Multistate Guard Teams Help in Katrina Search Effort
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
GULFPORT, Miss., Sept. 14, 2005 Hurricane Katrina has emphasized the word "national" in National Guard.
An Air National Guard firefighter crawls over second-floor furniture toppled and broken by Hurricane Katrina during a search and recovery operation in Pearlington, Miss. Elements from the Army and Air National Guard have coordinated their efforts with civil law enforcement personnel to systematically search areas devasted by the storm. Photo by 2nd Lt. Murray B. Shugars, Mississippi National Guard
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
A case in point is the firefighters at the Mississippi Air Guard's Combat Arms Training Center here. The flight line fire station is manned by members of the Guard from Mississippi, of course, but also from Michigan, New York, Florida, Georgia and North Dakota.
"It was important for us to be here," said Air Force Staff Sgt. Gary DePoyster, a firefighter with Mississippi's 172nd Airlift Wing. "We all wanted to help our neighbors. But we couldn't have done all we have without our brothers from other states. We are very thankful they came to help."
The firefighters serve 24 hours on duty and then they have 24 hours off. The airmen volunteer on their off days to help search for victims of Katrina in cities along the coast. "It's tough, tough work," said Army 2nd Lt. Murray Shugars, a spokesman for the Mississippi Guard. "Teams are systematically searching every house along the coast."
The teams consist of the firefighters, law enforcement personnel and volunteers from the civil support teams that are supporting hurricane recovery efforts.
In many places, the homes are simply gone. In others, they are knocked off their foundations and are dangerous to enter. All are filled with mud and muck from the storm, and the teams do not know what they will find when they enter the buildings. "It is surreal going into what's left of these communities," said Staff Sgt. Joseph Smith, a Mississippi Guard firefighter. "It's so quiet, and yet you are surrounded by total destruction."
The team searched the Gulf Coast town of Pearlington on Sept. 12. The town was almost destroyed when Katrina roared through. As they approach houses, they look for certain signs to see if victims are inside: cars in the driveway, bottles of water on the second floor, holes that people punched into the ceiling so they could move higher as the waters rose, and the smell. "We find dead animals all the time, but the smell of a human corpse is unique," Smith said. All the firefighters nodded solemnly in agreement.
Once finished, they put an "X" on the building to show it has been searched. On the top of the bright orange symbol they put the date, to the right they indicate the unit that did the search, to the left they indicate what hazards they found, and at the bottom they put the number of victims they found.
Tech. Sgt. Jeff Cummings, a firefighter from the 110th Fighter Wing in Battle Creek, Mich., was with a team that found a victim in a home in Pearlington. "He was an older man, wheelchair-bound," Cummings said. "Neighbors said he felt safe because he had survived Hurricane Camille (in 1969) in that house."
The team "plugged" the site using the Global Positioning System and notified recovery personnel. Teams came to remove the body. "Families need closure," said Senior Master Sgt. Joe Teixeira, a Michigan Air Guard firefighter. "They need to know what happened to their relatives."
The firefighters brought their expertise with them in the search. "When we first started searching, the gas was still on and you could hear it hissing," said Tech. Sgt. Regie Pennington, a Mississippi Guardsman. "We knew what to do and how to operate."
In the searches, the teams confronted hazardous materials and marked those sites for later cleanup. They marked dead animals for removal and helped citizens as they came into the area to see what was left of their homes.
The firefighters said they will continue to search as long as they are needed. In addition to Pearlington, they have helped out in the towns of Long Beach, Waveland, Long Beach and Gulfport, and the city of Biloxi.