Nellis members reflect on support to Katrina relief

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Julie Parker
  • Nellis AFB Public Affairs
Tuesday marks the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The devastating storm that swept through the north-central Gulf Coast is one of the biggest national disasters to ever hit the United States.

U.S. military units were called in and played a tremendous role in the search for and rescue of the survivors, flying in supplies and providing medical attention.

Nellis members from the 99th Civil Engineer Squadron, 547th Intelligence Squadron, 66th and 58th Rescue Squadrons, 99th Medical Squadron and 99th Security Forces Squadron were deployed to support the Katrina recovery efforts.

Along with units from Moody AFB, Ga., and Patrick AFB, Fla., Nellis folded into the 347th Expeditionary Rescue Group, which was assembled at Jackson, Miss.

The 347th worked alongside Reservists and Air National Guard units; the 20th Air Force from F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo.; the 16th Special Operations Group from Hurlburt Field, Fla.; and the 46th Test Wing from Eglin AFB, Fla.

"It was a 'Total Force' effort to make the mission happen," said Lt. Col. T. J. Porterfield, 66th Rescue Squadron commander.

The colonel explained the deployment order, which originally came down while the storm was forming in the Gulf of Mexico, was only for five helicopters and crews from Patrick and Moody to be on alert to respond after the storm made landfall.

The storm hit on the morning of Aug. 29, and the first Air Force assets were sent in to begin search and rescue the following day.

The extent of the damage wasn't anticipated to be so severe, said the colonel. The storm surge had such an overwhelming impact on New Orleans that further measures were immediately taken.

"Send everything," Lt. Gen. Mike Wooley, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command to the 347th Rescue Wing commander is quoted saying in the 347th ERG Katrina Lessons Learned document after making an assessment of the situation. That order led to Nellis' participation.

"August 31, we were given the word to go. The next day, our unit was assembled and on its way to Jackson," said Colonel Porterfield.

Approximately 100 Airmen and four HH-60 Pavehawk helicopters, along with various assets, were deployed from Nellis.

"Our initial sorties into the New Orleans area revealed an overwhelming area of flooding and destruction," said the colonel. "With helicopters from numerous agencies flying all over the region, all we could do was begin a block-by-block, neighborhood-by-neighborhood search, looking for survivors."

He continued, "Our crews were flying around the clock in eight-hour periods, with two to four helicopters and HC-130 tanker support for in-flight refueling, in the air at all times."

Since there is no safe way to prepare crews for lowering pararescuemen onto metropolitan rooftops surrounded by power lines and oil-filled water, Colonel Porterfield said they had to use the training they perform every day and transition to the unfamiliar environment. "We used every trick and trade in the book to do what we had to do," he said. That transition resulted in being able to go out and do some awesome things and save people who needed to be saved.

The 347th ERG rescued and evacuated 4,306 men, women and children. The Nellis crews were responsible for more than 400 of those saves and provided logistics and medical support, water, supplies and additional relief to the victims.

Col. Carl Alley, 99th Medical Group commander, said, "We had our troops out there, doing their job and doing it well. They gathered and distributed supplies, such as vaccinations, and ensured those rescued received the best possible medical care available."

Staff Sgt. Michael Maroney, pararescueman with the 58th Rescue Squadron, had 100 assists and 64 saves during the rescue effort.

"It felt really good to put the skills we've learned into action," Sergeant Maroney said.

He explained that this experience was different from previous missions he had been a part of because of the amount of children who needed rescue. "They were really scared. I just told them to think of it like it was a big roller coaster," he said.

The total search and rescue effort on behalf of the Air Force was 23 HH-60s, which were comprised of 14 from active duty and nine from the Air Reserve Command, a far greater commitment in terms of aircraft and personnel than the original five HH-60s tasked in the deployment order, said Colonel Porterfield.

Nellis pararescuemen were flying with crews from other bases, and other bases' PJs were flying with Nellis crews. Colonel Porterfield described the teamwork and continuity of this combined effort as tremendous.

"As far as the mission itself goes, it was a tremendous success. At the close of the operation, the rescue efforts made were termed 'the largest search and rescue effort in the history of the Air Force,' reflected Colonel Porterfield. He continued, saying although it was incredibly devastating, it was a monumental mission to be apart of.

According to National Weather Service, "Hurricane Katrina was one of the strongest storms to impact the U.S. coast during the last 100 years and most likely will stand as our nation's costliest natural disaster..."

The catastrophic effects Katrina had on the Gulf Coast were not expected. However, with the experiences and lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina, Nellis units have expanded their training and capabilities to ensure readiness in the event of another natural disaster.

"We came into this summer prepared," the colonel explained. "We are keeping a close eye on our capabilities to ensure we are prepared and organized. Along with our standard deployable assets, we have tailored assets specifically ready for situations such as Katrina."