When Hurricane Katrina left the Gulf Coast devastated, general-aviation aircraft and pilots were there to help. AVweb reports on what has been done so far and what else we can do.
Hurricane Katrina hit Florida first, killing 11 people as it passed over the peninsula on Aug. 25 with 80 mph winds. Then it wandered in the Gulf of Mexico for a few days, gathering strength from the warm waters. It headed north and reached the coast just west of New Orleans, near Buras-Triumph, La., at 6:10 a.m. local time on Monday, Aug. 29. The huge storm -- now grown to 200 miles across -- packed winds of 140 mph, spiraling around a low-pressure zone where the barometer fell to 27.11 inches. That force drove a wall of water 15- to 30-feet high crashing onto the shorelines of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, and as far east as the Florida panhandle. The winds weakened as the storm moved inland, and Katrina was downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reached Laurel, Miss., 100 miles from the ocean. It tracked farther and farther north, losing energy and slowing down, and finally died out in eastern Canada. Katrina was one of the four strongest hurricanes ever recorded in the United States.
Slowly at first, and then like a flood, the news reports came in about the damage. Early on, it seemed not so bad as feared. Then on Tuesday, the levees crumbled in New Orleans, and news began to emerge from the broken towns of the coastal bayous, where street after street was lined with piles of debris that once were homes, stores, schools and neighborhoods. Trucks and cars were submerged in the floodwaters, power was out, telephone communication was disrupted, and chaos ruled.
It was immediately clear that there was much work to be done, supplies to be moved, and people to be relocated. And with so many roads impassable, aircraft would be needed. Lots of aircraft, of all shapes and sizes ... and right away.
As soon as the need became clear, volunteer pilots were ready to help -- thousands of them, from across the country, within hours. But getting help to those in need proved difficult, not because of the storm, but because of the bureaucracy. "The magnitude of the disaster and terrible communications, combined with well-intentioned attempts to control traffic, slowed utilization of the volunteer groups," Rol Murrow, head of the Air Care Alliance, told AVweb. "General Aviation is uniquely capable of meeting needs for point-to-point transportation for relief workers and supplies, and for patients needing transport out of affected areas," he said. "There's a phenomenal amount of capacity."
Angel Flight America is well aware of that capability, and makes use of it for mercy flights year 'round. Over 6,000 pilots volunteer to fly for the nationwide group. Three years ago, the organization began work with the Department of Homeland Security to create the Homeland Security Emergency Air Transportation System, or H-SEATS. The idea was to have a plan in place to enable qualified Angel Flight volunteer pilots to be mobilized to help out in a disaster within as little as two hours. The plan was finalized in August, and when Katrina hit, the pilots were ready. But the agencies they had to interact with were less ready, and many pilots had to wait 48 hours or more before they could get to work.
Individual pilots and ad hoc groups who sought to offer help often ran into even more obstacles. "We had 164 aircraft, 240 physicians, and 190 vacation homes, ready to go," Milo Pinckney, of Atlanta, Ga., told AVweb, "and FEMA asked us to submit a proposal." Pinckney's wife, Gail, operates a vacation-rental company, and Milo is CFO of a physicians' group and the owner of a Navajo. "All of these medical personnel and pilots already are licensed, and there are leases and contracts for the houses," he said. "We needed to get those people out of there." The runaround continued for two and a half days, Pinckney says, while all those assets sat unused. Finally, after many calls to politicians and contacts in Washington, he got through to the governor of Louisiana, who gave him the OK to get to work. "We organized on Tuesday, and began operations on Thursday," says Pinckney ... but they could have been flying much sooner.
Meanwhile, the FAA had disasters of its own to cope with. Katrina did serious damage to numerous FAA installations, leaving controllers with little to work with, and, in some cases, nowhere to work from. "In Gulfport, all the navaids were destroyed and the tower is uninhabitable. There was damage to other towers, as well," FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown told AVweb on the Wednesday after the storm. Across much of the region, operations were limited to rescue and relief aircraft, and day-VFR only. New Orleans Lakefront Airport was flooded. Power outages, floods, and debris affected operations throughout the region. A major radar site was knocked out, wiping out radar coverage below 10,000 feet. Communications sites were also wrecked and there were a limited number of radio frequencies available. Military controllers helped the FAA maintain separation but, for many aircraft, it was see and be seen. "Portions of the Houston Center area are VFR only," Brown said. Three major airports, though, were quickly re-opened for public use: Baton Rouge (BTR), Lafayette, and Lake Charles. BTR was soon saturated with relief workers. FAA workers were brought in from outside the area to help direct traffic and set up cots in cubicles and worked double shifts to meet the needs.
