On August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina, having already crossed the Florida peninsula, made landfall in southeast Louisiana, coming ashore as a Category 3 storm, causing severe destruction along the gulf coast, much of it due to the storm surge. The most severe damage and loss of life occurred in New Orleans, which flooded as the city’s levee system failed. In the wake of the storm 1,836 fatalities have been confirmed and a number of people remain unaccounted for to this day.
Colorado did not get a drop of rain from the system that spun Hurricane Katrina, but we did get impact from the storm. Massive evacuations from the Gulf Coast reached out to the neighboring states. Colorado’s governor committed to taking evacuees to lighten the burden of other states. They would be welcome to seek temporary refuge or make a new life.
O.M.E.G.A. did not exist as a distinct organization at this time, but the individuals who came together to form it were already involved with the emergency response community in Colorado and, for the most part, knew one another before these events started to unfold.
It was September 1 when we got the notice that we were on alert for activation. Being on alert means having your gear ready and with you wherever you go. The initial information was sketchy. We were to handle the local side of the evacuation efforts, but we were not sure if we were going to be taking healthy refugees or supporting a medical evacuation. On September 3 we were upgraded to standby. That’s when a callout is imminent. We were receiving more concise information now. Evacuees from New Orleans would be brought into Denver and housed at the old Air Force dormitories at the decommissioned Lowry Air Force Base. Then it happened. The Morning of September 4 we were activated under ARES, the Amateur Radio Emergency Service. ARES supports a multitude of agencies with communications and coordination. We deploy with other units with ARES personnel being embedded with each of the teams and providing communications support for the operation.
A lot of folks look at what we do and say, “Can’t they use the phone? Don’t they have radios?” The answer would be a very resounding “no” and “no”. In a true disaster the first thing to go is communications. Phone service, land line and cellular, are commonly the first victims, even if the power has not gone out. Locally people panic, call for help, call relatives. And in the outside world everyone wants to know if their friends and family are okay. Calls come in with a far greater volume than the phone switches can handle. Five minutes into any newsworthy event the phone lines at ground zero are hopelessly jammed for hours. Radio communication is the way to go, but to the surprise of many, emergency and relief agencies are all on different frequencies with no means of contacting one another. In many cities even fire and police can not talk to one another. Crossing municipality lines only compounds this problem.
And that’s one of the problems that ARES solves. ARES personnel are assigned to different operational areas and we work to keep the system running. We do everything from passing messages from operations into the field to tracking down individuals on the go to aiding in the logistics efforts.
The origins behind being called “hams” has long since been lost to the radio community, but we still tend to call ourselves hams and this is how we’re known in the vernacular. The proper term is “amateur radio operator”, but this tends to get frowns from the public at large. “Amateur” tends to carry an image of sloppy work by careless hobbyists who will never be ready for the real thing. Often we frown at this moniker, too, but amateur, here, is an FCC designation meaning that for what we do we do not gather payment of any sort. We are a volunteer force, supplying our own gear, conducting our own exercises and making ourselves available to assist the “professional” agencies in disaster relief. With that said, it should be noted that amateur radio operators are among some of the most knowledgeable and professional responders in the world. In our agreement with the licensing authority we are granted free access to the airwaves in exchange for standing ready to assist local, state and federal agencies with their communications needs.
It’s Not Sexy
“Registration Management, Lowry 900.“
“This is Lowry 900. Go ahead.”
“The Salvation Army Canteen is out of mayonnaise. Can you check with their truck to see if they’ve got more?”
“You need more mayonnaise?”
“The Salvation Army Canteen at reception needs more mayonnaise.”
“Stand by, Registration Management. I’ll check. Lowry 900 clear.”
No kidding. Sometimes it’s just the little things. When we deployed, we were a group of about twenty communications specialists. We were supporting an estimated three hundred police, fire and medical personnel from a dozen metropolitan departments, about three hundred volunteers ranging from cleaning crews to victims’ advocates from Salvation Army, Red Cross and a multitude of church and community organizations and a number of evacuees that was yet to be determined. A normally empty Lowry campus quickly swelled up to the size of a small town.
