?
CDR Tarantino: Well there were units there from ANT Dulac, Gulfport, everywhere.
Q: And they just sort of rendezvoused there.
CDR Tarantino: They rendezvoused there.
CDR Tarantino: One of the funny periods for me, it was after the first day and it was about 1700 and I went over; after the XO came back I went off the ship to go meet with our guys over there and talk to the troops but then touch base with all the COs that were over there to see what went well, what we could do better and come up with a plan the next day, and I had spent most of the day onboard the ship here so I was back in Combat or up on the bridge listening to the radio and it was a madhouse, just an absolute madhouse. And so I went over there and I said, “I think we could do better with this, this and this, and command and control is still an issue; establishing good comms and everything”, and Mr. Lewald looked at me and he goes, “Oh no, today was great. It was the best day yet”, and I just laughed. I said, “Really”, and he goes, “Oh, you guys were awesome. You were talking with the sector. You guys were coordinating this and doing this”, and I mean I knew our guys were doing a bang up job, but just getting a handle on everything and every five minutes something is changing and we’re getting requests for things for, “Can you transport some state troopers over here”, and “Can you do this and can you do this”, and just massive amounts of information, some conflicting information, so you had to, you know, “What really was it”, and everything, and it was a madhouse. I mean the radio is going full blast all the time, several frequencies, things are changing all the time, and he said, “This was the best day yet”, and I said, “Great” [Chuckle]. And the next day got better and the next got better as well.
Q: Had you had much exposure to that construction tender/river tender side of the Coast Guard before this operation?
CDR Tarantino: You know I hadn’t. I had some exposure to small boat operations being at the 1st District post-9/11. I got there three weeks before 9/11. You know I was always a cutter guy; patrol boats and MECs, and after 9/11 very much operations became harbor-centric, you know port-centric; small boats, MSSTs. So from a planning perspective I learned a lot more about how small boats operate, their limitations and everything else. So when I went over there and I met with the COs over there I think I could talk in terms that they understood. I could talk to them about crew rotations, setting up a sustainable level; you know how we were going to fix the boats and everything else. But the river tenders were unique but highly capable. I would say some of the most innovative guys that we have. And not only that but very knowledgeable when it comes to the river and local knowledge; they had local knowledge, and not only that but they talked with the locals everyday. And when they would go over to a command post they knew what tact to take. They knew how to come over there. We were, I think, well received everywhere we went because the Coasties, you know I didn’t have to tell them this stuff. When they showed up they told them who they were. They told them how to get a hold of us and they asked, “What do you need?” And we were able to find out that this command post really needed some more water but we also could make contact with the National Guard and they would give us pallets of water. So we could solve problems for other people. We can put two and two together and come up with four. And all of those different command posts, whether it was a National Guard truck driving around looking for something to do or the helicopters or the command post, or the state police, they were all on their own and I think one of the values that we added was with that mobility we could A: go from point to point but we could start putting things together.
Q: And you hosted - speaking of the National Guard - the Army hosted General Honoree at some point.
CDR Tarantino: General Honoree came onboard the second day we were there, so the day of the explosion. He came onboard, brought the entourage onboard, and used our INMARSAT phone. We fed him lunch; fed his whole crew lunch. He brought with him a couple of young ladies with a couple of very small children, I’d say less than six months old, for some medical care, actually brought them in here where it was cool. We got them out of the heat, fed them some baby formula and then we were able to Medivac them off with that. He left after about an hour onboard. We didn’t see him again. Again, I think that New Orleans centric aspect of what they were doing and I’m sure he was one of the busiest guys in New Orleans.
We hosted quite a few different folks onboard. Sometimes it was just giving them a meal or transporting them. At one point there was, one of the fire boats that was fighting a fire just all of sudden came alongside and said, “We need some medical help.” One of their guys fell down and hurt his shoulder and the Corpsman went out there and took a look at the guy. I mean something was literally going on every five minutes.
