Since its founding more than two hundred years ago, the United States Coast Guard has rescued over a million people. On any given day, "Coasties" respond to 125 distress calls and save over a dozen lives. Yet despite having more than 50,000 active-duty and reserve members on every ocean and on our nation's coasts, great lakes, and rivers, most of us know very little about this often neglected but crucial branch of the military.
In Rescue Warriors, award-winning journalist David Helvarg brings us into the daily lives of Coasties, filled with a salty maritime mix of altruism and adrenaline, as well as dozens of death-defying rescues at sea and on hurricane-ravaged shores.
Helvarg spent two years with the men and women of the Coast Guard, from the halls of their academy in New London, Connecticut, to the frigid, storm-tossed waters of Alaska's Bering Sea, to the northern Persian Gulf, where they currently guard Iraqi oil terminals. The result is a masterpiece of adventure reporting---the definitive book on America's "forgotten heroes."
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About the Author
DAVID HELVARG is founder and president of the Blue Frontier Campaign, a Washington, D.C.--based organization working for ocean and coastal conservation. An award-winning journalist, he has written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian, Popular Science, Sierra, and The Nation, and has produced more than forty documentaries for PBS, the Discovery Channel, and others. He is also a licensed private investigator, body surfer, and scuba diver. His previous books include The War Against the Greens, Blue Frontier, and 50 Ways to Save the Ocean. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
David Helvarg is founder and president of the Blue Frontier Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit working on ocean and coastal conservation issues. An award-winning journalist, he has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian, Popular Science, Sierra, and The Nation, and has produced more than forty documentaries for PBS, the Discovery Channel, and others. He is also a licensed private investigator, body surfer, and scuba diver. The author of The War Against the Greens, Blue Frontier, and 50 Ways to Save the Ocean, he lives near San Francisco Bay.
Read an Excerpt
By David Helvarg
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 David Helvarg
All rights reserved.
New Orleans Saints
"They didn't wear their humanity on their patches, it was in their hearts." — Douglas Brinkley, The Great Deluge
"I'd blow up FEMA and ask the Coast Guard what it needs." — St. Bernard Parish Sheriff Jack Stephens when asked how to improve the Federal Emergency response system
Friday, August 26, 2005
The crew of the fishing boat Mary Lynn pitched and rolled in raging forty-foot seas, eighty-five miles west of Key West. With their controls gone and their vessel threatening to break up, they activated an EPIRB (emergency position-indicating radio beacon) buoy and hoped someone would hear its signal. They tried to launch a life raft, but the storm winds capsized it and dragged it away. All they could do now was hang on and pray for help.
At Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater, 210 miles away, their signal was received and an HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter launched in forty-knot winds around 10:00 P.M. Soon the big chopper was flying along the leading edge of the storm, blinded by heavy rains, clouds, and darkness, its crew unable to see the ocean rising and falling below them. It would take three hours of manhandling their aircraft through buffeting winds and ballistic rain before they finally arrived on scene. A big four-engine C-130 Hercules from Clearwater was already circling overhead.
Unfortunately, the rough trek had depleted the helicopter's fuel supply, leaving them only fifteen minutes on scene. Below they could see the Mary Lynn being tossed around in the rolling seas as the crew clung to the stern. Rather than try to rush things and risk someone being swept away, they decided to head to Key West to refuel. Battling 75 mph headwinds, the trip, which should have taken forty-five minutes, took two hours. They landed at 3:00 A.M., refueled, and were back over the Mary Lynn at daybreak. If anything, the storm had worsened in their absence. Pilot Craig Massello told Rescue Swimmer Kenyon Bolton that he was not to come off the rescue cable for any reason. This meant the boat crew would have to get in the water to meet him.
