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Local Heroes Return From New Orleans

Six members from Arlington return from assisting employees and military personnel in re-building New Orleans

Hearing cheers at an airport means that someone important is coming home. The cheers coming from Ronald Reagan National Airport Wednesday, Sept. 28 were no different.

Six people from Arlington were returning from New Orleans. They were part of the initial Northern Virginia Emergency Operation Center team who were deployed between September 13 and 15 to assist city officials in New Orleans. The team was made up of senior members who performed management roles for rescue operations during the Sept. 11 Pentagon attacks.

The six people from Arlington made up a portion of a team encompassing different regions of Northern Virginia including Fairfax and Prince William Counties. The six people from Arlington are Ben Barksdale, deputy fire chief; Randy Gray, fire battalion chief; John Mausert Mooney, division director, Department of Environmental Services; Evelyn Poppell, communicable disease bureau chief; Jack Belcher, chief information officer; and Barbara Liechti, county comptroller.

"They have worked really hard," said Debbie Powers, deputy coordinator for Arlington. They sometimes worked 18-hour days, Powers added.

The team assisted with a variety of emergency logistics, operations and planning functions to include draining floodwater, getting supplies to clinics and hospitals, and re-equipping public safety providers.

Kevin McGee, assistant chief of Prince William Fire Department worked as a liaison, maintaining relationships and contacts with other emergency groups in New Orleans.

"There were massive amounts of damage," McGee said. "So many people were displaced."

A few of the returning workers talked about the destruction of New Orleans.

"Many employees [from New Orleans] had their houses flooded and their families are in shelters," said Barbara Liechti. "Many didn't know where they were going to sleep."

BUT WHILE employees did not know where they were going to stay, they were extremely helpful to the volunteer staff.

"The employees are amazing and courageous," said Liechti. "They never felt sorry for themselves. They were happy that they were alive and that their family members were alive," Liechti said.

While working closely with employees from New Orleans, the team also worked together with the Army and National Guard in helping re-build the city.

"We stayed on the USS Iwo Jima and training ship State of Maine," said Rob Clemons, a member of Prince William Department of Fire and Rescue who made sure the team was safe and healthy. "They treated us great."

But while they were helping citizens of New Orleans, their families were at home, anxious to hear from them.

"We talked about eight to 10 times, but e-mailed a lot," said Rick Poppell, husband of Evelyn Poppell.

"She [Evelyn] said that she had a lot of stories to tell me," said her daughter, Allison Tiller.

"I haven't seen my wife for 20 days," said Michael Liechti. "I was golfing when she got the call to go out there and didn't make it home in time. We just missed one another."

The volunteers understand that it is going to take a long time to get New Orleans back on its feet.

"To see an American city devastated ... is beyond words," said Kevin McGee. "People of New Orleans are going to need help for a long time."

But for now, the ones just returning are going to take it easy and recuperate after experiencing first-hand the destruction of New Orleans and spend time with their loved ones.

"I am going to take it easy and get back into the swing of things," said Clemons.