And I think one of the things that I had talked to the CO that relieved me on the Harriet Lane; one of the things that was very noticeable to me was, you know we have rigid structures on a ship of how we do things. I mean COs Standing Orders are in place. There’s a lot of things that under normal circumstances a CO is requested permission of or notified of and very early on it was obvious that we were going to have to adapt to that and we had our operations officer in Combat, the XO was ashore, I was on the bridge or ashore, and very much the guys stepped up to the plate; the OODs, they made the right decisions. They notified me when they could but they also understood that even the Standing Orders say, “When you need to do something for safety of life you do it and then you find me”, and really everybody stepped up to the plate. It was phenomenal to see that and not that we would expect anything different. On-scene decision-making by everybody ashore, by our boarding teams that we sent ashore to make contact, you know they grew up very, very quickly. I have one of the ensigns onboard; Ensign Lynch, who . . . now get this, he just graduated from MLE school. He’s been on boardings before. He just graduated from MLE School. The XO is over at NSA West Bank and I tell Mr. Lynch, “Okay, get your boarding team together. I want you to go over here to make contact with this command post, find out what they’re doing, yada, yada, yada”, and you know you can see the trepidation on him, you know he’s really nervous. And we talked about risk management. We talked about security and everything. By 2 o’clock that afternoon he’s figured it out. He’s figured out how to control that worry. He’s figured out how to keep control of his guys and it’s like he grew up ten years in six hours.
Q: Is it typical when you send an officer on a boarding party like that that they’ve got a sidearm?
CDR Tarantino: All of them were fully outfitted with law enforcement equipment.
Q: The character of the folks that were being transported, it sounds like from your report that most of these folks were elderly? Did you get a chance to eyeball the folks you were evacuating yourself?
CDR Tarantino: I saw a couple but there was . . . it changed everyday. I’ll give you an example. The first day we were there I think we moved close to 2,000 people. The majority of them were able bodied. They were able to get to the evacuation site. They were tired. They were hungry. There were some medical issues but they were the first ones there to leave. As the days wore on - and I think the last day of mass evacuations we had we moved 750 people - over 50 percent were elderly and could not help themselves and I think that was hard on our guys, I mean emotionally handling that. They did it very well but I think by Day Three you had some able bodied folks that had hunkered down and then finally said, “Okay, it’s time to get out of here.” They could move themselves. They could walk themselves. They were hungry. They were tired. They were hot. And then you had the folks that rescued people; got around to them. They couldn’t help themselves and they were being moved. And then you probably had an element of some folks there that were the criminal element.
Q: Sure. How many Corpsmen do you have onboard?
CDR Tarantino: One, but we have a couple of the EMTs and they hooked up with . . . there was a volunteer nurse that was over in Algiers. There were some doctors over in Chalmette. The state police were there. I mean they pooled their resources and worked together to get everything done they could.
Q: You mentioned the criminal element. Did you have much Intel on gang activity in the city and did that affect your operations?
CDR Tarantino: It affected how willing we were to send folks farther inshore and I’ll give you an example. The D-9 ICE rescue boat team came in. Crackerjack guys; very capable, very motivated, very sharp Coasties, and they showed up in the afternoon and that night I met with the officer in charge; the master chief from D-9, and they were ready to go. And I actually had to tone them down a little bit and say, “Look.” At that point we did not have a grid map. We didn’t know what areas had been searched. We didn’t know what areas were secure. We didn’t have very good comms so we couldn’t just send them off. And it took us about a day to where we made contact with the right people in New Orleans and actually found the guy with the grid map. They hooked up with the 82nd Airborne folks and actually went out in a planned methodology to go places. But we certainly didn’t want to send them some place where it had all big red “X”s on it and said, “Don’t go there”, because it just wasn’t secure.
CDR Tarantino: So I think in that regard, you know you’ve got to send seven people, eight people to go make contact with the command center. Well that was because of security issues. If we didn’t we could have sent two people. So I think it restricted it in some ways on how willing we were able to expand our . . . .
Q: At what level of comfort were you at with your shore parties; did you specify, given the security situation, how many folks you wanted to travel together or a minimum number that had to travel together?
CDR Tarantino: Yes. Well we had a minimum of about five or seven folks depending upon where they were going. The XO was our primary guy that we would send ashore so in many cases it was just left up to his judgment on how many folks he needed and every day we would change that as they needed to. But it was certainly a full boarding team depending upon where they went. And once they found out the lay of the land, you know found out where the command posts were, found out where the security was, they would talk to those security folks on what areas were secure so they would then know where they were relatively safe or not.
Q: Sure. Do you have as part of your normal operations, use class/unclass chat rooms in your CIC?
CDR Tarantino: Yes, we have a classified chat. We don’t have unclass chat.
Q: Did any of the Coast Guard platforms; any of these, what, 20 or 21, did any of them have that capability?
CDR Tarantino: No. I mean the MECs that were offshore doing boardings, we had chat with them. We had chat with Area.