"The first hoist wasn't pretty," flight mechanic and hoist operator Robert Cain noted dryly. First they swung Bolton into the stern of the fishing boat, and then, as he came free, dangling like bait on a line, he was hit head-on by a monster wave. Still he managed to get in the water and swim to crewmember Anita Miller. He got a quick strop harness around her, but then the cable jerked them, dropping the strop's V-rings and jamming his hook open. He replaced the rings and made sure he had a tight grip on her, then got them lifted back aboard the helicopter and determined that his cable hook, though damaged, was still operable. He went back down for his second hoist. This time a lifeline from the foundering boat to the second crewmember in the water got entangled with the hoist cable. This was even less pretty. Were the boat to sink at this point, it could drag the survivor, the rescue swimmer, even the helicopter down with it. While Bolton and the fisherman remaining on the Mary Lynn worked to free the line, a shark two or three feet long swam through Bolton's legs. "I was surprised it was so close to the surface.... It made me think twice about what was out of sight," he later told Coast Guard magazine.
With the lines cleared, he was able to make the second hoist. The third hoist went without a hitch (or much of a functioning hook). The entire rescue took around thirty minutes. Rather than fight the winds to Key West, they headed toward Clearwater. With cyclonic tailwinds, they made around two hundred knots ground speed, "ridiculous for a helicopter," grinned copilot Dave Sheppard who, like the rest of the crew, was now riding an adrenaline high.
The storm, which had already battered Florida, leaving six dead, would continue to pick up strength as it crossed the unusually warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The survivors of the Mary Lynn — Mark Gutek, Anita Miller, and Charles White — would be the first three of over thirty-three thousand people to be rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard in the coming days as Hurricane Katrina continued on toward the Mississippi Gulf Coast, New Orleans, and the history books.
More than two years earlier, on February 25, 2003, the Coast Guard had transferred from the Department of Transportation to the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS), as part of the Bush administration's post-9/11 "War on Terror." The administration had initially opposed the creation of what would quickly grow into a 22-agency, $40 billion, 180,000-employee color-coding bureaucracy. It was only when (then) Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut introduced a bill for its creation that the White House, fearing it was being politically outflanked on national security, did an about-face and came up with an improvised plan for the new department.
When it was announced that the Coast Guard would be a part of DHS, its friends in Congress, including Senators Ted Stevens of Alaska and Olympia Snowe of Maine, got a provision attached to the Homeland Security Act, section 888, preventing the new department from interfering with the Coast Guard's maritime missions. Admiral Allen, who would take over Hurricane Katrina response before becoming head of the service, jokingly told Washington Post reporter Michael Grunwald that the Coast Guard's leadership had "888" tattooed on their arms.
Unfortunately, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had no such immunity. It was demoted within the new department and had billions of dollars of preparedness funding stripped away, along with a national disaster response plan. At the same time, a system of political cronyism had grown within the demoralized agency, with five of its top eight managers, including director Michael Brown (a former commissioner with the International Arabian Horse Association), having no previous disaster response experience.
The Coast Guard, by contrast, spends every day saving people in trouble in the water. As both a law enforcement and military organization tasked to do search and rescue, environmental response, and maritime commerce support, it didn't have to wait for an official disaster decree or federal letter of permit to do its job.
Nor, unlike President George W. Bush and Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, did any Coast Guard officer claim the failure of New Orleans's levees could not have been predicted or a disaster of this scale foreseen. The Coast Guard had spent much of 2004 responding to a series of major hurricanes in Florida and along the Gulf and was keenly aware from its oversight of ports and shipping along the lower Mississippi of just how vulnerable the below-sea-level city of New Orleans was. If there were any doubt left, FEMA had staged a major interagency exercise to practice for just this type of disaster, dubbed "Hurricane Pam," a year before Katrina struck.
On the day of the Mary Lynn rescue, Friday, August 26, 2005, the National Hurricane Center announced Katrina had regained hurricane strength and shifted its track from a predicted landfall on the Florida panhandle to the Mississippi-Louisiana coastline.
That afternoon, Chief Warrant Officer David Lewald got a call at his home in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, from his Coast Guard boss in New Orleans. Rebuilding of navigational buoys damaged by Hurricanes Cindy and Dennis had just been completed, and in 2004 there had been Hurricane Ivan. "I remember after Ivan thinking, 'Wow! If I lived through that I can do anything,' not realizing it was just a dress rehearsal," Lewald recalls.
