Mobile Hit by High Winds, High Water

In Alabama, one of the hardest-hit areas appears to have been in and around the city of Mobile. Robert Siegel talks with Captain Jim Bjostad, Unified Commander of the U.S. Coast Guard for Sector Mobile in Alabama, about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Once-mighty Hurricane Katrina is heading inland at this hour. The hurricane has now been downgraded to a tropical storm. Hours after Katrina hit the coasts of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, the extent of the devastation is still unclear. Louisiana's US senator, Mary Landrieu, says evacuees in her state should not think about returning home yet.

Senator MARY LANDRIEU (Democrat, Louisiana): We don't know if the bridges are safe. We do know that there's a lot of water on the interstates, and the state troopers have said that people will be turned away if they try to come back.

SIEGEL: In Alabama, one of the hardest-hit areas appears to be in and around the city of Mobile. US Coast Guard Captain Jim Bjostad is monitoring the situation.

Captain JIM BJOSTAD (US Coast Guard): We've had a number of incidents. We had winds in excess of a hundred miles an hour and a pretty impressive storm surge, much larger than we anticipated, probably in the neighborhood of 15-foot storm surge. So we had a lot of vessels and other structures breaking loose, one of which was an oil-drilling platform that was being worked on here. It broke loose in the storm, floated up underneath a bridge and got jammed, broke loose later and went back downriver again, understanding, in hundred-mile-an-hour winds. I understand it has now been secured. There was a 600-foot naval auxiliary vessel that broke loose, and they managed to secure themselves after they ran up against another vessel. And I have a number of barges that are out loose floating around. But I think the biggest challenge right now is there is a tremendous amount of debris in the water, everything from barrels to buoys to--you name it, flotsam and jetsam of every sort.

SIEGEL: Now tell us more about this drilling platform. It wasn't actually, as I understand it, in operation. It was effectively in dry dock for repair. Is that right?

Capt. BJOSTAD: Exactly. It was on a barge, and it was being worked on at a shipyard, and I don't know which one. But they were doing a routine overhaul and maintenance on it. It was fairly well secured, but, again, this is a large structure with what we call sail area, which is large-sized, lots of things for wind to catch ahold of. And when you have something that big, you can basically think of about a five- or six-story building on stilts, and the wind hits it at a hundred miles an hour, it's going to put tremendous forces on it, and the mooring was unable to hold it.

SIEGEL: Well, if such a structure hit the bridge, what's the condition of the bridge as a result?

Capt. BJOSTAD: We don't know how much damage it did. It depends on how hard it hit and what angle it hit at and so on.

SIEGEL: Now you are the unified commander. You're in Mobile, Alabama, but you're the unified commander for Sector Mobile, which covers a lot of the Gulf Coast in that part of the country.

Capt. BJOSTAD: Right. Right.

SIEGEL: Do you have good information from your entire sector?

Capt. BJOSTAD: Well, I don't right now, and, again, the problem is communications. I have one satellite phone that I'm able to communicate with folks with. But a lot of folks that I need to talk to do not have that kind of communication. I expect that we'll be re-establishing better communications, getting radios back up. You know, a lot of our antennas were knocked down and so on, but we've got mobile radio units that we had ordered in well in advance of the storm, knowing we would need them. We're setting them up right now (technical difficulties).

SIEGEL: Now apart from securing vessels and structures that are loose in the bay there, have you had rescue missions? Have people been harmed, or have you retrieved people from the water?

Capt. BJOSTAD: Well, an interesting thing I think most people don't realize is when the coast is told to evacuate, we evacuate all of our rescue boats and people as well, so our people are safe and so our boats can be returned to service once the danger is past. But I've got a fleet of nine Coast Guard helicopters that are on their way. They should be here shortly. And we'll be working through the night, through the state emergency operations centers, to go out and find the people that are stranded on rooftops or stranded in remote areas. And we'll pick them up, and we'll take them to safety.

SIEGEL: All that flotsam and jetsam you talked about, all that debris, in Mobile Bay, what do you do about it? How long does it take you? What kind of an operation is it to clean that up?

Capt. BJOSTAD: Well, a number of people are involved in the recovery. It's going to be a state, local and federal cleanup involving everything from employees to contractors. This one's going to take months to clean up.

SIEGEL: Captain Jim Bjostad of the US Coast Guard in Mobile Alabama, thanks a lot for talking with us.

Capt. BJOSTAD: Thank you.

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