RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The US Coast Guard immediately began rescuing people following Hurricane Katrina. While the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been widely criticized for its efforts, the Coast Guard is being praised. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.
CHRIS ARNOLD reporting:
At the Coast Guard's air station on Cape Cod, one of the big Jayhawk rescue helicopters rumbles by. From here, 1,500 miles from New Orleans, a Jayhawk and rescue crew is headed toward the Gulf Coast a full day before Katrina came ashore. That did not happen for other hurricanes in recent years, but Coast Guard officials here recognized that this storm was different.
Mr. JOHN MIXSON (Pilot, Coast Guard): This one was. This one was unique because it was so much bigger and so much more powerful.
ARNOLD: Coast Guard pilot John Mixson says anyone watching television could see that this hurricane could destroy New Orleans, and the Coast Guard reacted. Down South, aircraft were moved out of the storm's path. Mixson and his crew from Massachusetts flew their Jayhawk down the Atlantic Coast and came in just behind the storm. He was stunned by the damage then and in the days to come.
Mr. MIXSON: It's worse than you think it is. It's far worse than what you see on your television set.
Mr. MATTHEW O'DELL (Swimmer, Coast Guard): You either just smell the water, you know, with the sewage in it, with the oil in it, gas burning, you know, buildings burning.
ARNOLD: Coast Guard swimmer Matthew O'Dell cut open his leg while kicking out a window to rescue a mother, her kids and their grandmother.
Mr. O'DELL: It was cut open pretty wide. I grabbed a--one of their drapes and cut a piece of it off and tied it around my leg to control the bleeding while I got everybody out into the basket and back up to the helicopter.
ARNOLD: The Coast Guard has a reputation for encouraging its officers and crews to basically think on their feet, get the job done and ask for permission later. After the storm hit, the Coast Guard quickly brought in nearly all of its heavy Jayhawk rescue helicopters from the Atlantic seaboard also with extra crews so they could work around the clock. The swimmers started using axs and Sawzalls to hack through roofs and the crews kept flying back in even after some residents became abusive when there wasn't room for them in the helicopter. Matthew O'Dell.
Mr. O'DELL: My good friend, Joel, had a bottle broken over his head. A couple of our swimmers came back with black eyes from where they'd been hit in a scuffle.
ARNOLD: So far, the Coast Guard says it has pulled 24,000 people to safety. Yesterday in Washington, Republicans and Democrats alike praised the Coast Guard, as have national security analysts. One of them, Stephen Flynn, is with the Council on Foreign Relations. He's also a former Coast Guard commander.
Mr. STEPHEN FLYNN (Council on Foreign Relations): We did not see the same level of diligence by any of the other agency players.
ARNOLD: Flynn says Katrina exposed a big weakness in the federal response plan for disasters. He says FEMA and much of the Department of Homeland Security are set up to respond to specific requests for help from local and state governments.
Mr. FLYNN: In this instance, when the states and localities collapsed almost immediately, the rest of the Department of Homeland Security apparatus, with the exception of the Coast Guard, went into gridlock.
(Soundbite of aircraft)
ARNOLD: Back at the Cape Cod air base, Falcon jets carry back exhausted crews. Swimmer Matthew O'Dell says he still has images in his head of parents hanging on to their babies.
Mr. O'DELL: They're just holding on to them, you know, in the helicopter, you know, after we've already picked them up and my crew--the crews I was on, we picked up over 200 people, almost half of them were children.
ARNOLD: O'Dell says more than once he caught out of the corner of his eye a hand slipped out an attic vent waving for help. He says he and the other crews rescued everybody they could find, but he knows there were attics with no vents or windows.
Chris Arnold, NPR News.
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