The airspace around New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is complicated and crowded, and no place for aircraft that don't have a role in the relief effort. That was the clear message sent by the federal government as the evacuation, rescue and resupply missions escalated. Some media aircraft, allowed into the area at first, were shooed away as operations proved too complicated. New TFRs sprouted for New Orleans and the Mississippi coast, and any civilian aircraft operating within them was required to contact the airborne early warning aircraft patrolling the area. The whole area was placed under the Joint Task Force Katrina Airspace Control Plan, a combined effort between the military and FAA to keep planes from hitting each other. The flying got even more complicated on Monday, Sep. 5, when President Bush visited Baton Rouge, bringing along a TFR with a 10-nm inner-circle no-fly zone and a 30-nm outer ring. Baton Rouge was off-limits to relief flights for two and a half hours during the president's visit.
Despite all the operational obstacles, a bunch of Texas pilots operating out of the Rusty Allen Airport (5R3) in Lago Vista, Texas, near Austin, found a way to help. "We are just a completely grass-roots group, nobody is reimbursed for their time or their expenses," Bill Coltharp told AVweb. "We sent the word out what we needed, and pilots came from across the country. One local guy notified his Cirrus owners group, and we got Cirruses from as far off as Nantucket. One guy flew here in a Maule from Seattle. We had a whole cloud of RVs, carrying 150 pounds apiece, and a Beech 18 that could take 1,200 pounds." The Texas pilots coordinated with church groups in the storm-struck areas to be sure there would be someone at the other end to receive the shipments, mainly lots of food and water. "Our first flight was the Friday after the storm," Bill's wife, Linda, said. "We landed in Tylertown, Miss. There was no power at the airport, but the folks there got a generator going and had lights on for us. We were the first ones in there; they hadn't had anything."
The Texas Aviation Association (TXAA) also sent several Cessnas and a Beechcraft Sierra filled with supplies from the Great Hills Baptist church and Sam's Wholesale into the region, where they were "just as appreciated as the National Guard, arriving on the same day," according to the group's Web site. Pilot Jim Howard carried 477 pounds of food into Baton Rouge in his 177RG. "There was a crew from a local Baptist Church to receive the supplies when I arrived," he told AVweb yesterday. "I then checked in with the Angel Flight temporary office that has been set up. They had a stack of evacuee baggage that earlier Angel Flights had been unable to lift. I was assigned an Angel Flight mission to carry these bags to the Angel Flight office at Addison. I wound up with 8.0 hours on the Hobbs." He offered this advice for pilots flying into BTR: 100LL was available there, but lines were long, so tanker in what you need. Phone service was spotty. And be sure to tie down your airplane. "There are hundreds of helicopters operating from KBTR, some very large ones. They can kick up a lot of wind," he said. As a final note, he added, "This flight really made me count my blessings."
The TXAA was planning more flights to Tylertown (T36), 401 nm away, and to Lafayette (LFT), 311 nm, and perhaps to other destinations as well. Many reports warned that volunteer pilots should stay away from the region, or they could find they are just in the way, or that there is no means to store or distribute the supplies they deliver. But many were willing to take that chance, or organized their own aid networks, seeing that the need was so great and their desire to help so strong.
By the weekend after the storm, other pilots were still flying into airports and finding trapped residents with no supplies. "One of our planes was sent to Poplarville, Miss.," Doug Towns, a volunteer pilot for Angel Flight Georgia, told AVweb. "It's a city of [about 2,600] people that had no water and no food for a week. The sheriff there said people are dying every day." Thomas Marino, a volunteer coordinator for GA efforts in Baton Rouge, told AVweb that pilots who want to help should just pick an airport, load up their plane with food, water, and medical and baby supplies and go there. "Chances are they're going to be welcomed with open arms," Marino told AVweb. "I think we could really do some good."