A part of running that town was making sure that people were cared for. We did not need more victims than those that came on the planes. We had to look after the welfare of those who came to ease the burden of others. The Salvation Army deployed three food service areas, two at Lowry and another for the crews meeting the planes at Buckley Air Force Base five miles away. The logistics of serving three thousand meals a day are astronomical, so while a call for a jar of mayonnaise may be humorous, its contents represent the emotional well being of a vast group of people.
Isn’t That One a Little Too Young?
On our arrival the first day, one of our ARES responders was a thirteen year old girl. We were stopped at the credentialing trailer and told that the minimum volunteer age was eighteen and that she would not be admitted. That’s when the ARES “Emergency Communications” identification cards came out. To work communications for ARES our volunteers need to hold FCC amateur radio licenses. The FCC does not discriminate based on age, only on skill and if a thirteen year old can demonstrate that she understands the principles of radio communications, knows radio bands and communications protocols, can cobble together an antenna and calculate power output, then she is qualified and licensed. Her FCC license was escalated to a Denver Sheriff’s deputy and without delay she was processed and delivered to the communications trailer for assignment. She ended up being the youngest volunteer at Operation Safe Haven and, as irony would have it, was assigned to handle communications at the credentialing trailer the second day of the operation.
The Anatomy of a Rescue
“Where in the world is Building 863?” That was a common question throughout the operation and irregardless of who you wanted to talk to, you were probably going to Building 863. A lot of the administrative and support systems were located at this facility and controlled the rest of the Lowry campus, but Lowry wasn’t the only command.
Management for the operation took place in a busy Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in Centennial, Colorado, some eight miles south of Lowry. Here state and federal agencies manipulated the battle plan. The ARES manager was located here, together with one or more radio operators to run traffic between the EOC Command and the satellite locations.
The evacuation planes came in at Buckley Air Force Base, five miles east of Lowry. ARES deployed a communications trailer there to stay in touch with the EOC and share information with the staff at Lowry. Between the EOC Command and Buckley Command, we were receiving our information faster than the media and even faster than the managers who had faith in nothing more than their cell phones. Salvation Army also deployed a food trailer to Buckley. They tasked themselves with feeding the military and civilian personnel working the runways for Operation Safe Haven. In addition, using information we were able to provide them, they had upwards of 150 sack lunches ready as each plane landed and handed them out to the evacuees as they queued by, going from the planes to the waiting buses.
For a short time there was a plan to place a communications station at the Denver International Airport, but DIA Command never materialized. We had a fear that Buckley would not be properly staffed to take flights after hours and DIA would have been the next logical choice to receive large planes, but the Air Force came through for us by bringing in additional air traffic controllers and runway personnel to make sure they could handle the late night load. The extra work they took upon themselves saved us the trouble of having to deploy more people.
After the Lowry Air Force Base, the original home of the Air Force Academy, was decommissioned in 1994, the Lowry area underwent significant reconstruction. Lowry was a huge piece of land to be absorbed by a metropolitan area and most of it had been underdeveloped and lay unused. Denver and Aurora, the two cities surrounding Lowry, split the 1866 acres of land, creating new housing, shopping, recreation, business and educational areas, but even ten years later with a strong economic influx at Lowry, about half of the old base remained available for development and many of the old military buildings still stood on the campus unused.
Lowry was the hotbed of activity for Operation Safe Haven with the bulk of the operational staff stationed here. Building 863, the old Lowry Gymnasium, was reception for the evacuees. Lowry Command, Lowry Registration Management, Lowry Volunteer Coordinator and Lowry Salvation Army Canteen were stationed here. Also located here were Lowry Credentialing One for the evacuees and Lowry Credentialing Two for the volunteer staff, police and paramedic command, clothing distribution, a staff of victim advocates, the Colorado SART – the State Animal Rescue Team – and the Dumb Friends League for those pets that were taken from the disaster area.
