Although most news accounts of hurricanes Katrina and Rita concentrate on the devastation and desolation caused and left by the two storms, those are not the most lasting impressions of three Alexandria Fire Department firefighters.
Their recollections are personal in nature and primarily good — ones that speak of the human condition and human resilience.
"The local prison inmates I worked with gave me a whole new perspective. They really worked hard voluntarily," said Firefighter Brian Ford.
"There was this one guy who was working with me day after day. He was always pleasant and humble, never saying much about his own situation. Then one day he just began to pour out his heart. How they had lost everything. His wife has cancer and had been getting treatment in New Orleans. Now what, he wondered," said Firefighter Greg Cook.
"The thing that hit me the most was the number of homeless people. We saw people digging through donated clothing. There was this mother dressing her little daughter in the middle of a parking lot with clothing she had found. I was on my way to a meeting at the time and I just lost it," said Battalion Chief Joseph Hoffmaster.
HE, FORD AND COOK were joined by firefighters John Vollmer and Dave Lukes as the Alexandria department's contingent to a 37-member team from various Northern Virginia jurisdictions which operated in two sections of Harrison County, Miss., after Katrina as well as before and during Rita. They spent two weeks attempting to bring some order and stability back to the area.
"The contrast between what people have here and what they seem to be concerned with day after day is such a contrast with what those people are faced with. We knew that we could come home after we finished. They were home," Cook said.
Harrison County is one of the most affluent in Mississippi. It contains three of the state's major metropolitan areas, Biloxi, Gulfport and Long Beach Township. The primary economic engine was tourism.
"We went there primarily to supplement the county's Emergency Operations Center. Many people had left the area or were driven out by the storm. Folks who normally run the operations were few and far between," Hoffmaster said.
"Our task was to fill in for the missing people. I was liaisoning with electrical, fire and communications personnel," he said.
"My task was primarily humanitarian. We operated a variety of POD's (Points of Distribution) at sites throughout the county. The overall task was to bring food, clothes, water and ice to homeless people and get the utilities back in operation," Ford said.
"At one point I had a crew of inmates from the local prison, with some police officers, working with me. They were helping to put ice into coolers for people. They even worked on making repairs to the prison," he said.
THIS PARTICULAR Search and Rescue crew arrived two weeks into the aftermath of Katrina and before Rita, according to Hoffmaster. "Luckily Rita was nowhere near as violent in our area as Katrina had been. We only got high winds and rain with Rita," Hoffmaster said.
"But, we did have an evacuation plan just in case. That was part of our task, to get people out if necessary. We set up plans for the next day, the next week and the next two weeks," he said.
A major task faced by the team was clearing the area of all debris left by Katrina within a given amount of time. "We saw truck after truck hauling away debris. But, when we went back there didn't seem to be any difference. That's how much devastation there was," Cook said.
"Our group found two bodies in the piles of rubble. There were boats on top of houses and on the train tracks," Hoffmaster recalled.
One of the most devastating occurrences in Biloxi resulted when huge casino barges were lifted by the tidal surge and carried one half mile inland and deposited on local structures. "Not only did they crush houses, one leveled a hotel. We were driving down a street and all of a sudden there was this huge object blocking our path. It was a multi-story casino barge," he said.
"People had all the belongings they had left strapped to the top of their cars. We asked how we could help and they just said "Well, we lost everything but we're going to be OK," Cook said. And, some of those cars didn't even have a roof to strap things to, according to Hoffmaster.
"But I've never seen so many appreciative people before. They were so friendly and very happy we were there. It was completely the opposite of what I had heard about New Orleans," Ford said.
Housing for team members was on the 27th floor of a Biloxi hotel. There was only one catch. There were no operating elevators. "We had to walk up everyday," Cook said. "That was a good workout," Ford added.
In addition to everything else, there was the heat. "It was extremely hot and humid. Some days the heat index got to between 110 and 115 degrees," Ford said.
Then there were the bugs. "There were these little black bugs that seemed to be everywhere. There were no alligators, but there were those bugs," Ford recalled.
Stray dogs and cats wandered throughout the debris-laden streets. In fact, it was one of those dogs that led firefighters to one of the human bodies covered with the debris, according to the trio.
"We were putting in 12- and 14-hour days. But the local people were also putting in those same hours and then they would volunteer to help others," Hoffmaster said.
"THE LAST TWO DAYS we were there we took a crew of firefighters to a school to clean it so they could start classes. Charles County school children from here collected supplies and sent them to Harrison County to enable the children there to be able to get back to school," he said.
Firefighters pulled out dry wall, put in new insulation, painted the interior and brought in furniture. Two elementary schools, a middle school and a high school were destroyed by Katrina.
"The only thing left at the high school were the bolted down seats where the auditorium used to be. There were 60 classroom trailers brought in to start school," Hoffmaster said.
In addition to the schools, several fire stations along with all their apparatus and equipment were destroyed in the County. Eighteen firefighters were missing, according to Hoffmaster.
"There were fire stations and departments operative in the county. We also got trailers on site and got electricity to them to get them up and running again to serve as fire stations," he said.
Crews operating the POD's were constantly moving throughout the county. One such POD distributed 300,000 pounds of ice, 41,000 gallons of water and several tractor trailer truckloads of MRE's, meals-ready-to-eat military rations. "Every day the guys working the POD's came back exhausted, but happy they had helped so many people," Hoffmaster said.
"Originally there were 22 POD sites. Then we had to close down to five sites in two weeks. That became a very political situation," he said.
Overall, Hoffmaster gave the local Federal Emergency Management Agency team high marks. "They worked really well with us. But you have to be able to ask the right questions. Part of our assignment was work with both FEMA and MEMA (Mississippi Emergency Management Agency).
As the team prepared to return to their homes, things in Harrison County were coming back to life, according to Hoffmaster. "People were being offered county jobs and the casinos were offering 60 days severance pay. Some businesses were opening their doors," he said.
"We were just a small group trying to do our small part to help those people, many of whom virtually lost everything. If we would ever need that kind of help, they would be the first to respond. And, we'd all gladly go back there again to do more," Hoffmaster said, with Ford and Cook agreeing.