Covering Katrina Was Story of a Lifetime

Hurricane Katrina is forever seared in the memories of journalists who covered the disaster and its aftermath—and the human tragedies that we relive in nightmares, and try and put behind us. Here is my story.

The big Navy S-3 helicopter was skimming over the water along the Gulf Coast. We had left the Naval Air Station at Pensacola, Fla., about 30 minutes earlier and we were heading for the amphibious assault ship (LHD-7), or baby carrier USS Iwo Jima, which was docked at the foot of Canal Street in New Orleans.

The date was Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2005; eight days after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

I had never before flown in any kind of aircraft except a commercial airliner, much less a military helicopter designed for search and rescue and anti-submarine warfare. I was strapped on a canvas seat running down the left (or port) side of the helicopter. Facing me on the right (or starboard) side was a huge open doorway, or hatch. The only thing between me and the water 100 feet below was my seat belt. I checked it constantly to make sure it was securely fastened. Was I scared? Out of my mind!

Why am I here? My husband, Ivan, is a Pentagon correspondent. For some months he had been trying to arrange an embarkation, or “embark” for both of us on a big, slant-deck aircraft carrier. He would cover the event for radio station WTOP in Washington, and other broadcast outlets. I would interview Hispanic sailors, particularly those from my native Puerto Rico and would do reports for several Spanish-language radio stations.

Veteran radio newscaster and White House correspondent Sarah Scott arriving in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Two days after Katrina came ashore the Navy notified us that the carrier USS Harry S. Truman was steaming for the Gulf of Mexico and that we could be airlifted to the ship from Pensacola in a few days. Ivan and I confirmed our interest and flew commercial air to Pensacola, where on the scheduled day we reported to the Naval Air Station there. When we got to the point of departure, a hanger on the base, a very helpful and informed Navy public affairs officer took us aside. Lt. Enid Wilson told us the Truman was lying well offshore and acting as a refueling platform for rescue helicopters, and that the carrier’s air wing had been left behind in Virginia Beach. Since much of our anticipated story was to cover carrier air operations (or “air-ops”), including watching jet fighters come screaming over the stern, catch one of four arresting cables, and go from about 150 mph to dead stop in three seconds, we realized an embark on the Truman wouldn’t give us much of a story. Wilson said a helicopter was leaving for the carrier in about an hour, but another “helo” was taking off in 10 minutes for the Iwo Jima and there was room for us on board. The choice was easy.

The ascent in the S-3 from the runway at Pensacola, and some of the in-flight maneuvers had me a bit queasy, but the adrenalin and the excitement overcame the nausea. I made the one-hour flight with “Zero Barf.”

When we made the approach to the Iwo Jima, our pilot flew over downtown New Orleans and flooded sections of the city and suburbs. Everything was under water, with destruction caused by the floodwaters and hurricane winds everywhere. Along the Mississippi, huge river barges and large tow boats were tossed onto the river banks like toys. The devastation was overwhelming, but what really hit me the hardest was the total absence of people. The entire area was a ghost town.

Upon landing we were met by two other Navy public affairs officers, Lt. Cmdr. Dave Nunnally and Lt. Karen Hyland, who was to become our “den-mother” for the next five days. She took us below to meet the Iwo Jima’s commanding officer, Cpt. Richard Callas. Over coffee, and following a warm “welcome aboard,” he explained the mission of his ship, and two others in his flotilla docked nearby. The Iwo Jima was also serving as a filling station for thirsty rescue helicopters, and as a supply facility for the stricken people ashore. The ship was loaded to the gunwales with bottled water and MREs, (Meals Ready to Eat). Coast Guard, Navy and Army helicopters were constantly landing, refueling, loading up with food and water, and departing for ravaged areas of the city and suburbs.

Sailors from the Iwo Jima, and the other two ships, the USS Tortuga, a dock landing ship (LSD-46), and the USS Shreveportt, an amphibious transport dock (LPD-12), were going ashore in small Zodiac rubber boats to distribute supplies and to coax residents, now refugees, to come back to the ships with them.

The offer was “three hots and a cot,” three hot meals, a hot shower, and a warm, comfortable place to sleep.

