Coast Guard Copters Pluck Survivors from Rooftops

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Robert Siegel talks with Coast Guard Capt. Jim Bjostad, commander of Sector Mobile, about search and rescue operations. His helicopters are flying along the Mississippi coast, picking people off of roofs. Bjostad says he and his pilots have seen complete devastation throughout the coastal region.


Coast Guard Captain Jim Bjostad is coordinating search-and-rescue missions from the airport in Mobile, Alabama. We reached him there earlier today. He has a dozen helicopters flying over the entire Mississippi coast, and Bjostad and his pilots are getting a good view of the damage.

Captain JIM BJOSTAD (US Coast Guard): Well, I gotta tell you I got up this morning and was flying at first light, and I flew over to Pascagoula and around Pascagoula. The devastation that I saw it in the daytime was complete. The houses that line the waterfront in Pascagoula, these beautiful stately homes, 90 percent of them have disappeared from the face of the Earth. They're just gone. There's nothing left but a concrete slab or a bare piece of dirt. The 10 percent that are still there are completely destroyed; in one case, the entire roof of probably a 4,500-square-foot house sitting on the ground.

The pilots that came back and the ones that I talked to before I took off this morning--they had that look in their eyes that only comes when you are in utter awe of what you have seen and what you have done. These brave men and women worked through the night, in some cases, chopping holes in roofs to get people that were trapped inside of roofs out onto the roof, so they could hoist them into the helicopter. They said that what they saw with their Nightsun lights, on the bottoms of the helicopters, was beyond anything that they could describe. I think what we're looking at is something that's almost unimaginable has happened to the Mississippi coast, and I can only imagine what it looks like in New Orleans if Mississippi looks this bad.

SIEGEL: You said that you've been able to evacuate--the Coast Guard has been able to evacuate people from roofs. Do you have a list of addresses and coordinates that you have to get to, and is there a number of people that you know you have to evacuate from roofs and buildings?

Capt. BJOSTAD: The last time I checked, which was before I got on the helicopter this morning, is we had over 200 people at an unknown number of addresses. These are pages and pages of addresses that we're getting. And we're trying to prioritize them by the number of people and the severity of the situation that they're in. I've got crews that are coming back in. They're--we're putting them on cots, putting fresh crews on the helicopters, putting fuel in them and what we call `hot gassing' and getting them right back out again. So we're going to answer every call (technical difficulties) rapidly as we can. Obviously it's a whole lot easier to do in the daylight than it is at night.

SIEGEL: Now were these coastal towns in Mississippi places that had been under evacuation orders, or were they places where people were gambling that this hurricane would, as had been forecast, hit New Orleans more squarely?

Capt. BJOSTAD: Well, of course, I think it's probably a mixture of a number of things. I know some of these areas were mandatory evacuation orders. I know that some people don't understand that the size of a hurricane like Katrina--we've seen this with Ivan, and we saw it with Andrew. You can be 200 miles from the eye of a hurricane and still experience a significant amount of damage. I mean, my house is probably 200 miles from New Orleans, and I had two large trees knocked down and winds of probably 80, 90 miles an hour on the other side of Mobile Bay.

SIEGEL: That's Coast Guard Captain Jim Bjostad, who is coordinating search-and-rescue missions from the Mobile, Alabama, airport.

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