Q: So even when you’re in New Orleans you could chat with Area?
CDR Tarantino: Oh yes. In the Comm section area you saw some stuff there that would have been improved. But you know there was internal Coast Guard comms and certainly there are improvements there, you know being able to talk to the river tenders on . . . .
Q: Although I’ve been told that they sort of like leaving the dock.
CDR Tarantino: [Chuckle] Exactly. When they leave the dock they’re on their own. There was the internal comms issue but also it was the external comms, not Coast Guard to external but you had a command post that an hour a day they got cell phone coverage and they’d be able to talk to somebody. So that was probably more impacting to the overall operation than it was Coast Guard comms.
Q: I’d like to ask you a couple of just follow-ups. Anything about this operation surprise you and what about your own career prepared you, do you think, for this kind of sort of overall coordinating role?
CDR Tarantino: Well let me take the second question first; what prepared me personally? I think in the operations that I’ve been involved with on a patrol boat, first taking those. I was involved with some Chinese migrant cases on the West Coast and in one of them there was a 378, a 210, a 180 and a couple of patrol boats, very large case. There was rioting going on. There were some midnight raids that had to be conducted. There was another AIMO case where it was us. I was out of Long Island in the Tybee and we were 300 miles from San Diego with a vessel with a hundred migrants onboard and it was just us. Adapting to those situations was, I think, it wasn’t on the scale but I think adapting to the realities of, “We were on our own. We had what we had and we needed to make sure that our folks were safe but the mission was also completed.” I think early on as a lieutenant those experiences helped me. From a command and control perspective I think XO of an MEC when I was on Seneca I had the pleasure of being the prototype; we were the prototype for the HITRON. I had to have two covers; two boats, two helicopters.
Q: When were you onboard the Seneca?
CDR Tarantino: From ’99 to 2001.
Q: You weren’t there when Captain Karonas was there?
CDR Tarantino: Yes, he was CO for the first year, yes.
Q: He was my captain after 9/11.
CDR Tarantino: Yes, he’s a great guy.
Q: He was the guy who was really responsible for us writing the history of 9/11 when he was there.
CDR Tarantino: Yes, a very good guy and he was a great CO. I loved every minute working for him. And one of my duties there was when we sent two Over-the-Horizon RHIBs out I was the boat officer in charge of both. They said, “We’re sending these guys 40 miles out, use of force issues, taking down the Go Fast. You’ve got the helicopters and you’ve got the boarding teams but we want somebody looking at the big picture out there, understanding the legal issues, the use of force issues and the policy issues”, so they sent me out there. So we had a couple of cases. We’re 40 miles over the horizon, you know pretty much on our own and I think that helped.
CDR Tarantino: Again, not to the scale but the realities of you have security issues but you also have the operational issues, but you’re also on your own and there are comms problems.
From a shipboard perspective I think your typical Coast Guard patrol for an MEC, whether its fisheries or drugs or migrant, it’s always changing. There are dynamics there that are always occurring. One minute you’re doing a drug case, the next thing you know you’re on a SAR case, the next thing you know you’re taking somebody in tow. That’s something else. You’ve got helicopter ops 24; you know the possibility of helo ops at any time. You have casualties on the ship. You’re also doing training. You’re doing main space fire drills. You’re doing gun shoots. So the typical atmosphere, again not to scale, but your typical atmosphere on an MEC underway is its very busy, it’s always changing, you’re doing different things, and it always takes the whole crew to do it. You’re set up with teams onboard a ship. So when we then went into this operation, “Okay, you’ve got a combat team, you’ve got a bridge team, they’re working together, they normally do. Okay, you’ve got an engineering team. We’re putting together this. We’re putting together that.” So I think all the fundamentals were there in adapting to a circumstance because that’s what we do all the time. I think also the diversity of background and experience that you have on an MEC. I mean you’ve got a hundred people on here. Unfortunately we didn’t have a lot of folks [chuckle] that had served in New Orleans but we had small boat guys, we have LE guys, you’ve got engineers, you’ve got electricians, you’ve got electronics technicians, you’ve got computer guys.
Q: Did you put a message streaming out of Gitmo for anybody who had lived in New Orleans or knew the area?
CDR Tarantino: On our crew we did survey a lot of folks who had small boat experience, who had VTS experience, who had New Orleans experience.
