Steve Bettis is back to life as usual, coaching the cross country team at Winston Churchill High School and working as a master firefighter with Howard County Fire and Rescue.
He spent the early part of September in Louisiana, wading through toxic sludge and searching homes destroyed by the floods after Hurricane Katrina.
Bettis, a 31-year-old from Columbia, was one of 20 Howard County firefighters deployed to Louisiana from Saturday, Sept. 3 through Tuesday, Sept. 13 as part of Maryland Task Force 2, a coalition of fire and rescue services that included the Baltimore City Fire Department and the Baltimore SWAT Team. The task force was assembled and deployed in response to a request from the state of Louisiana in the days following the hurricane.
The task force was self-contained, with swift water rescue equipment, backhoes, tents and satellite and wireless Internet communication capabilities that were set up shortly after the convoy arrived in Gretna, La., a city of 17,500 people across the Mississippi River from New Orleans, on Tuesday, Sept. 6.
Gretna and the surrounding area was reduced to flooded streets, fallen telephone poles and wrecked homes. “It was like a war zone,” Bettis said. “It was hard to believe this was U.S. soil that we were looking at. … I don’t know how that place is ever going to recover.”
WITHIN DAYS, Maryland Task Force 2 was in charge of several thousand servicepeople, including FEMA and military personnel. They distributed food and cleaned debris, but their main mission was to search homes in the flood zone door-to-door, first in Gretna, then in the adjacent St. Bernard’s Parish.
Each house they searched was marked, both to show the home was searched and to warn future rescue personnel of any dangers inside. Venomous water moccasin snakes were common, and several rescuers saw alligators.
A more prevalent threat to Bettis and the task force was wading through the sludge of mud, crude oil and sewage flowing through the streets of Gretna and St. Bernard’s Parish. Toward the end of their mission, the sludge began to dry and crack.
As late as Friday, Sept. 9, 11 days after Katrina struck, task force members continued to find some residents who remained in their homes. Many willingly evacuated; a few wouldn’t leave. “I couldn’t believe anyone would try to stay. … We did our best to convince them to go.” Bettis said. The stench seemed impossible to grow accustomed to. “That smell was so putrid, there were guys putting Vick’s under their noses,” Bettis said.
They also encountered dead people in some homes, including 10 dead bodies during a search mission on St. Bernard’s Parish. “Probably before the flooding, they had decided to wait it out,” Bettis said.
WADING IN THE toxic sludge on hot, humid days, rescue personnel wore equipment that was necessary, but heavy. Each rescuer wore a helmet, a mask, long-sleeved shirts, latex gloves covered with hazmat gloves, vests, and hazmat wading pants that came up to their waists. “You’re breathing air and it’s hot as it is,” Bettis said.
Everybody on the task force had to “decon” themselves — take a decontaminating chemical shower — when they returned from their daily search missions. From the time each firefighter left in the morning until decon in the early evening, they couldn’t eat anything, and felt hungry and dehydrated. “I probably haven’t consumed that much Gatorade in my life,” Bettis said.
The task force also rescued some animals, and returned to Maryland with several dogs, including a Rottweiler and a Pomeranian. Like the humans, each dog had a thorough “decon” cleaning.
TASK FORCE members rarely slept more than five hours each night, Bettis said. The gravity of the damage and gratitude of residents kept the Marylanders inspired to help.
“People that saw us were really grateful,” Bettis said. When the convoy reached the flooded areas, people gave them thumbs-up, waved, or held signs that said “Thank You” or “Our Saviors.”
“It was a long week, but everyone basically supported each other,” Bettis said.