New York Firefighters Join New Orleans Cleanup

The thousands of volunteers descending on New Orleans include firefighters from New York — many of whom worked at Ground Zero. Their duties include putting out the many fires now breaking out as electric power is restored and power lines ignite downed trees.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

And now back to New Orleans where among the thousands of volunteers helping to clean up the city are hundreds of firefighters who've come from all over the country. Just a few miles from downtown, they've taken over the campus of a small Catholic college. NPR's Jeff Brady went there.

JEFF BRADY reporting:

It's not easy to find a New Orleans firefighter. After working many days in a row, they're exhausted and finally getting some deserved rest.

(Soundbite of siren)

BRADY: When a truck goes out on a call, the guy behind the wheel probably is a local. Since they know their way around town, they usually end up driving, but the others in the truck likely are from somewhere else like New York, Chicago or Montgomery County, Maryland. When out-of-town crews are off, they camp in tents and dorms at Our Lady of Holy Cross College. It escaped serious damage from Katrina. New York flew down hundreds of firefighters. Each morning at 6, they meet for crew role call.

Unidentified Man #1: Crew number four?

Unidentified Man #2: Here.

Unidentified Man #1: Number five?

Unidentified Man #3: Here.

Unidentified Man #1: Six?

Unidentified Man #4: Here.

Unidentified Man #1: Eighteen?

BRADY: Then the crews receive their orders. Most will spend the next 16 hours at one of the few fire stations that have been reopened. Others will go to posts in areas where the fire station is still closed. Some will have to work 24-hour shifts. At the early morning briefing, Safety Officer John Galotta has a new warning for crew leaders.

Officer JOHN GALOTTA: The power lines are a big issue. They're starting to energize the city. We're getting--sporadic traffic lights are coming on and house lights. That's causing fires, and you know that downed wires, they're wrapped in trees and everything. We have to treat all power lines as live. I don't know where...

BRADY: As crews head to their assigned posts, the firefighters from New York can't help but compare the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to 9/11 four years ago. Steve Barubi(ph) says the main difference is the scope of the area affected.

Mr. STEVE BARUBI: In New York City, it was in a localized area within the city. The rest of the city was up and running and operational. That's not the way it is right now here, is this entire area is devastated and it's just geographically vast.

BRADY: Barubi says in the couple of days after the hurricane, New Orleans firefighters faced the additional burden of worrying if their families were safe. Now the worry is disease. Firefighters are encouraged to wear masks when they drive through the filthy water covering some city streets.

(Soundbite of truck being sprayed)

BRADY: Even the trucks have to be decontaminated with a gas-powered pressure washer that mixes bleach with water. Burt Corrolla is from Brookhaven, Mississippi. He works for a trucking company that's assisting firefighters. Four people in white hazardous material suits and gas masks spray down his truck as he watches.

Mr. BURT CORROLLA: We've been running in some of the high water up on the north end and just had to come down and get it decontaminated. We're fixing to bring some tanker trucks down and get them decontaminated now.

BRADY: While the shifts are long and firefighters struggle with heat and humidity, they try to keep their sense of humor. Milling around among them is a brown chicken with a broken leg. Frank Naglieri with the New York Fire Department explains.

Mr. FRANK NAGLIERI (New York Fire Department): Actually the chicken was plucked out of a house fire that--in the general area of a house fire that we were at. He's kind of like our mascot. He's got a broken leg, but it doesn't seem to bother him. I don't even know if it's a chicken. It's a rooster, but we just don't leave things that are hurt and we took him back and here he is, just pecking away.

BRADY: Naglieri says coming to people's aid and even a rooster's is what firefighters do. He says crews from all over descended on New York on 9/11; now it's time to return the favor. Jeff Brady, NPR News, New Orleans.

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