Lewald was in charge of the cutter Pamlico, a 160-foot construction tender that looks like what you'd get if you crossbred a tugboat, a barge, and the Mississippi Queen riverboat. His boss wanted the Pamlico to escort their smaller boats upriver.
"One of our duties is to play mother duck to all the boats they can't trailer away. So for Katrina I had eight 41s [41-foot patrol boats], three 55s, and the Clamp."
The Coast Guard Cutter Clamp is a 75-foot construction tender designed to push a 68-foot barge. It was transiting from Alabama to Texas when a generator fire broke out and forced it to divert to New Orleans for repairs in late August. As Katrina approached, the Clamp headed up the Mississippi with the Pamlico.
By end of day Friday, most personnel from Air Station New Orleans, Sector New Orleans, and Coast Guard District 8 had done their usual hurricane evacuations and were hunkered down from Texas to Missouri ready to surge back in as soon as the storm passed over.
New Orleans's shore command had just stood up its sector on August 14. This was a new approach to integrating Coast Guard activities previously divided between Marine Safety and Operations. It established a single sector commander who could move boats and aircraft, and oversee search and rescue, pollution response, maritime safety, and shipping control without having to book a conference room to do it.
Instead the new commander, Capt. Frank Paskewich, booked a convention center in Alexandria, Louisiana, a small city in the central part of the state with food, power, and hotel rooms for a couple of hundred of his staff, his Incident Command Post, and occasional displaced family members and pets. A year earlier when Hurricane Ivan had threatened New Orleans, he'd been unsatisfied with the location the Coasties had hunkered down in and determined to find a better one, which they now had.
The Louisiana National Guard, by contrast, stayed put at their Jackson Barracks compound in New Orleans, where they would have to deal with six feet of flooding before they could turn their attention elsewhere. In addition, a third of their force, 3,200 members, were deployed in Iraq — along with most of their high-water trucks, fuel tankers, and satellite communications gear.
Coast Guard District 8 is one of the service's nine regional commands, and one of the largest, covering the entire Mississippi watershed including all or part of twenty-six states, the Gulf of Mexico, and the river itself. As Katrina approached, the command moved upriver from New Orleans to St. Louis, where it would coordinate activities in the coming weeks and months without second-guessing its people closer to the front in Mobile (which became a major air hub), Alexandria, or New Orleans.
All along the Gulf of Mexico, Coast Guard stations and families from Grand Isle, Louisiana, to Dauphin Island, Alabama, were now evacuating ahead of the storm.
Saturday, August 27, 2005
Tom Ostebo, the incoming CO at Air Station Cape Cod, was training on Falcon jets at the Coast Guard Aviation Training Center (ATC) in Mobile, Alabama, that Friday when the CO invited him to a hurricane briefing. Reaching New York the next day, Tom decided he should do something to help out and put in a call to his district commander in Boston. Between them they agreed to send a Jayhawk helicopter and a couple of crews from Cape Cod down to Florida.
"I was on vacation in New Jersey when I got a call asking if I wanted to fly," Lt. Jason Dorval recalls. He would end up making 332 rescues in the coming week.
By Saturday morning, Hurricane Katrina had reached Category 3 intensity. Mandatory evacuations were ordered in southern Louisiana's low-lying parishes. Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans announced a state of emergency and asked for voluntary evacuations. Governor Kathleen Blanco sent a letter to President Bush asking that he declare a major disaster and provide federal aid to the state.
"We left Saturday and spent the night on the river," David Lewald recalls of his flotilla's slow progress up the Mississippi out of harm's way.
Twenty-six-year-old Petty Officer Jessica Guidroz is from the New Orleans area. She'd joined the Coast Guard three years earlier because she loves boats and water and was tired of working construction like her dad. That Saturday she helped trailer three 25-foot boats from Station New Orleans north across the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway.
Sunday, August 28, 2005
On Sunday, fearing north shore flooding, Jessica and her station crew relocated their boats from the Maritime Museum in Madisonville, their usual evacuation point, to their CO's house closer to Baton Rouge.
