Shadowing soldiers on a tour of destruction | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Shadowing soldiers on a tour of destruction

Court Leve

Looking toward downtown from a blackhawk helicopter, blocks after blocks of homes are seen up to their roofs in water. It was easy to smell the stench of raw sewage.

Editor’s note: Last week, Truckee photographer Court Leve, who works for the Tahoe World newspaper, sister paper of the Tahoe Daily Tribune, followed Reno’s Air National Guard to New Orleans to cover the Hurricane Katrina relief effort. Here is a journal of the events he witnessed.

Living among the men and women of our armed services for only a few days, I gained an even deeper respect for their dedication to our country. During most of my time in New Orleans, I was cut off from outside news. It was only hours before I left New Orleans that Chief Master Gray from Reno delivered the most recent televised news from the overly dramatic show “Oprah.”

According to Gray, Oprah discussed the state of affairs and claimed that 50 to 60 people were dying each day at the Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans – and that the military was treating survivors like luggage.

To the men and women on the ground in New Orleans this news was extremely frustrating as it couldn’t be further from the truth. The only truth I could find to this comment is that people were being transported by luggage-handling vehicles, instead of having to walk from their rescue helicopters to the terminal to receive treatment.

My visit to New Orleans started from the Reno Air National Guard base, located at the Reno International Airport. I joined a small crew of enlisted and part-time National Guardsmen, as well as General Cynthia Kirkland, who is responsible for overseeing the entire Nevada National Guard. This was her first visit to New Orleans since the disaster struck.

The goal of Kirkland’s visit was to survey the site firsthand, to meet other top ranking officers and address the troops under her command. We left the New Orleans Naval Air station via a “procured” large-capacity van, later traded for a golf cart. Packed full, the van proceeded to the convention center, which, by our arrival, was mostly cleared of survivors.

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The grounds of the convention center were, to put it mildly, trashed. Twisted shopping carts, piles of bicycles and loose trash was everywhere. Kirkland continued onward through the various debris and personally met with everyone as time permitted. Her presence was an obvious morale boost for the medics and troops that arrived shortly after the disaster.

At the international airport-turned-field hospital, we met several top ranking officials from the military and FEMA, and learned that red, green and yellow signs dictated priority levels of the wounded. The airport was empty of casualties, but I learned that days prior to my arrival, the scene was chaotic. Many doctors and nurses worked on only a couple of hours of sleep.

Kirkland finished her tour and meetings and hopped on her return C-130 flight to Reno. I opted to stay and made myself at home in the D concourse along with roughly 100 others. Usually, spending the night at an airport is your last resort, but in this case, with the power on, plumbing working and air conditioning cranking, it was a welcomed refuge to the near 90-degree temperatures and equal humidity outside.

I was issued a cot and slept among my newfound friends, a mix of soldiers, doctors and nurses from all over the country, representing the Army, Air Force and National Guard. Though filled with a bit of adrenaline, I was able to find sleep over the symphony of snoring men.

I awoke to the sight of men and women in fatigues armed with pistols and rifles going about their daily duties. Some were in place to secure the interior of the airport and others were on patrol of the airport grounds. Groggily, I began speaking with some Army Blackhawk pilots, who were gracious enough to offer me a ride to survey the city for myself.

Pilots Michael J. Putnam, Charles Reed and Crew Chief Sean Durbin of Ft. Hood Texas escorted me along with PR Officer Roy Harvey and Lance Bookenoogen, both from Reno, to the flight deck. After a short briefing we strapped ourselves in and took to the sky.

This was my first sight of the city, other than what has been shown on TV and in newspapers. It’s hard to comprehend blocks upon blocks of the city filled with water up to, and in some cases over, the rooflines of houses. Cars and trucks were completely submerged, and the scene looked similar in every direction. I even stopped taking pictures for a while.

We hurried to a makeshift landing zone only to wait for several hours for a general who never showed. Speaking with the Blackhawk crew, the frustration of their current assignment was apparent. The helo-guys wanted to use their skills and abilities to help with search-and-rescue efforts, not have their birds grounded, while they waited to baby-sit officials.

Finally relieved of our duty, we were turned loose to “freelance” for a few hours. This consisted of roaming the city by air looking for survivors, bodies and calling in potential hazards, like flames shooting out of active gas lines. Over the radio, calls went back and forth between other Blackhawk crews and their ground support. Some called in bodies, others radioed that they had found survivors who refused to be evacuated.

I returned to the Sierra on Friday with the Reno Air Guard with live images of the destruction impressed in my mind. Famed areas of the city, like Bourbon Street and the French Quarter, are now associated with phrases like “unprecedented disaster” and “devastation.”

Images and words depicting the hurricane can only create a two-dimensional narrative, but the flat-out truth is that seeing the city firsthand doesn’t make comprehending the destruction of Hurricane Katrina any easier.