You know I wanted to get back to one of the things we did for the other Coasties. We had guys sleeping on 41-footers for days. We brought them onboard here. They took a shower. They got a rack. We set up e-mail accounts so they could e-mail their wives, their families, and just say, “Hey, we’re okay.” We coordinated a Medivac, or not Medivac but we coordinated an evacuation for an XPO whose wife, the baby had dropped. She had been evacuated. She was up at one of the evacuation sites and she was going to have a baby at any minute and we got the XO off. There was a lot of that human stuff going on. We had the CISM guys in; the Critical Incident Stress Management folks. We got those guys who came in and talked with the Coasties. So there was a lot of that going on.
I know I’m rambling on here. But getting back to what prepared us. The day to day stuff that we do, it’s not to scale but I think it really sets the mindset. And I think the other thing is, is that, you know there’s that old phrase, “A complaining sailor” usually you don’t say that word, but, “A complaining sailor is a happy sailor.”
Q: Sure. Usually it’s Marine [chuckle].
CDR Tarantino: But I think there’s something that any successful Coastie . . . there’s a switch that we have and we all know when that switch needs to be turned, and for seven days you could not find anybody to complain about anything because all the things that kind of bother you; the hardships of being afloat, you’re missing your families and everything else, you know you turn that switch to get the job done. Folks going with a lot less sleep, folks having to do more than they ever had to do before but they do it without complaint and I think that’s something that when the SAR alarm goes off on a small boat station they flip the switch.
Q: So that’s sort of ingrained in the culture, do you think?
CDR Tarantino: I think . . . .
Q: Because I’ve heard that from a lot of folks that the only way that you can get through your day to day job is that you’ve got to compartmentalize and put that to one side.
CDR Tarantino: Exactly. And I think, you know I’ve had follow-up discussions with Dave Lewald and while I was down there we talked about, “How is it that we got to where they collectively; 14 different Coast Guard units, 22 different units, how is it that you manage to combine all that and just get it done?” And you know I think the level of decision-making and risk management, I think the progress that we’ve made in risk management and the natural way that we delegate authority helps because we don’t tell our people how to do things, we give them a mission. You know the officer in charge of the Greenbrier – and his name escapes me - but when we set up our command post and how we were going to do things, we took the Greenbrier and I just told the officer in charge, “Go over to Chalmette. You’re our contact there. Support the D-9 boat guys and engage the command center. Do good things.” I didn’t have to go on to anymore. He was fully capable and prepared to go over, decide all the logistical issues, figure out who he was going to talk to, how he was going to manage his people. He knew if he needed anything he could call. He knew if there was something urgent he could call. We didn’t have to go into anything further and I think the same can be said for our small boat guys and when we send a small boat somewhere or when we send a boarding team somewhere. We don’t have to tell them how to do it; we have to give them a mission. And when they have a clear mission they figure out how to get it done and they make the decisions on-scene, and I think when they feel overwhelmed on-scene they’re willing to stand up and say it and not feel that they’re going to be called names or thought anything else of.
CDR Tarantino: I know with Senior Chief Noyes, it’s like Day Five that I was there, so this guy has been going with his crew for eight days and we were making the last logistics run and I was talking to him about how things were going and where we were going, and he looked at me and he said, “I think I’ve hit the wall”, and I said, “Okay, as soon as we’re done here you’re tied up for 24 hours. That’s it.”
Q: And can you give that to a, in that situation, can you, if you had to or wanted to, can you give that as . . . is that the type of force of a direct order?
CDR Tarantino: It was a direct order.
CDR Tarantino: It was definitely a direct order. And in fact then we had the guys; the officer in charge from D-9, we said, “Okay, you’re the command and control on the 55-footer. You man the radio. Those guys are going to sleep”, and they said, “Roger out, no problem.” No, it carried the full weight of a direct order. But you know he was willing to push his guys. He knew his own limitations. But when he got to that point he was willing to stand up and say, “You know what, I’ve had enough. I’m tired. It’s getting to the point where we need serious rest.” He didn’t get an argument from me. It was, “Roger that Senior Chief, you’re down for 24 hours”. And I think over the past years, I mean I don’t think 18 years ago when I came in it was quite like that. I think over the past ten years we’ve made a lot a of progress in that where he was willing to do what it took and to push himself but when he hit that limit he was able to stand up and when he said it I knew that was what needed to be done.
