Few veterans who are college students have served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti and in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I recently met Stephen Hayes who has been deployed to all those zones. If his surname sounds familiar, know that he is related to Ira Hayes who is featured in the famous flag raising on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima (Ira was the second cousin of Stephen’s paternal grandfather, Arthur Hayes Sr.).
It’s been 10 years since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, killing well over 1,000 and leaving thousands homeless.
Stephen Hayes was there a few days after the hurricane hit as part of Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion of the 319 Artillery Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina. His unit was DRF which means that within 18 hours it could be ready to be deployed anywhere in the world.
The infrastructure of first responders in New Orleans had collapsed because many had taken their families and left the city. Even with the Louisiana National Guard, Gov. Kathleen Blanco realized that the problems were so large that federal assistance was necessary, so she called President George W. Bush for additional support.
Hayes reports that in 2003, when he was fresh out of basic at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, he was “straight terrified” when he was sent with a unit preparing for an airborne assault on Baghdad International Airport. With the Katrina deployment, he and others had been watching media coverage of gangs, looting and violence, and he “had mixed feelings” and felt “a little uneasy.” As federal agents, and with no martial law, members of his unit were not allowed to carry live ammunition; whereas, member of the Louisiana National Guard were, and he says, “I felt we should have had the right to protect ourselves.”
The first week of the Katrina deployment, Hayes was stationed at the New Orleans International Airport where all flights were military with no civilian flights in or out. He was in charge of civilian evacuation, maintaining the manifests so that when families were separated, FEMA could attempt to reunite them.
At the airport Hayes reports, “For the most part, it was fairly orderly, but some individuals created problems because of the stress factors. At times the airport was like a petting zoo with cats, dogs, boas, other reptiles and small animals allowed on the planes.” As a pet owner, Hayes understood the importance of allowing the evacuees to take their pets because “it had a calming effect as pets were a part of their family.”
The second week, Hayes linked up with the infantry battalion he supported to move to downtown New Orleans for search-and-rescue missions.
Members of the infantry battalion carried out this phase of the operation in Zodiac boats, heavy-duty- rubber, inflatable boats powered by small engines. They initially swept downtown and then the suburbs to check for survivors and the deceased.
The process involved going to each house and searching every room, closet and the attic as well as sheds and outbuildings. When they located a corpse, they called FEMA and communicated the address so the team members could move quickly ahead with their search. At the end of the search of each house, they spray painted a 4-foot X on the side of the house or on the roof for submerged units. In that X they marked the unit that had completed the search, the date of the search, and numbers to indicate the number of deceased in the facility (They used a 0 for no deceased).
For submerged houses, they climbed on the roofs and with axes chopped holes to access the attic. As the waters rose, some residents had fled to their attics and were trapped and died there.
Even when Hayes was working at the airport, he periodically heard gunshots, and on the search-and-rescue missions, some took “pot shots at my buddies.”
He was in New Orleans for 60 days, part of which was spent preparing for the potential onslaught of Hurricane Rita. Living in a parking garage, he and other soldiers were in an over-watch position, keeping an eye on the broken levies.
Hurricane Rita did not hit New Orleans, and Hayes indicates, “We were out of there, back to Fort Bragg.”
Ten years later Hayes says, “Looking back, I just remember the smells, the water filled with raw sewage. We wore full waders, and as soon as we finished each day, we took bleach baths or that toxic stuff would eat holes in our skin and cause ulcers. The houses smelled like nasty porta-johns that had been left vacant in the sun for days, and that smell made my stomach churn.”
If anyone asks you what you did to help Katrina victims 10 years ago, tell them. Also, consider telling Hayes’ story. I know I will.
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