The U.S. armed forces came to Katrina-and so did the nations of the world: The Netherlands, Mexico, Canada, France, and Germany. Others pledged financial aid. As the Joint Force Maritime Component Commander (JFMCC) for Joint Task Forces (JTF) Katrina and Rita,I consider it the most satisfying work I have done in 28 years of naval service.
The sheer magnitude of Katrina-from New Orleans eastward through Pascagoula, Mississippi—quickly overwhelmed the ability of state and local authorities to respond. We immediately augmented U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) search-and-rescue operations operating out of Naval Air Station New Orleans. As our ships arrived on station, we positioned them off the coast of New Orleans, Gulfport, and Pascagoula and used them as sea bases to reduce transit times for the helicopters. Many of the 18,000 Sailors stationed in the region when Katrina made landfall worked tirelessly to restore all bases to operational status so they could be used to bring aid into the surrounding communities. The Navy quickly positioned its ships to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from the sea to the shore.
The USS Bataan (LHD-5), returning from Exercise Panamax in South America, followed the hurricane to shore and began flying search-and-rescue missions immediately. Within a week, the maritime component grew to include 18 U.S. vessels, five foreign ships (three Canadian, one Dutch, and one Mexican), 60 helicopters (U.S. Navy, Canadian, and Mexican), five E-2C Hawkeyes, Mobile Dive and Salvage Unit TWO, and eight Gulf Coast shore commands. Some mobilized ships were in the last phases of integrated training prior to deployment, while others were just beginning basic phase training after major shipyard periods. The Fleet Response Plan has uniformly raised overall readiness and flexibility, allowing operational commanders to task organize and fight or render assistance as required.
The concept of operations was relatively simple: immediate search-andrescue (SAR). Every available helicopter was pressed into service. Navy airborne early warning E-2C Hawkeyes and U.S. Air Force E-3s provided command-and-control platforms for the rescue and logistic flight operations. Ultimately, a Joint Search and Rescue Center at Tyndall AFB, Florida, and a Rescue Coordination Center onboard the USS Iwo Jima (LHD-7) were established to support medical evacuations throughout the Gulf Coast. Search-and-rescue grids throughout New Orleans, western Louisiana, and eastern Texas—established in accordance with the National Response Plan, National SAR Plan (1999), and SAR Plan Supplement (May 2000)—were the key to tasking all joint air assets for these missions. These documents proved vital throughout both Katrina and Rita relief operations. Any armed forces unit called on to perform similar duties in the future must be familiar with their content. After completing the initial SAR operations, we focused on providing assistance and relief. We provided more than two millions pounds of food and water to personnel after Katrina alone. The JFMCC shore commander, Rear Admiral Steve Turcotte, working from NAS New Orleans, focused on reestablishing our Gulf Coast base infrastructure and reaching out to outlying communities in the monumental clean-up efforts. Finally, the Mobile Dive and Salvage Team as well as Mine Sweepers under Rear Admiral Deb Loewer, Commander Mine Warfare Command, were instrumental in reopening critical naval and commercial port facilities, waterways from western Louisiana to Pascagoula as well as assisting the Coast Guard with oil platform surveys.
The Navy also assisted the other services during both hurricanes. The USS Tortuga (LSD-46) housed and supported elements of the Army's 82nd Airborne while in New Orleans. Likewise, the USS Shreveport (LPD-12) embarked the Marine Corps commander and his staff while supporting Marine Corps operations in the devastated Ninth Ward and St. Bernard's Parish areas of New Orleans. The USS Iwo Jima became the centerpiece of the relief effort by providing critical command-and-control capabilities for the Joint Task Force Katrina commander, as well as hosting the president, vice president, senators and congressmen, the governor of Louisiana, the mayor of New Orleans, and more than 800 other personnel from various agencies.
In the end, we as a nation and service learned a great deal from these disasters. Although grossly oversimplifying the issues at hand, a quick comparison of the rescue and aid statistics between Katrina and Rita show we learned much from one event to the other (see Table 1). Much debate will follow concerning the president's discussion of if and when the Department of Defense should lead rescue operations following national disasters. But for now, we did what we were asked to do: lend a helping hand . . . from the sea.
Rear Admiral Kilkenny is Commander, Carrier Strike Group Ten on board the USS Harry S. Truman.