Q: I want to ask you this. Since you were probably the only person or sort of platform in that immediate area that had both sort of a television view, media view of what was going on in New Orleans and you were yet right in the middle of it so you had some awareness of the reality versus what the rest of the country was seeing, was there a difference?
CDR Tarantino: A huge difference. I think the federal government got a bad rap. I would say that for the units on-scene, everybody that we engaged with, everybody was helping each other out tremendously. I think the difficulty that existed was that A: the damage covered such a huge area, and B: the infrastructure that the locals would normally use was gone. So when the federal government came in they didn’t come into a scenario where . . . certainly not through a lack of effort. I mean the locals had their backs against the wall. They were working very hard. But instead of coming into where the federal government could come in and say, “Okay, we had the drill last year. We had this planned. We’ve got everything set up and it’s a matter of logistics”, it was more a matter of getting a handle on what needed to be done.
CDR Tarantino: And whether it was the DOD folks that showed up. I went to the Iwo Jima and met with their ops boss. We had a liaison officer; CDR Scrabao over at the Iwo Jima. We met with the Tortuga. We were working with the National Guard and the 82nd Airborne. We had some Seals. We had state police. We had fire. We had Fish and Game. We had fireboats. I mean everybody there was working together very well, but getting a handle on everything was the challenge. I’m sure there were mistakes that were made in terms of decisions made as far as, “This goes over there. No, we don’t need them anymore, we need it to go over here”, but I think it was well over-exaggerated as to the problems that existed. It was just a huge area; a massive area, that needed assistance.
Q: Now that you’ve had a little bit of time to look back on it what do you take from this as you move forward in your career?
CDR Tarantino: Well it was a heck of a first patrol to start [chuckle].
Q: I was kind of surprised when they said, “Well you’ve got to interview the CO of the Spencer. I said, “The Spencer’s in Boston. What were they doing in New Orleans [chuckle]?
CDR Tarantino: Yes. You know I had sent an e-mail. Just the other day I sent some notes to the XO and CO of Sector New Orleans about Chief Warrant Officer Lewald and Senior Chief Noyes. I want to make sure that they get the recognition that they deserve. But I said, “The last place I expected to be was in New Orleans on an MEC out of Boston.” I added a little note that I hoped to be there again for Mardi Gras. Yes, the first patrol, I mean we started off doing helicopter operations with MSST and we did HITRON workups and then we JIATF. We were involved with a couple of drug cases and our four port-calls had changed and we were going to do an operation off of Jamaica and a whole bunch of other things, and next thing you know we’re in New Orleans, a heck of a first patrol. I think from just a purely Spencer standpoint I take great gratification in knowing that when the ship was challenged everybody stepped up to the plate. You know you always have areas of weakness that you’re trying to combat. You always have new people. You’re trying to get them qualified. You’ve got to get them trained. Some of the operations we do are tricky. Trying to figure out the fisheries rules is not always easy. But when push came to shove it’s very gratifying to know that the crew, as one unit, came together and did what needed to be done.
From a personal standpoint I’d say two things: one, it was kind of neat to be able to come back to Boston and to engage the other Coasties that were up here. I talked to the D-1 CO’s conference about what we saw and it’s been nice, not from an ego standpoint but from an operational standpoint, something that hopefully doesn’t happen for a long time, but how do you capitalize on those things on a daily basis?
CDR Tarantino: So that’s been rewarding. It’s been nice to share with friends and neighbors the realities of what it is we do. And from a professional standpoint I think it’s gratifying to know that all those things that I had done for 18 years ahead of time, whether being involved with the operation or planning the operation or coordinating the operation, that they all came together. They all come together when you have an operation like that, whether it’s a mass migration from Haiti or Cuba or the Dominican Republic . . .
Q: Or New Orleans [chuckle].
CDR Tarantino: . . . or New Orleans or whatever, it’s gratifying to know that you have the building blocks throughout a career. And for the guys that were onboard here; the ensigns that were onboard here; the junior petty officers that are onboard here, you know that’s going to go with them and that’s going to help them down the road. They won’t get the same experience but there are going to be other things that come up that they can fall back on. It was a great operation. It was fantastic to be able to help those people, to work with all the other Coasties that we worked with. They were just fantastic. You know hopefully it’s a once in a lifetime deal because you hate to see that type of devastation placed on anybody but if it ever happens again it’s nice to know that we have a role to play and that’s pretty phenomenal.
Q: Captain Sir, I want to thank you.
CDR Tarantino: Oh, well thank you.
END OF INTERVIEW