The first few hours aboard the Iwo Jima we were taken to our assigned stateroom (actually two adjoining rooms with a bathroom, or “head” in-between), given a tour of the ship (which included how to climb and descend the ship’s steep, almost vertical stairs, or “ladders”), shown where Ivan and I could file our reports, cautioned about how to step through hatches without banging our shins on the raised lower lip of the hatches, and given lunch, or chow, with what seemed to be gallons of strong Navy coffee in the Iwo Jima’s wardroom. We were also shown the ship’s state-of-the-art hospital with accommodations for 1,200 patients. Amphibious assault ships are designed to carry up to 2,000 Marines into battle, along with their transport and attack helicopters and Harrier Jump Jets (that can takeoff and land almost vertically). In the Iwo Jima’s hospital there are surgical lights installed in the overhead in case there are a lot of wounded and the operating rooms are full. We later learned that though this hospital was ready and staffed to handle Katrina survivors it was barely used. The Navy tried to get the word out, but apparently the bureaucracy got in the way. It seems to have gotten in the way of most Katrina relief.

While having lunch it was decided that if we wanted to go ashore on the rescue missions we should transfer to the Tortuga. The reason was her sailors were concentrating on Lower Ninth Ward and neighboring St. Bernard Parish, two of the most devastated parts of New Orleans and environs.

We gathered our gear and Hyland escorted us down to the Iwo Jima’s well deck where we jumped aboard a Zodiac and headed for the Tortuga, docked about a mile upstream. On board with us were the captains of the Tortuga and Shreveport who had been aboard the Iwo Jima for a meeting to coordinate with all concerned (FEMA, military, local and state politicians) the rescue efforts.

It was hard to talk over the roar of the outboard motor and the banging of the boat against the river as we sped along, but Cmdr. Mark Scovill, commanding officer of the Tortuga, told us how his sailors had managed to so far bring more than 50 stranded people from Lower Ninth Ward back to his ship for care and feeding, and the sailors were working the area every day to fetch more.

We learned later that Scovill went ashore in the first boat with his men, and led the effort to convince stricken residents that returning with him was the best immediate option for them. That took some doing. Many of the residents had been frightened by what they told us were heavy-handed tactics by some law enforcement agencies, including banging on doors with rifle butts, and threatening to physically drag people away if they didn’t come voluntarily. The residents were also told that they had to leave any pets behind.

Scovill and his sailors employed a more gentle approach; realizing how pets are like members of the family, he said the residents could bring their pets with them. Sailors from the Tortuga, on their own time and using scrap materials built a kennel on the dock next to the ship where they gave dogs, cats, and other assorted animals food and loving care. While Ivan and I were aboard, there were 40 animals in the kennel, and we’re told more were added after we left.

Ivan and I made several trips ashore from the Tortuga. On one trip, we had to board a small power boat that was tied-up in the now flooded well deck by descending a thirty-foot Jacob’s ladder. This is a flexible ladder with rope sides and wooden rungs that swings and sways as you use it. When I was told I had to go down that ladder I just knew I was going to fall-off and be killed. I’m not ancient, but I’ve lived enough years to know that kind of physical activity is best left to those much younger than I. However, I was not going to let on that I was scared to death so I mustered my courage, grabbed the rope sides of the ladder and descended. I made it down without incident, but (can you believe it) Ivan didn’t even take a picture!

The lead sailor leading the search and rescue teams from the Tortuga was Petty Officer 1st Class Doug Winslow. He was so good in getting residents to return with him to the ship we labeled him the Pied Piper of the Tortuga. Unlike the fable, however, Winslow’s efforts ended happily.

When we would go ashore we took the Zodiacs downstream to a huge warehouse called Camp Katrina, a warehouse loaded with food and water and donated clothing.

From there we would get in two fairly new four-door sedans (Winslow would only say they were “requisitioned” by the Navy for the effort), and drive into the sections of Lower Ninth Ward where the flood waters had receded. By the time Ivan and I got there most of the residents had been evacuated. There was an eerie stillness as we drove along the streets. On the front door of the homes, (or what was left of them), the sailors and others had spray-painted a large circle with a cross inside dividing the circle into four quadrants. In the upper left-hand quadrant was the date the house was checked; to the right, how many people were then inside; in the lower left, how many had been evacuated, and where; in the lower right, how many bodies had been found inside.