Of course, pilots had to respect the TFRs that were restricting GA operations in many areas, but Marino said there were plenty of hard-hit areas not under the TFRs. Towns said he flew a mission into Baton Rouge from Atlanta on Saturday and he was glad that he had a strapping university basketball player along for the ride. "It is a little chaotic. There's very little ground support," he said. Towns and his passenger had to unload their Piper Meridian and he said there's concern that supplies arriving in Baton Rouge are not getting where they are needed. Towns flew the big turboprop back to Atlanta empty while thousands of refugees were looking for a lift out of the area. He said the Red Cross was refusing to allow anyone to leave on the volunteer aircraft unless they can prove they have a place to stay at the other end.
Angel Flight Georgia spokeswoman Jeanine Biron said at least 50 volunteer aircraft were flying by the weekend, and the needs were expected to expand. Volunteer pilots flew tons of relief supplies, as well as medical and emergency personnel, into the ravaged areas and brought refugees out. Her group worked directly with the Louisiana Department of Emergency Preparedness, which she said was impressed by the effectiveness of the volunteer pilot effort.
Civil Air Patrol pilots who live in Mississippi flew all day and returned at night to homes damaged by the storm. "These people have drawn on some inner strength to get the job done," said Maj. Owen Younger, who was overseeing operations in Jacksonville, Miss. CAP cadets helped out on the ground, checking on victims and handing out thousands of pounds of basic supplies. Angel Flight America dispatched over 1,000 supply runs and relocation flights within that first week. LifeLine Pilots filled in for the regular Angel Flight missions. From Friday, Sep. 2, through Monday, Sep. 5, more than 200 civilian and military aircraft safely coordinated by Operation Air Care evacuated nearly 20,000 people, while bringing in relief supplies.
When it's your own 79-year-old grandmother who's in need, then neither floods nor bureaucrats nor even a TFR can stop you from trying to help. So it was for Derek Lott, a CFI living in Crestview, Fla., when he heard that his grandmother in Picayune, Miss., was weakening every day without her heart medication. He rented a 172 and loaded it up with $1,000 worth of food, The Associated Press reported Sep. 6. "I told my dad I'd trade him some food for Grandma," said Lott. When he heard President Bush was flying into the area, bringing a 30-nm no-fly zone, he knew he had to get in and out fast. "I decided to give it a shot because I knew my family needed me," he said. On Monday morning he made his delivery to Wilda Myles. "I was so happy to see him," Myles told the AP. "He's the greatest grandson in the world."
Even a 60-year-old DC-3, based in Lancaster, Texas, and operated by the Commemorative Air Force, was put into service. "We can't carry a real heavy payload, but we have a lot of space," Col. Russ Coonley told AVweb. "So when they had a load of empty, five-gallon gas cans in Oklahoma to donate to the effort, we went up and got them. We loaded 460 gas cans, and were filled to the gills." That was on Wednesday, Sep. 7. Coonley, a retired airline pilot, teamed up with Jim Brackenstein, an ex-Air Force flyer, and flight engineer Chuck Horner, retired Navy. The aircraft is a Navy version of the DC-3, designated an R4D-6S.
"We flew into Austin first, then up to McAllister, Okla., where they put us up in a hotel for the night; then in the morning left for Slidell, La. We flew at 140 knots the whole way, and had no problems. We were met by the Marine Corps there, and those poor guys were wearing body armor in the 90-degree heat and humidity. They'd been shot at, and were concerned for their safety. We didn't see any gunfire. They were real glad to get those cans, so they could transport fuel for generators and chainsaws. People had been moving fuel around in salad bowls. Then we flew back to Lancaster. We logged 10 hours of flight time." With a fuel burn of 100 gallons per hour, and prices at around $4 per gallon, it was an expensive flight. A relief organization contributed the money to pay for the fuel, Coonley said. "There are thousands of general aviation aircraft out there flying," Coonley said. "I don't think anyone has any idea."
But some volunteer pilots who showed up without a game plan in Baton Rouge were disappointed. "You see these people coming in with the best of intentions just stopped cold," volunteer coordinator Thomas Marino told AVweb. He was overwhelmed by the generosity and willingness of people in the GA community to help out, and agreed that communications and general coordination weren't what they should be. "It is chaotic but it is improving," he said.
