Through Hell and High Water: Katrina's First Responders Oral History Project

In October 2005, The Historic New Orleans Collection initiated Through Hell and High Water: Katrina’s First Responders Oral History Project, partnering with local, state, and federal agencies to document their experiences. The interviews done as part of this project reflect the disaster’s painful, chaotic, and murky aftermath. They cast a wide net over this important event and reveal many potential avenues for further research. Interview excerpts from six agencies are provided here. Our intent is not to make judgments or to interpret events, but to permit contemplation. Full interviews and transcriptions are available on the THNOC online catalog.

St. Bernard Parish Fire Department

St. Bernard Parish, located southeast of New Orleans, was almost entirely flooded. Members of the St. Bernard Parish Fire Department (SBFD) were positioned throughout the area and began rescue operations immediately after the storm. Some firemen were pre-positioned at Chalmette and St. Bernard high schools; both were parish-designated special needs shelters. As flood waters rose, residents from nearby neighborhoods sought refuge on the high schools’ upper floors. One of the fire department’s fundamental challenges was keeping the thousands of residents sheltering at the high schools alive. The near-complete inundation of the parish meant that it was nearly a week before substantial outside help arrived.

Eddie Appel, Captain, discusses the rapid rise of floodwaters at Chalmette High School.
April 17, 2006

Barry Hadley, Captain, recalls two memorable rescue missions.
May 3, 2006

Michael Binder, Fire Engineer, on searching for and recovering the bodies of St. Bernard Parish residents who perished during Hurricane Katrina.
May 3, 2006

Barry Boos, Captain, discusses rising floodwaters at the Frederick J. Sigur Civic Center in Chalmette.
April 17, 2006

Barry Boos on the need for body bags after Hurricane Katrina and the emotional impact of not being able to provide them.
April 17, 2006

Raul Vallecillo, Fire Engineer, details the evacuation of the St. Bernard High School emergency shelter.
May 3, 2006

New Orleans Fire Department

Members of the New Orleans Fire Department (NOFD) were pre-positioned in “places of last refuge” prior to the storm. Some firemen brought their own personal boats to these locations and began rescue efforts immediately after the levees broke. Others creatively commandeered boats. As their communications network broke down, groups of isolated firemen continued independent rescue operations. In New Orleans East, for example, firemen set up a boat rescue operation based in the Bell South building, working for nearly a week with little outside assistance. Fire soon became a huge concern: water pressure was low to nonexistent; debris and floodwaters made some fires inaccessible; broken gas lines caused large, rapid-burning conflagrations. Firefighting assets needed to be accounted for and systematically deployed. Members of the fire department established an emergency command center at the Mary Joseph Residence for the Elderly, a defunct nursing home on the west bank of the Mississippi River. By Wednesday, most of the department had regrouped there, and expanded into two adjacent facilities, Our Lady of Holy Cross College and Our Lady of Wisdom Healthcare Center. The compound, which came to be known as Woodland, quickly became a major multiagency command center for the NOFD, New Orleans Police Department, and Emergency Medical Services.

Gordon Cagnolatti, District Chief, discusses the creation of the West Bank compound—which came to be known as the Katrina Hilton—where the NOFD regrouped after the floodwaters rose.
January 24, 2006

Thomas Howley, Captain, on safety measures taken during search and rescue missions.
April 28, 2006

Robert McCoy, Captain, recalls rescuing a man trapped in his flooded home.
December 29, 2005

Thomas Meagher, Captain, on conducting water rescues throughout the night.
January 4, 2006

Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries

Agents and biologists with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) arrived in a convoy from Baton Rouge with about 120 boats in tow on the day the storm hit. They immediately launched extensive boat rescue operations, taking over a staging area set up by the New Orleans Fire Department on the Elysian Fields I-10 exit ramp and establishing another base at the St. Claude Avenue Bridge in the Ninth Ward. Their mission was to pull people out of the floodwaters and bring them to dry ground. They were very successful in this; on the first day they saved thousands. But a lack of available transportation to bring rescued flood victims to shelters outside the city proved a major problem, particularly at the St. Claude Avenue Bridge. LDWF agents were involved in boat rescue efforts throughout the area following the storm. They were also instrumental in the evacuation of downtown hospitals.

Joe Chandler, Senior Agent, describes the crowded, chaotic, and at times violent conditions on the interstate during the course of rescue operations.
May 12, 2008

James Hagan, Sergeant, details his involvement in search and rescue efforts in the Ninth Ward.
May 14, 2008

Stephen McManus, Captain, relates his frustration with the inability to provide for the basic needs of people being rescued.
January 18, 2008

Darryl Moore, Lieutenant, explains how he acquired school buses to transport residents of St. Bernard Parish away from the Algiers Ferry Landing.
April 22, 2008

Rachel Zechenelly, Lieutenant, describes the chaotic situation near the St. Claude Avenue Bridge.
January 28, 2008

Paul Scott Watson, Sergeant, details the rescue of a child who was alone for several days following the storm.
May 12, 2008

Louisiana Department of Corrections 

Immediately following the storm, Louisiana Department of Corrections (LDOC) staff members from around the state were dispatched to New Orleans. The Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff’s office determined not to evacuate the prisons prior to the storm. When the levees broke, there were more than 6,500 inmates housed in a downtown New Orleans prison complex. In one building, prisoners broke through interior walls and ran loose within the prison compound. Fights, fires, and small-scale rioting ensued. With the water still rising, LDOC officers’ first priority was to move inmates to dry ground. Inmates were transported from the prison complex by boat to a highway overpass where they waited under the supervision of correctional personnel and probation and parole officers. The prisoners were then transported by bus to correctional facilities throughout the state. Many civilians stranded on the same highway overpass resented that prisoners were being evacuated while they remained stranded, but LDOC’s mission was to first secure and evacuate inmates. Probation and parole officers used their state vehicles to carry “walking wounded” civilians with them in the convoy to Baton Rouge, while correctional officers focused on evacuating the Orleans Parish Prison. LDOC staff went on to assist with the establishment and operation of a temporary city holding facility and with efforts to provide security to the New Orleans Fire Department on call-outs.