Chief Warrant Officer Lewald's larger boats arrived in Baton Rouge, where they refueled at a commercial dock and set up to ride out the storm in a small cove behind a thick cover of trees.
Sunday afternoon, having kept a handful of aviators on scene for any search and rescue calls that might come in, the air station launched its five Dolphin helicopters and their crews to evacuation points in Lake Charles and Houston.
By Sunday night, August 28, Katrina had grown into a Category 5 monster with 175 mph sustained winds and gusts of over 200 mph. New Orleans ordered a mandatory evacuation and opened up the Superdome as a refuge of last resort; 80 percent of the city's population had already fled. The National Hurricane Center warned of a catastrophic event about to hit the Gulf Coast.
"Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks ... At least one half of well-constructed homes will have roof and wall failure ... The majority of industrial buildings will become nonfunctional ... High-rise offices and apartment buildings will sway dangerously ... Persons ... pets ... and livestock exposed to the winds will face certain death."
My colleague Mark Schleifstein of the New Orleans Times-Picayune had written about the risk of a Category 4 or 5 hurricane striking his city for so many years that his editor began calling his stories "disaster porn." On Sunday night, Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, called Mark at work and asked nervously, "How high is your building and what's its structural integrity?"
"Are you saying what I think you're saying?" Mark asked.
Monday, August 29, 2005
The cyclonic hurricane dropped to a Category 4 just before slamming into the Gulf Coast and southern Louisiana early Monday morning, striking like the fist of God with 145 mph winds and storm surges up to thirty-five feet. It drifted slightly to the east of New Orleans, initially appearing to have spared the city.
"Monday morning when the storm hit, it was blowing good, but we were protected. Our cook was feeding a hundred people, and we had two toilets and two showers onboard. It was like camping," Lewald says, recalling the scene at his well-protected hurricane hole up in Baton Rouge.
At about the same time, farther south, a thirty-foot wall of water overtopped the sixteen-foot levees in the town of Chalmette in St. Bernard Parish, where thousands of people had failed to evacuate. In fifteen minutes the flood wiped out the town, killing dozens of people and rupturing an oil storage tank that inundated a thousand homes with twenty-five thousand barrels of oil. The storm surge then moved west, breaching the Industrial Canal, and drowning much of the Ninth Ward and East Orleans Parish just as the Seventeenth Street floodwall gave way, putting the Lakeview section of the city under eight to fifteen feet of water.
The scene was equally horrific at Coast Guard Station Gulfport in Mississippi. There they had been down to a skeleton crew of seven Sunday night. As the storm intensified, they got on the radio to warn mariners no one would be monitoring emergency frequency Channel 16. They then took their trucks and headed inland to an Air National Guard base, only hours before their station was torn apart by scythe-like winds and surging ocean waters; by early Monday, Katrina had reduced the main building to a metal frame. Their mascot, Mayday, a mixed-breed mutt who had been left tied up on the top floor, was thought lost to the storm but would be returned unharmed, months later.
Even as Katrina was savaging the Gulf Coast, crushing and drowning more than a thousand people who'd been unable or unwilling to evacuate, the Coast Guard began responding.
One crew and aircraft went down Sunday, and I came into Cape Cod Monday morning and boarded a Falcon with my crew, and we met up in Jacksonville [Florida] around 11:00 A.M.," Jason Dorval recalls.
They joined crews that had evacuated from Mobile with another HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter and six HH-65s, the smaller Dolphins. "We walked into the operations center and they looked at us like 'Where are you guys from?' They didn't know we were coming, but it turned out to be a good thing. It [the hurricane] was already ashore, and we were monitoring the weather the best we could, given all the stations along the coast were destroyed.
Excerpted from Rescue Warriors by David Helvarg. Copyright © 2009 David Helvarg. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction You Have to Go Out,
1 New Orleans Saints,
2 The Boot and the Factory,
3 Hamilton's Legacy,
4 Calling All Boats,
10 Duck Scrubbers,
12 Red, White, and Black,
13 The Next Surge,