Katrina shapes rescue mission

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Eric Schloeffel
  • 347th Rescue Wing Public Affairs
On Aug. 29, 2005, the third-strongest hurricane ever to hit U.S soil made landfall on the Louisiana and Mississippi border. Soon after, rescue crews from here were called on to perform search and rescue on a scale previously unseen.

"The Katrina relief effort was a benchmark for Air Force rescue," said Col. Joseph Callahan, 347th Rescue Wing commander. "Never before had we placed so many assets together to execute a rescue mission.

"Air Force rescue has a long history of preparing to assist civilian authorities following a natural disaster," the colonel said. "Placing aircraft and crews on alerts whenever a hurricane approaches is something we've been involved with since the day I joined the Air Force. But historically, the number of aircraft actually tasked for a hurricane was normally less than five."

Unfortunately for residents of the Gulf Coast, Hurricane Katrina could not be described as a "normal" storm. It passed through southern Florida as a tropical storm before strengthening for several days in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, where it reached Category 5 hurricane status with maximum sustained winds of 175 mph.

When the storm reached the coastline at 6:10 a.m., with sustained winds of 125 mph, the 347th RQW took on substantially more than the standard hurricane tasking.

"When the eventual number of Air Force HH-60Gs (Pave Hawks) tasked for the mission grew to 23, along with a force of five HC-130Ps and three C-130Es, it was a bit more than I expected," Colonel Callahan said. "However, considering the size of the disaster, all of that force was certainly needed."

The hurricane battered the coastal regions of Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, leaving a path of death and destruction. Though missing the brunt of the storm, heavy rain breached several levees in New Orleans, flooding 80 percent of the city with some areas under more than 20 feet of water.

Thousands of people who ignored evacuation orders or were unable to flee the area, were stranded on the upper levels of buildings or on rooftops. Without clean water, food and medical supplies, many were in danger of illness or death.

To bring relief to these storm-stricken areas, the 347th RQW needed to plan how to utilize all assets for such a large undertaking.

"The first step was to get as many assets as possible in place in the shortest time," Colonel Callahan said.

The first Moody aircraft to arrive on scene was from the 41st Rescue Squadron, which landed in Mississippi the day after the hurricane hit. The 71st Rescue Squadron was also in the air providing refueling and cargo support.

From there, Moody crews joined other rescue components such as the geographically separated 563rd Rescue Group from Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz., and Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.; 16th Special Operations Wing from Hurlburt Field, Fla.; 106th Rescue Wing Air National Guard unit from New York; 920th Rescue Wing from Patrick AFB, Fla., and assets from Air Force Space Command and Air Mobility Command.

All rescue components worked fervently as one team to meet the steep mission demands.

"The total force rescue team was launching flights of HH-60s over New Orleans and Mississippi every two hours around the clock for eight- to 12-hour missions," Colonel Callahan said. "No matter what time of the day, flightline maintainers were preparing or fixing aircraft, crews were planning search areas, C-130s were arriving to drop off more personnel and equipment, and flights of helicopters were taking off.

"Part of the reason we were able to quickly combine forces and work as a single team was because most of us knew each other from past exercises and operations," he added. "It was this constant total force approach to Air Force exercises that helped ensure the Air Force, regardless of component, could operate as one team when needed."

In addition to the cohesion of separate components, high morale in the rescue community contributed to the eventual success of the mission, Colonel Callahan said.

"Everyone was pumped about doing this mission," the colonel said. "We even had crews who just returned home to their families the previous day after being deployed to Iraq for three months calling and begging for permission to deploy to Mississippi and join the effort. I have never seen a better, more professional performance by any group of Airmen in my life."

These performances resulted in the rescues of more than 4,300 people and shined a bright light onto an otherwise disastrous event. The efforts also propelled the Air Force into a new level of importance in the arena of domestic disaster response.

"No one had ever seen a rescue of this scope in our lives," Colonel Callahan said. "Throughout the course of the operation, and even well after it was completed, I had Airmen approach me to express their extremely high sense of satisfaction on being able to use their skills to help others.

"(Despite the fact) our wing is made up of multiple squadrons from multiple bases, the efforts we previously made to standardize our procedures proved we could quickly rainbow together a large rescue force to respond to the nation's needs," the colonel said. "Katrina went a long way in proving Air Force rescue is America's first responders, and our force is ready, capable and willing to assist anyone at anytime to ensure others may live."