Burl Cain, Warden at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, describes the dismal conditions inside Orleans Parish Prison’s Community Correctional Center building, security concerns, and evacuating the building with the Angola Tactical Team.
March 23, 2009

Orville Lamartiniere, Lieutenant Colonel at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, recalls the evacuation of Orleans Parish Prison facilities and the importance of communicating with inmates.
March 24, 2009

Melissa Murray, Probation and Parole Officer II, from the Natchitoches District Office, Louisiana Division of Adult Probation and Parole, recounts hearing gunfire in the distance while providing security in New Orleans after the storm.
June 18, 2009

James A. Paul, Captain, from the J. Levy Dabadie Correctional Center, recalls memorable interactions with civilians on the Broad Street overpass and his concern for an unresponsive infant whose mother refused to be evacuated.
June 17, 2009

Melissa Young, Probation and Parole Specialist, from the Baton Rouge District Office, Louisiana Division of Adult Probation and Parole, on the transportation of the “walking wounded” to safety in Baton Rouge and the difficulty of choosing who was transported and who was left behind.
December 17, 2008

Michael Wynne, Probation and Parole Supervisor, from the Alexandria District Office, Louisiana Division of Adult Probation and Parole, discusses guarding evacuated Orleans Parish Prison inmates held on the Broad Street overpass.
December 16, 2008


DMAT CA-6, a Disaster Medical Assistance Team from the San Francisco Bay area operating under the FEMA umbrella, was pre-positioned to Houston just prior to the storm. From Houston the team traveled to Baton Rouge, where they helped set up a staging area for federal resources. On Wednesday, August 31, they traveled to the New Orleans Arena to provide medical assistance to those at the nearby Superdome. They were successful at first, evacuating hundreds of patients by helicopter and caring for hundreds more as best they could with rapidly diminishing supplies. But the frustration level among the thousands stranded in and around the Superdome was high; tensions flared. According to DMAT team members, numerous victims assaulted in the crowd were brought to the clinic, some severely beaten, along with a National Guardsman with a gunshot wound to his leg. As time passed, the crowds outside the clinic became larger and more desperate. Guardsmen assigned to the clinic security detail were called away, and several people forced their way into the clinic area to grab supplies or to force the medical team to treat ill family members. Several DMAT members were physically assaulted. On September 1, with dwindling supplies, no means to evacuate patients, and rapidly deteriorating safety, the team’s commander ordered an abandonment of their mission. DMAT CA-6 was later assigned to Louis Armstrong International Airport, where team members assisted in the evacuation of thousands of medical patients.

David Lipin, Commander, highlights the security challenges that made it necessary for the DMAT team to leave the Superdome and their patients behind.
January 19, 2007

Ron Lopez, Supervisory Nurse Specialist, recalls the journey to the Superdome, and details the pickup of a woman from an interstate ramp.
January 20, 2007

Leia Mehlman, Registered Nurse, describes the triage process at the Superdome, and how a lack of access to medications severely aggravated patients’ chronic conditions.
January 20, 2007

Barbara Morita, Physician Assistant, on conditions at the Superdome and deaths of individuals waiting to be evacuated.
January 20, 2007

Toby Nelson, Chaplain, recalls working in the “expectant area” at the airport and arena.
January 20, 2007

Toby Nelson describes how quickly social order broke down and “survival ethics” emerged among people sheltered at the Superdome.
January 20, 2007

Arkansas National Guard

When Katrina struck, the 39th Infantry Brigade of the Arkansas Army National Guard (AANG) had recently returned from Iraq, and much of its equipment was still overseas. It was the first unit called to back up the Louisiana National Guard. At the time of AANG’s deployment to New Orleans, the media reported that Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco made statements suggesting that the AANG was willing to use deadly force in order to prevent looting in the city. On September 3, 2005, the New York Times reported Blanco as saying, “These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary.” In reality Blanco had approved explicit instructions to incoming troops that limited their authority to the protection of civilians.

Guardsmen were instrumental in facilitating the evacuation of the veterans’ hospital in downtown New Orleans, and in providing security and aid during the evacuation of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. The Arkansas guard, which included members of the Arkansas Air National Guard, remained in southeast Louisiana for months following the storm and was instrumental in the initial cleanup and recovery of St. Bernard Parish.

James David Cox, Lieutenant, on why establishing a joint task force was the most effective way for the Arkansas National Guard to respond to Hurricane Katrina.
October 25, 2006
(00 :38)

Jeffrey Frisby, Staff Sergeant, discusses the impact of the war in Iraq on the Arkansas National Guard’s response to Hurricane Katrina.
October 26, 2006

Mark Lumpkin, Lieutenant Colonel, on evacuating the Convention Center and ensuring that families stayed together.
October 25, 2006

Thomas L. Parks, Command Sergeant, remembers the dead left behind at the Convention Center.
October 26, 2006

George Ross, Colonel, discusses communication, misunderstandings, and preparedness.
October 24, 2006

John C. Edwards, Lieutenant Colonel, on Governor Blanco, the media, and the shoot-to-kill order that never existed.
October 24, 2006