Ride Hamilton shows the SECOND intense video excerpt from his in-progress Hurricane Katrina Documentary. The only tapestry of stories filmed LIVE as it was happening. Mr. Hamilton was the only photo-journalist to never evacuate – and stay living and participating in the New Orleans community throughout Hurricanes Katrina
Ride evacuates Robert Smallwood to the Convention Center, leaving him to be airlifted out. Elsewhere…
Every morning Capt. Kenneth Kirsch sends out several Urban Search and Rescue teams to scour EVERY SINGLE HOUSE in New Orleans for bodies and those that might be left behind. Ruel Douvillier leads his USAR unit into a suspicious house in the 9th Ward – showing desperate signs of someone evacuating into the attic with food and water. Is that person still trapped in the house?
Brigitte and Wesley Basey lead the highly-trained South Georgia Search Dog team to pick up any scent of the missing person.
Deployment to New Orleans
On October 20, 2005, SOUTH GEORGIA SEARCH DOGS INC received a request from the Louisiana EMAC to deploy to New Orleans with our human remains detection teams, Wesley Basey with Dachs and Brigitte Basey with Minka.
Yes, there was a final and fourth deployment for three weeks in May 2006. Louisiana EMAC wanted to make one last effort to find the remaining reported missing. This time our Heidy Drawdy with her dog Roxie were able to help with the search. We were asked to search every home and business South of Clayburn to the canal. Also homes in the Garden District, Lakewood District and the 3rd Ward. It was amazing to find homes that still had not been entered and searched. On the last day of our deployment the team found one more drowning victim in a house that had never been searched. New Orleans is slowly regaining its “large city” status with most of the restaurants opening up, all the streets are cleared and crime and corruption are back to normal. We were both happy and sad to leave to go back to our homes.
The deployment was channeled through the Georgia Emergency Management under a Mutual Aids Agreement. Our mission in New Orleans was in the 9th Ward neighborhood, just below the breaches of the Industrial Canal levee, the 17th Street Canal, and the London Avenue Canal. While there, we were attached to the South East Louisiana Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Task Force (SELA TF-1 Katrina Operation), a very dedicated and well trained team, made up of 14 members of the New Orleans Fire Department and Police Department. We were there from 10/22 through 11/05/05 helping with the recovery of people who “did not make it out”. Mission started with 13 dog teams and after 4 days was reduced to 5 teams. We were requested to return to New Orleans on 11/29/05 for another two weeks to find bodies in homes where relatives reported loved ones were missing. Again, on 28 February 2006, we returned for another 9 days for our third deployment, to search the rubble piles of houses scheduled for demolition. There are 123 houses that were swept off their foundations, blocking roadways.
Dogs at work
There is nothing that could have prepared us or the dogs for what we encountered. There is no way to explain the overwhelming smells, the total devastation, the hopelessness of watching people return to their homes with nothing to salvage. Television pictures and news articles cannot convey the impact this storm has made on New Orleans and its people.
Houses were swept off their foundations, sandwiched between or on top of other houses and some were set down 3 or 4 blocks away. Cars with muddied windows were everywhere, upside down, perched on fences and in treetops and on roofs. When the water hit the houses the ground floors were filled with water very quickly causing all the furniture to churn throughout the house and once water receded, to drop along with the ceiling. It was very difficult to access the buildings as the doors were blocked with swollen up couches and other furnishings. People trying to ride-out this storm did not have a chance. Even if they made it to their attic, they drowned there as the water flowed above roof tops.
Dogs at work in 9th Ward
We were attached to the New Orleans Fire Department Special Task Force, and were protected by members of the New Orleans Police Department. 85% of them had lost their homes also, being forced to live with friends, relatives and the FEMA provided accommodations. Still, they worked with us tirelessly, opening doors and windows so the dogs and handlers could gain access. They are to be commended highly.
Most of the houses in the 9th Ward have wrought iron doors and windows grating installed. This made it quite difficult for the fire fighters to pry the doors open. Most doors could not be opened and had to be removed with the frame for us to enter the homes, as furniture was piled up against the door. Once inside, we had climb over, crawl under and through slimy debris. The gooey black sludge was everywhere, at times past the top of our boots. The walls were covered in sometimes beautiful patterned black mould. Very sad to see all of the sometimes very old pictures of family members on the wall, now all but unrecognizable.
Toward the end of our 1st rotation, people were allowed to visit their neighborhood on a bus tour type arrangement. Some were grief stricken and crying, and some were resolute and ready to rebuild. They would ask us to go into the house with them, as they were afraid of finding the body of a loved one. A lot of them just wanted to talk and tell us about how things used to be.
Hazards encountered were many, toxic chemicals, broken glass, exposed nails and screws along with sharp metal pieces protruding from roofs and the crusty mud. Luckily, our dogs did not experience severe injuries, only cut pads and some skin rashes. We were provided vet service through VMat comprised of volunteer veterinarians and vet techs. What a god-sent service they provided. After decontaminating our dogs twice a day, they very thoroughly and patiently checked our dogs for injuries and signs of stress.
Yes, it was a stressful situation for the dogs also. They had to sift through overwhelming smells of decay from rotting food, dead animals, sewage and human remains. There was no data base of where bodies had been recovered, so dogs were indicating on places where bodies had been recovered previously, especially on rafters and spots in the mud where body fluids were present. Some of the bodies had floated and settled in different places due to the two floods from Katrina and then Rita. There was the constant roaring of helicopters overhead and the sound of the bulldozers clearing pathways. There was also the ever present danger of stray dogs attacking or the distraction of bags of dog food deposited by the SPCA.
Search for lost loved ones
When we arrived for our 2nd rotation, we could already tell progress had been made in the clean-up. People were coming back to their homes and started the long process of rebuilding. The 9th Ward neighborhood no longer had National Guard check points and no longer did armed military and police officers patrol the neighborhood to prevent looting. People were starting with clean-up. A lot of the cars and debris along road sides had been picked up.
We arrived for our 3rd deployment on Fat Tuesday evening. We were surprised at the mass of people in the streets compared to the very few people 2 months prior. Nature has taken over the healing process; a lot of the gray mud was covered with lush green weeds. Of course this made it harder to see what we were stepping on. Where before there was little life such as birds etc. present, now there were lizards, snakes and big fat rats scurrying throughout the houses we were searching. Houses that had not been opened still had the wet mud and furniture, along with the associated odor of decay. Before, the only thing we heard was the squealing of rusty roof turbines, now we heard the pounding noise of pilings being installed along the levees.
Unfortunately, our 3rd deployment mission ended after 8 days, as we were caught up in the political wrangling of agencies for the funding of this very important phase of the recovery.
It was indeed an honor and privilege to work along side with the New Orleans Fire Department and Police Force, and hopefully bringing some peace and closure to some of the families who lost their loved ones in this devastating storm.
We also would like to thank Wayne Buford with LA EMAC for his leadership and having the confidence in South Georgia Search Dogs to do the job. Thanks for the experience afforded to us. Also thanks to all the people in Columbus who made it possible for us to respond by donating funds for our equipment and expenses. Thanks go to Dr. James Lopez, Dr. Richard K. Strauss Sr., Dr. James A. Lawrence, Larry R. Phillips, David M. Jordan, George G. Flowers, Georgia Fence Wholesale, Inc., Columbus Kennel Club, and the employees at Exide Technologies for their donations.