We drove the Lower Ninth Ward for about an hour, finding nobody, but it was obvious that Winslow was heading for a particular street. We turned up that street (all the street signs had been blown away) and stopped in front of a one-story house that on the outside seemed to be fairly undamaged.

Sitting in a canvas chair in front of 624 Lizardi was a rather large woman who appeared to be in her 60s. Next to her two men were standing, one young, one old. We learned the older man was her husband; the younger their son.

It was quickly apparent that Winslow had been here before because he greeted them warmly by name. Taking us aside, he explained he had been trying to convince this family to return to the Tortuga with him but that the husband flatly refused to leave. Mr. H. Gillett (he didn’t want to give us his first name) told us that although everything inside their home had been ruined by the flood waters, he had plenty of bottled water and a small portable stove with dry wood to cook on. He said they had plenty of unspoiled food, and he pointed to two lime trees in his front yard which he said yielded lots of juice. When I asked him why he didn’t want to take his wife, son, and himself to the relative comfort of the ship, he said “Me and my wife and twelve kids have lived in this house for 40 years. I know what I got here. I don’t know what I’d get with you.”

Talking to Mrs. Gillett it was clear to me she and her son were willing to go, but they wouldn’t leave without her husband. Winslow told Mr. Gillett this was the last time he’d be able to visit them, and that it was either now or never. Mr. Gillett still declined to go.

On the way back to the ship, Winslow confided he was going to give it one last try the next day. We found out after we left that attempt partially succeeded. Winslow managed to convince Mr. Gillett to allow his wife and son to leave, but Mr. Gillett stayed on.

I have been trying to learn what happened to Mr. Gillett but so far without luck. Was his home razed? Did he eventually leave and link up with his wife and son? Or, is he still at 624 Lizardi, managing as best he can? Unanswered questions like so many in the aftermath of Katrina.

(A note: All the tragedy I witnessed in, and around New Orleans was personally devastating to me. In 1956 Hurricane Betsy, a category 3 storm ravaged my home town of Baranquitas, Puerto Rico. Our little house was swept away and I, along with my mother, father, sisters and brothers, was left homeless and destitute. Katrina brought back a flood of heart wrenching emotions.)

Five days after landing on the Iwo Jima Ivan and I said our goodbyes, expressed our gratitude to all those who made this trip the most memorable of my life, boarded another Navy helicopter and flew back to Pensacola. There we bummed a ride on a Navy C-9 “Skytrain,” configured to carry cargo. After stopping outside Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss., to drop off pallets of supplies for the needy residents of the stricken Gulf Coast we flew to the Naval

At the air station in Norfolk, Va., we RONd (remained over night) and then finally flew commercial back to Washington.

As with so many stories, including disasters, one has to be there to really appreciate the magnitude of what happened. The one thing no news organization was able to convey in the weeks following Katrina was the overpowering stench that was everywhere in and around New Orleans. That putrid mixture of oil and chemicals, garbage, human and animal waste, and decaying dead bodies remained in my nostrils for weeks and will be in my memory for the rest of my life.

No question, covering the Katrina story was an incredible experience—one that I’m sure will not be matched in my lifetime.

If another disaster occurs, natural or otherwise, would I want to cover it? I’d probably be apprehensive, and still scared to death, but as a reporter, you bet!

One more thing before I sign-off.

It became quickly obvious to Ivan and me that the men and women of our military, including the active force and the National Guard and Reserve did an incredible job of providing relief after the worst natural disaster in our nation’s history. Nobody else could have done it. The quick response and the level of professionalism by All Hands were outstanding. Neither Ivan nor I heard one complaint from anybody in uniform while we were there. Quite the contrary, morale was high, and the attitude was Can Do. It’s hard to single out any one unit, or act of courage, but all those we talked to aboard the ships verbally saluted the courageous pilots and crews of the Coast Guard helicopters who early on dodged power-lines and other obstructions to pluck stranded people to safety. Well done!