Monday, October 19, 2009

Nightmares of Katrina 4 - The Arrival

I need to write while I can, but I’m arguing with myself. I need to write, but, I don’t really want to write about, that incident. I have to write though and I have begun to tell the story so I really need to finish, whether I like it or not.

When we arrived in the New Orleans area things were very strange. People had a glassy look in their eyes and their faces were blank. The damage didn’t look too bad to me, but I had been jaded. I hadn’t been too long out of Afghanistan and you just can’t compare any place in the United States to the primitive and deprived conditions there.

We skirted south of the city, far from Lake Pontchartrain where the land was higher and the carnage inflicted by the Lake’s release had little or no direct effect. Still, there were small signs here and there of damage and destruction caused by the Hurricane herself.

The chief indicator was the people. They looked spent and were all headed out of town. Most of them had come back into the area to check the damage and to retrieve what they could. A few who had official duties had come back to help in the rescue efforts. While their own houses were underwater they were helping others.

In Belle Chasse NAS itself, things were even more chaotic than outside. Every state and territory with a National Guard had sent supplies, food and soldiers to support the relief efforts, but none had been coordinated. Units arrived by air and land with no instructions or orders; and with no one expecting or prepared for them.

I have been in the National Guard for over twenty years and I have seen the confusion that happens every month as civilians slowly, staggeringly and sometimes painfully change themselves into military personnel. This was beyond anything I had ever seen. There were regular Army, Navy and Air Force people there who were just as confused. It was almost as if there were some outside force affecting us, causing everyone to be even more confused and uncoordinated than they possibly could have gotten by themselves.

General Honore famously said we were, “Stuck on stupid,” but I don’t think it was stupid we were stuck on, and I don’t think it was all our fault.

An example of the confusion was how supplies were flown into Belle Chasse. The C130s would land, the supplies would be shoved out the cargo door and the planes would leave. The airfield would become quickly and irrevocably disorganized. Any unit with forklifts was employed to move the supplies off the airstrip, and more would land. The situation deteriorated to the point that yellow Post-it notes were used in lieu of ANY military forms.

No one seemed to see a problem with this while the inexhaustible stream of equipment and food continued to flow. The entire month we were there, it never did dry up.

We too, seemingly came out of no-where with no usable assets or skills, but we couldn’t be sent back. As far as the people in Belle Chasse were concerned, we were of no use without trucks or forklifts. The ideas of just-in-time supply, efficient logistics, planning and coordination were just foreign gibberish. We were raving lunatics of no conceivable use.

We spent three days trying to convince someone that we could bring some order to the logistic nightmare if only we could be allocated several rooms, computer and phone connections. As the Group Signal Officer it was my responsibility to make the connections. In the entire month of September that we were there, I never, never found anyone who would admit that they were the Senior Signal Officer in the AO (Area of Operations). Everyone was in charge of something, but that one over-all, coordinated, unity of command, as far as signal was concerned never materialized.

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