September 17, 2005
The second floor of the Academy of the Holy Angels is an eerily dark chamber. One lone candle burns a deep orange cast, its warming glow accentuating the sweaty hot faces at the table next to me.
In the distance I can hear the voices of the command team of the 1186th Military Police detachment discussing the day’s events. They have familiarity to their companionship; you can hear the trust they have in one another echoing out of the deep dark cavern. When Louisiana needed a fast response to the flooding disaster it looked to the men and women of the Oregon National Guard.
The 1186 were Oregon’s first responders, just back from a deployment in Cuba at Guantanamo Bay.
It has been a long two days of traveling for the Guardsmen of the 1st of the 162. As of Thursday, the entire 41st Combat Brigade has deployed to Orleans Parish. They are tasked with rescue, recovery, and securing two-thirds of the city of New Orleans.
It has been a very long week and it is only Friday. The heat and humidity are both in the high 90s, making even walking a huge, tiring event. Yet every morning without fail the men and women of Oregon shake off the last of their sleep and head out to help the displaced citizens of New Orleans. Major portions of the city are still under water.
The smell is incredibly bad and it never goes away. There are eight battalions spread out into six major front line aid bases.
The Oregon National Guard is made up of a mix of young and old, male and female, all trained for a specific job: to be used when called upon in time of emergency.
We departed on Wednesday from the Portland Air National Guard base around 3 p.m., and were settled down and living on the airport tarmac by 2 a.m. New Orleans time. Our sleep was interrupted every few minutes as new planes carrying soldiers and aid continued to flow into the New Orleans Naval Air Station. Thursday morning we waited for some of the 68 buses that made the trip down from New York City to take us the 10 miles to our home base at the Academy of the Holy Angels.
The convent rest home has become our forward base of operations. Roughly 100 guardsmen called the walled-in campus home.
The Bywater Hospital on St Claude Street was taken over by people taking refuge from the toxic flood waters of Hurricane Katrina. Charlie Med of the 141st BSB has picked up a pet project: cleaning the hospital of all of the muck and trash left from days of flooding and habitation.
Brigade surgeon for the Oregon National Guard’s 41st Brigade in New Orleans is none other than Major Brian Bea of Washougal, better known in the Gorge region as “the guy with the house on the hill.” Bea is in charge of all of the 41st Brigades’ medical assets in Louisiana.
“Clearing the hospital gives the guardsmen something to concentrate on, a positive thing to have in these conditions,” said Bea. “All of the dust, muck and sludge will help aggravate illnesses such as pneumonitis, pneumonia and bronchitis.”
Bea spent much of his time passing out breathing masks and reminding the troops to drink and eat.
They have started clearing away debris from the site and have started taking on missions to make contact with displaced persons in the neighborhood. One of the missions tasked to the 1162 out of McMinnville is escorting groups through the city.
Spc. Ryan Brown was providing security in the parish of Orleans on the St. Claude Street area from which the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was rescuing dogs and cats. SPCA teams from around the nation have gathered in the storm-affected area trying to find, then rescue, pets left behind. They have created a database where displaced persons can post locations of their pets that were left behind. Brown said he had never seen anything like it.
“Wow, man, just amazement at what has happened, what’s (left) behind. It’s good to be doing a needed job. These people are going to need lots of help. I have never seen anything like it, like out of the movies,” he said.
Brown and the SPCA’s effort paid off on St. Claude Street. They dropped food off for 18 dogs and cats, marking the houses to come back to with SPCA lettering in spray paint. Out of the house that Brown was in front of, Anabell Tab, an SPCA volunteer from Miami, made entry to a house that had two bodies in it to get out; the one live resident — a black and white dog — looked to be in good shape, considering everything its owners and it had been through.
Spc. Brown and I joked about living a mile from one another in Newberg before he set off on foot down the street with his patrol.
“It is the smell you never get used to. I hope I can forget it when I get back home,” he joked. We shook hands and down St. Claude he went, making Newberg proud.
Lt. Col. Leah Sundquist, of Canby, Ore., is in charge of the 141st Brigade Support Battalion. Her primary task is to get 500 supply, repair and medical personnel and their gear into the theater of operation.
Sundquist’s unit is charged with supplying the entire contingent of Oregon personnel with all of their immediate needs. Items such as water, meals, and fuel flow through the 141st out the outlaying units.
“It was an amazing task to be ready to mobilize all four companies of the 141 with only 72 hours’ notice,” Sundquist said. “We had to ship 5-ton trucks, heavy wreckers, food and water to feed our guys for a week, while rear support worked on providing long-term support for the mission.”
Our day together started by going out and finding a route to a warehouse that was being run by the local parish levee authority. It took an hour and a half to travel less than 10 miles. While we were out we stopped to provide relief to a man and his son. They had a boat anchored between Slidell and New Orleans that they had been swimming to in an effort to salvage anything they could. Sundquist tried to convince them to leave, but they were willing to hold out for a while longer.
“They just do not see the larger picture. It is not just their neighborhood — it’s all of their neighborhoods,” Sundquist said.
Almost everyone here from Oregon has the same response: They can’t believe anyone would want to continue to live in this smelly toxic muck.
Oregon’s first National Guard troops into Louisana, the Salem-based 1186th Military Police Company, returned from New Orleans Monday night. The 85-plus soldiers evacuated more than 100 people during its work in New Orleans, according to Capt. Trent Klug of Salem. Some of the rescued included senior citizens and families living too close to toxic water near their home. The unit reported the location of 50-plus bodies to be dealt with at a later date.
About 1,700 Oregon National Guard troops remain in New Orleans performing search-and-rescue and security. A date to come home for the rest of them is not known.
Part II will be in the Sept. 21 edition.