Coast Guard Pilots Honored For Katrina Efforts

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With winds howling at more than 70 mph and his rescue basket tangled in a tree, Coast Guard Lt. David Johnston battled the elements as crewmen freed the cable and then went looking for more people to rescue in the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina last Aug. 29. Flying an HH-65B helicopter in conditions few of us could fathom, Johnston and his crew rescued a total of 43 people around Port Sulphur, La., as the trailing edge of Katrina blew through. For his efforts that day and for days afterward, Johnston was among three pilots from the Coast Guard's New Orleans Air Station awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross earlier this week. Johnston, of Olympia, Wash., and his crewmates were the leading edge of a massive rescue operation that would eventually see 33,000 people evacuated by air and boat by the Coast Guard. Johnston said the scope of the disaster unfolded through the windows of the HH-65B helicopter as he and his crew moved the aircraft back toward New Orleans after dispersing them to avoid the storm. "It looked like ground zero of a nuclear explosion," Johnston told the Olympian newspaper. Meanwhile, there are signs that government agencies have learned from Katrina with regard to the use of private aircraft in the relief efforts. After Katrina, hundreds of volunteer pilots were frustrated by the lack of coordination that prevented them from helping, especially in the early stages of the rescue effort. Earlier this week, Rhode Island presented its hurricane plan and among the measures adopted is an agreement with Angel Flight America to conduct relief operations. Angel Flight spokesman Ken Rusnak told the Providence Journal the organization could have 200 volunteer aircraft in Rhode Island within an hour if called upon.