A second heavily staffed area at Lowry was at Building 900. This is the newer Air Force dormitory, which had now sat unused for ten years. There were, of course, many barracks at Lowry, but comfort wise the dormitory was the top choice. It was a modern 312 room facility with each room capable of housing a family of four. Lowry 900 was heavily used and at a minimum two radio operators were stationed here with the need growing to as many as five people at times. Also stationed here was the Lowry Salvation Army main truck, the State of Colorado Emergency Management team, the Red Cross, medical teams to assist with injured evacuees, clergy, a secondary base for the volunteer coordinator and a maintenance crew to make sure any issues were quickly addressed. The two to five communications personnel at Lowry 900 worked with all of these teams to deliver information and arrange special preparations.
Additionally, there was a number of roving communications personnel. The Lowry Volunteer Coordinator was a common one to have wandering the campus. In addition to this we also had the Lowry Command Rover, resolving campus wide management issues, the Lowry Rover, helping get people and gear to various places, Lowry Fire, assisting the fire marshal who was making sure that all habitation issues had been addressed, the Lowry Bus, where evacuees were “triaged” and moved between facilities and the Lowry PIO – the operation’s Public Information Officer, having to walk a fine line between providing information to the media and preventing the media from assaulting the evacuees. We took the privacy of the victims of Hurricane Katrina very seriously and often our staff would interpose ourselves between a camera and an evacuee in a wheelchair to get them away from prying eyes.
A Leash on the Media
Needless to say, having a world news item touch Colorado was a big deal. News crews from all over the state and beyond were congregating on the Lowry perimeter, the only area where they could get close to the evacuees without being stopped. After the first day the police put up a bright orange tape fence and ordered the media to stay on the outside of this area. Still, there were many situations where the news crews would try to jump the fence or sneak in with other traffic to get a scoop. All staff was constantly on alert to stop the newshounds from causing trouble and the Lowry Public Information Office was soon a staff of a half dozen people trying to run the media gauntlet. The evacuees were all badged and were always free to come and go as they wished and free to talk to the media if they so desired. But they had to be the ones to make contact. The badges they were issued assured that they could come back to the safety and comfort of the dormitories at any time.
Of course the media were not the only problem. There were curiosity seekers, volunteers who were so anxious to help, they neglected to be processed and maintenance staff that would stumble into wrong areas uncredentialed. One such situation befell an ARES volunteer stationed at Lowry Salvation Army. Somewhere around 3 AM, as evacuees were being received, a man without an identifying armband appeared from behind the vehicles parked along the perimeter of the dormitory where the orange fence was. The communications staff is not a security force. At no point were we to deal directly with violators, but we were to make reports if we witnessed violations of the set rules and a call went out alerting everyone of a potential security breach. In well under a minute three police officers were questioning the man. It turned out to be a harmless maintenance worker with a need to take a look at a generator, but security of the evacuees came first and he had to be credentialed before being allowed back.
The Sound of One Hand Clapping
Initially many of agencies that never worked with ARES before would shy away from a person assigned to shadow them. A lot of times they would say, “I have a cell phone” or “I don’t need a tail” or “my staff can take care of it”. We would always politely tell them that if they needed us, we would be available, then take on other duties until we were needed back at our assigned locations. Inadvertently the situation would change. Cell phone batteries died, phones were lost, busy signals prevailed, staffs would become overwhelmed. One small emergency and everyone was ready to get their communications person back, especially since we gave them information while it was still fresh, not a half hour after it happened. By the end of our shifts the people we shadowed would be telling us that we made a tremendous difference in their day and would ask that we be assigned back to them the following day.
An operation on a scale such as this makes for a very busy place. When the pressure was on, no one wanted to drop the ball. People stayed multiple shifts, neglected breaks and would leave behind half eaten meals. It wasn’t uncommon to find those who worked back to back shifts or those who would go home to catch a few hours sleep and be back to do a second shift in the same twenty-four hour period.
This isn’t to say that there was no downtime. When we knew that no planes were expected, we would be stood down. Areas that worked registration and credentialing would usually be able to leave right away. Other support areas tended to stay involved until they were no longer needed. On at least one occasion this proved to be a comedy of errors.
“This is Lowry 900 to any station still on the air.”
That’s the moment when you realize that you’re no longer useful.