Air traffic controller David Westbrook flew out of Fort Worth, Texas, in an FAA King Air, on Sunday, Sep. 4, and landed at New Orleans Louis Armstrong International Airport (MSY) to help out in the tower. He found the place inundated with an "unbelievably huge volume" of rescue helicopters. "It was amazing ... six helicopters were always occupying/offloading patients and evacuees, then rapidly departing the triage helipad in front of the tower, while another six helicopters were simultaneously touching down to replace the departures, while another six helicopters were simultaneously reporting two miles east of the airport inbound for landing, and flying parallel opposite to yet another six copters that had just departed and were returning to the city," he wrote in an email. It added up to a couple of hundred helo ops per hour during daylight hours. "That's a pretty strong statement as to the dedication of the helicopter crews," Westbrook said. "They're busting their butts from sunrise to sunset ... making a difference ... saving lives ... flying safely ... and not one single complaint from any of them. They're incredible."
Aircraft served other needs in the aftermath besides delivering supplies and transporting people. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shot pictures of the Katrina damage from a Citation jet, and thanks to the Internet, those images are available to anyone who needs them -- including displaced homeowners who want to check how things look on their street. The NOAA images were also used by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency for damage assessment. In Mississippi, two unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) helped in the search for survivors. One is a four-foot-long airplane with video and thermal cameras that can capture details from as far away as 1,000 feet. The other UAV is a miniature electric helicopter that can hover at heights up to 250 feet and zoom its camera to peer inside windows or scan distant rooftops. "The fixed-wing provided a quick overview of an area over several miles, but the use of the miniature helicopter to hover by buildings and on roofs -- and to take off straight up -- really offers new functionality," Robin Murphy, director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue, told UPI.
"People just don't realize the magnitude of this," Angel Flight America (AFA) spokesman Steve Patterson told AVweb on Tuesday, Sep. 6, eight days after the storm. "This is not just about New Orleans -- this involves the whole south-central Gulf Coast." AFA coordinated the efforts of hundreds of volunteer pilots across the country who transported relief workers and reunited families separated by the storm. "So far we've been operating in and out of the larger airports, but the next step, starting this week, is to start sending volunteer pilots into the smaller fields, near the more remote towns and villages," Patterson said. Working around the clock, AFA flew as many as 100 missions per day, working with hundreds of pilots and aircraft. "We're putting together a rotation schedule, so pilots can work for four or five days and then go home, so they don't burn out," Patterson said. The need is expected to last at least another two or three months. Fuel was attainable, Patterson said, but "The cost is just killing us."
By Wednesday, Sep. 7, Brother's Keeper had organized 184 flights. "We transported at least a couple hundred people out of a deplorable situation, and reunited families who'd been separated," Milo Pinckney said. They extended operations into the city of New Orleans itself, and Pinckney says they'll keep flying as long as they can, and as long as there's a need. "It's the citizen's responsibility to pitch in, when you have the means, and you have an aircraft and all that training. Time to put it to use," he said. Donors at first were providing fuel to the effort, but as the days wore on, pilots paid out of their own pockets. Christy McCullough was helping out in the call center and spoke to AVweb on Tuesday, Sep. 13. "We're still getting calls from 50 pilots a day who are willing to volunteer," she said. "We need pilots with their own aircraft who are willing to pay for their own fuel, and we're also accepting fuel donations." Did she see any end in sight to the effort? "Not today," she said.
By Wednesday, Sep. 14, the pilots operating out of Lago Vista, Texas, had delivered 56,130 pounds of supplies to 10 different airports in Louisiana and Mississippi. "We're getting into little places in the bayous and swamps, where they're having a hard time," Linda Coltharp said. The needs were shifting from water and ready-to-eat foods to sacks of rice and other supplies for kitchens that are finally fixing hot meals for hundreds of storm victims. They were also carrying in chain saws and tarps to help with clearing roads and patching roofs. "We've flow 121 missions so far, with about 100 different airplanes," Linda Coltharp said. Since pilots are donating their own time and fuel, many can't stay for very long before they have to fly home, so more pilots are needed.
"You may not know this, but penguins don't smell very good," Mike Sutton, vice president of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, told AVweb. Which was not an irrelevant fact when it came to finding the right aircraft to transport 19 of the now-homeless birds from The Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans to their new home in California. "We needed to get them here nonstop, so we had to find a pressurized jet that could do the job -- and an executive business jet wasn't going to work," Sutton said. A Cessna driver himself, Sutton was well aware of the versatility of GA aircraft, and knew exactly where to call to find just the right airplane for this job. "I got on the phone to Rick Durden, at LightHawk," he said. "Rick found us a 727-100 cargo plane from IFL Group. They gave us a discounted rate for this evacuation flight, and within two days we raised $100,000 from our donors to make it possible." FBOs at both fields, in Baton Rouge and Monterey, waived their fees for handling this flight, as did the Monterey Peninsula Airport, Sutton said.
