Tuesday, September 06, 2005

News From the Home Front Lines

The following was forwarded to me from my cousin, whose boyfriend is serving on one of the U.S. Navy ships in the story, the U.S.S. Bataan. It gives a glimpse of the earliest rescue efforts put forth by the Navy, immediately after Katrina swept through:

THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 03 SEP 05

Crew Faces Uncertainty In Gulf
By KATE WILTROUT, The Virginian-Pilot

ABOARD THE BATAAN, GULF OF MEXICO — If all had gone according to plan, the 1,300 sailors aboard this ship would have returned to Norfolk on Friday in time to celebrate the holiday weekend with their families.

Instead, after six weeks at sea for a maritime exercise, the amphibious assault ship is doing doughnuts in the gulf, its flight deck buffeted by the rotor wash of search-and-rescue helicopters flying up and down the hurricane-battered coast. Friday, the Bataan took on more than 80 medical personnel pulled from duty at a Jacksonville, Fla., naval hospital. The surgeons, pediatricians, anesthetists and obstetrician-gynecologists don’t know whether they will treat hurricane victims flown aboard ship or if they’ll be asked to set up a makeshift clinic on the beach.

The Bataan’s crew lives with the same uncertainty. Since Sunday, it has been the only major Navy ship in the area, and it’s doing a little bit of everything. Helicopters have left its flight deck carrying pallets of peanut butter, Vienna sausages and water. They’ve plucked survivors off the roofs of flooded buildings. The 12-man crew of the Bataan’s landing craft utility, from Virginia Beach’s Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base, has seen the devastation up close. The boat spent two days navigating the Mississippi River, looking for signs of human life along its banks. Instead it found the bloated carcasses of cows, horses, dogs and alligators.

When the boat left the belly of the Bataan on Wednesday, crew members didn’t know what to expect, said Chief Warrant Officer 2 William Fish. They were prepared to hand out food and water – including 100 sandwiches they made themselves – as well as provide toilets and power to residents or rescue crews.

They came across two men in a boat searching for family members.

“Other than that,” Fish said, “there was nobody living that we saw.”

The boat continued upriver, passing through the tiny Louisiana villages of Pilottown, Venice and Boothville. They saw no signs of human life anywhere – but no dead bodies, either.

In Venice, the chief warrant officer said, the boat pulled into a pier in the pitch black. The crew members shone their flashlights into the darkness and shouted to let people know they were there.

“No one showed up,” Fish said. “The word is eerie.”

Further upriver, in Boothville, the crew prepared to tie up again but was dissuaded by the barks and growls of a Rottweiler, Labrador retriever and German shepherd.

“I don’t want you to think we’re sissies,” Fish said, “but I didn’t want to risk any of my men.”

After journeying about 55 miles upriver, with the sandwiches they’d made still untouched, the landing craft turned around.

Then debris knocked out its starboard propeller. A generator went down. A thunderstorm hit. The boat limped back to its mother ship early Friday morning. Though most of his crew hadn’t slept in more than two days, Fish said, Friday afternoon they were prepared to head out again.

Two of Fish’s sailors – engine men Samuel Hawkins and Garland Bourgeois, both petty officers first class — have a personal stake in Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. Bourgeois has family in Kenner, La.; Hawkins in Moss Point, Miss.

Bourgeois said his wife, in Hampton Roads, had made contact with his parents. They evacuated to Lafayette. Hawkins had less to go on: A sister in Gulfport went to Moss Point to check on their parents. The house was flooded but intact. No one was home.

“I wish I knew what they were working through,” Hawkins said.

The Bataan will soon have lots of company in the gulf: Other Norfolk-based ships, including the carrier Truman, amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima, dock landing ship Tortuga and amphibious transport dock Shreveport, are on their way.

“Everyone is bringing something different to the flight,” said Capt. Nora Tyson, the Bataan’s commanding officer.

Tyson said the flight crews on the Bataan are working overtime and then some.

“We are basically flying our guys from 7 or 8 a.m. until 2 and 3 a.m.,” she said.

Tyson, a pilot herself, said her tour of the wrecked coast seemed more nightmare than reality.

“You feel like it’s a bad dream you’re going to wake up from,” she said. “You just say, 'This is not us. This is not our country.’”
Yes, and it's my country too, and I'm damned grateful that it's being defended and served by people like the crew of the Bataan. God Speed, Captain Tyson, and thank you and your crew.

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