Send More Ham
Sunday, September 4, the first day of Operation Safe Haven, was a madhouse. We were dozens of agencies, hundreds of people, pulled together to accept evacuation flights. Most of the 600 volunteers and professionals had never done anything like this before. We had to learn to become a team, to understand the flow of operation and to trust that the people we handed the ball off to would not drop it. That’s a lot to do when the first big event that morning is an incoming Boeing 737 with 120 souls on board. You learn fast. You don’t have time to make mistakes and correct them.
Somehow we managed to pull the operation together. We were able to schedule shifts, get qualified people to fill them. Things managed to fall into place fairly well. The problems arose when shifts had to be modified. If planes were late or cancelled for the day, people would be stood down with a one hour or three hour call back. We’d sleep with radios tuned to the emergency frequency, in case an activation call was to come in. In some cases entire shifts were cancelled. Then we’d find out that we needed to get people to come in to meet a midnight flight. Those are the hardest ones, but amazingly the wealth of goodwill seemed infinite. Some communicators would work a regular shift at their day job, come in to work radio communications overnight, then return to their regular jobs in the morning. Many of our employers knew that we were first responders and cooperated with our needs in an emergency when ARES was activated. Some even offered paid leave.
What is Everything?
People coming off the planes were tired and dirty. They wore the same clothes for a week, enduring 90+ degree heat in 100 percent humidity. Before being evacuated, they were forced to leave their shoes behind due to the contaminated water they waded through. They were hungry, thirsty, often alone, not knowing where their friends and family and pets were. Their things were under water, homes ruined and banks closed. Many came without any form of identification, without so much as an overnight bag. As they exited, many carried what few precious possessions they managed to save in their hands. Volunteers would get them small white trash bags to place their things in and write their last names on the side in permanent marker so this last bit of the familiar would not be lost.
Watching this ravaged flow of people was enough to force some volunteers to leave their posts and seek shelter behind cars and buildings so they could cry over what they saw. Even victim advocates, trained counselors who aid crime victims after tragedies like murder and rape, had to escape from their tasks to gather themselves as Katrina’s fingers managed to touch them.
An older man stepping out onto Colorado soil paused and took in a deep breath of air. He was wearing an old t-shirt, a torn pair of slacks, old shoes that were probably not his as he wore them like slippers, no socks, unshaven, with a blanket draped across his shoulders. He stood on the lawn of the processing center, head lifted up as if it helped him breath, nostrils flaring as wide as they could, then said, “What a sweet smell! Back home, for a week, I had sewer water surrounding my house, nothing to drink, no matter how thirsty. The smell was terrible. Just when I thought I had gotten used to it, something new would bubble up. It made me sick. It’s so good to be here.”
Another evacuee reminisced that just hours earlier he was on the roof of his flooded house in New Orleans, water lapping at his feet. It was dark and windy and out of nowhere a helicopter’s spotlight hit him and moments later Coast Guard personnel were taking him to the airport, away from where he lived his entire life.
Children and adults alike shuffled through the registration line like refugees from a foreign land, doomed to an unknown fate in a place they had never seen before. Each child would be given a coloring book and a beanie baby and old and young alike they clung to these gifts as if they would never let them go. Sadly, no exaggeration or poetic license is used for these descriptions. In most cases this was all that these children now had to call their own. Everything else had been long since lost.
Not all evacuees came healthy. Some were injured either before or after the disaster. Many were given wheelchairs. One evacuee was too weak to be able to walk on his own. An ambulance was needed to transport him from Registration Management to the medical area at Lowry 900. It was around 2 AM and the media had just arrived at the orange fence outside the dormitory building. They turned on a spotlight and aimed a camera at the commotion. Immediately two volunteers moved in between the paramedics and the news crew, trying to save what little dignity the evacuees had left.
We had to be careful as none of these folks were processed before coming to Colorado. We had no idea if they were exposed to hepatitis, cholera, giardia, dysentery or other nasty bugs. We were alerted to sick people coming with the planes. There were asthmatics without medication, people with heart conditions and a person with kidney problems in need of dialysis. All of this added to the already complicated operation.
A striking memory were the people who continued searching for their families. One evacuee was happy and worried at the same time. He and his family were put on two different planes in New Orleans, being told that their destination was the same place, but having arrived in Colorado he was distressed to discover that his wife and children were at an evacuation center in Atlanta, Georgia.
Yet, they were the lucky ones. They made it out alive and knew that their family members were alive and well and where they were and this made them lucky in that respect. In sharp contrast to this, another man lost track of his sister even though they were evacuated together and he cared a lot less about his own future than about what had happened to her.
An elderly woman stood by the orange fence with a cluster of television cameras and reporters. She held a handful of weathered and worn photographs of her daughter and granddaughter. She had no idea if they had made it out of New Orleans at all.
Post Traumatic Stress
There was little time to watch these events unfold. As we would finish with one group, another would be ready for us to undertake.
“Lowry 900, Lowry Bus.“
“This is Lowry 900. Go ahead.”
“We just sent you another bus. I don’t have a head count, but it was full.”
It’s hard to slow down when this is a two minute warning and buses with twenty to twenty-five people cycle through every ten minutes. You aid someone down the ramp, help with a wheelchair, pick up a dropped toy for a child. You don’t even bother to remember the faces. The one you will turn to see next will look exactly like the one that just passed you by. They were infants and elderly, skinny and fat, black and white. Some managed to save a small bag. Others held on to the white trash bag that they had been given. There was grief in everyone’s eyes. They were all dirty and smelly and too tired to be friendly. Some were crying. Some looked like nothing mattered to them anymore. As volunteers we had to struggle to stay passive to the pain that we saw. There was no way to comfort it. These people lost everything and were lucky to be alive. The sum worth of their possessions was in a bag that on any other day would hold rubbish. You’d just whisper to yourself, “get this one in, there are more coming” and push on.
Trauma is a funny thing. Some days you can go on and on and on and it seems as if nothing can take you down, then days later dread manages to wrap its hands around you and pull you down. The news will show a clip of footage with the evacuees and you won’t know their names, but remember a face and the way they clutched their trash bag and the way they gingerly stepped off the bus, afraid of this new world they’ve been sent to. Remembering is far harder than passing by the evacuees and not knowing their names does not protect you. You wake up in the morning and remember the fuzzy images of a dream – people, dirty and unwashed, huddled together, escaping. And you don’t know them, but you know their faces. They become a part of you. That, too, is a part of the job. Rescuers often become trapped by what they do.
The Rising Sun
A week after the evacuation we learned that the woman with the photographs at the fence who lost her daughter and granddaughter had found them once again with the aid of the Red Cross database. When rescue came to her house in New Orleans, there was not enough room on the helicopter to take everyone and she forced her family to go, choosing to stay behind in the rising water and wait for the rescuers to return. The helicopter came back for her and took her with the rest of the evacuees to the airport where she was placed on a flight to Denver. By this time her family was already safely on their way to Houston.
Worth the Price
After Operation Safe Haven was over and we had a chance to relax and catch up on the sleep we had lost, one of our members who had doubts about all the training reflected, “I’ve been licensed as an [amateur radio] operator for only two weeks and look at what I’ve done.”
Yes, giving these people a new home was well worth everything that we did.
By the end of September Colorado had given shelter to over 3000 residents of the Gulf Coast. They were provided with shelter, food and clothing. Special job fairs were held for them and local colleges offered reduced tuition and created late enrollment opportunities. Hundreds of children and teenagers were placed in local schools. Ever so slowly life was returning to normal for the evacuees and many of them were ready to make Colorado their new home.
We welcomed them to our state and extended our hands in friendship. We realized that many were here to stay and we were happy that we were able to make their trip just a little bit easier. As September wound down, we tried to put the disaster behind us and return to the training that made ARES and CERT so valuable to communities across the country.
It was another year before O.M.E.G.A. started coming together as a team, but that first week in September of 2005 had laid the foundation for what we do today. In the wake of a disaster volunteer responders were asked to step up and help. It was Labor Day weekend, hot and dry, and we were standing side by side with professionals, helping care for those who had lost everything. On any other day it could have been us facing the disaster, unprepared and unorganized, lost and in need of help. We do what we do because it needs to be done. The reward is knowing that we were able to help. We hope that we never have to face another large scale disaster, but we also stand ready to face it, should it come.