A penguin handler and a veterinarian accompanied the penguins, along with sea otters Buck and Emma, on the three-and-a-half-hour trip, and all went well. "We told the flight crew we were planning to just herd the animals aboard, like for Noah's Ark," Sutton said, but it was a joke. They were all in crates, and the whole operation was very low-stress. The jet landed about 11:15 p.m. on Friday, Sep. 9, at MillionAir Monterey. "We saw no ill effects from the trip on any of the animals," Sutton said. "They're in two-week quarantine now, and they're all doing fine. We expect to have the penguins on exhibit soon with our own penguins. Some of them used to live here, so it will be easy for them to assimilate." The new residents are considered to be on loan, and will return home to New Orleans as soon as the aquarium there is ready for them.
With all the damage and disruption, some FAA facilities were still offline as of Wednesday, Sep. 14. The Greenwood (Miss.) Flight Service Station was out of service, as well as the Natchez (Miss.) VOR, the Newport ASRS, the HGB RCAG, the Miami Terminal Doppler Weather Radar, and radar at Tamiami (Fla.) Executive Airport. The Tupelo control tower had no long-distance phone service. Otherwise, all but one of the airports in the region were operating, although some with limitations. Only New Orleans Lakefront Airport, which sits right on the edge of Lake Ponchatrain, remained closed to civilian traffic and unstaffed. Most had fuel available, though in some it was minimal, and the availability could vary hour to hour. "Tankering is highly recommended where possible," the FAA said. Airports being used for relief work had heavy traffic and minimal ramp space. Check online for status updates.
Teledyne Continental Motors (TCM) was just one of the thousands of businesses trying to get back in operation after the storm. Its Mobile, Ala., factory took a direct hit and the roofs of two buildings were torn off. One production area got a little wet before tarps were in place but none of the equipment or inventory was damaged, Jay Wickham, manager of Continental Mattituck told AVweb. He said no staff members were hurt although some of their homes were damaged or destroyed. Wickham's shop helped to coordinate customer service inquiries for the factory in the wake of the storm. "Right now, the biggest thing is power. Without power they can't do anything," he said, a few days after the storm. "There's 12 feet of water in town."
The disaster affected aviation events scheduled for the area. NBAA at first said it would stick by its plan to hold its annual meeting in New Orleans, but as the extent of the damage was revealed, it became clear the venue wouldn't be up and running by November. The convention now will be held in Orlando Nov. 9 to 11, a week earlier than originally scheduled. EAA cancelled its B-17 "Allied Victory Tour" stops at Montgomery (Ala.) Regional Airport on Sep. 27-28 and New Orleans Lakefront Airport scheduled for Sep. 30 - Oct. 2. The New Orleans stop for the EAA Sport Pilot Tour, scheduled for Lakefront Airport in November, has been postponed until next year. The tour has added a stop at McKinney Field in Dallas, Texas, on November 12.
In Monroe, La., an EAA fly-in went on as scheduled, Saturday, Sep. 10, but turned into an impromptu fundraiser. "We are about a four hours drive from Baton Rouge and New Orleans and we had no damage," said Chapter President Zach Spivey. The area is hosting several thousand evacuees, and many arriving pilots brought relief supplies. Spivey estimates that 100 people turned out, including pilots and people from the surrounding area. "It was a real community-wide effort," he said. A similar event is planned for Houma, La., on Sep. 17.
Avemco Insurance Company said on Sep. 1 that adjusters already were responding to claims, if they could gain access to the airport, and were conducting aerial surveys of affected areas to determine where best to assign their staff. Contact information and instructions for filing a claim are posted online. Bob Mackey, a Falcon Insurance Agency vice president, stressed that policyholders do not need to rush to report aircraft damage claims immediately, as Falcon realizes people have far more important primary needs to deal with. AOPA said its insurance agency had already handled about two-dozen claims the first week after the storm. Many owners avoided damage by relocating their aircraft before the hurricane struck, and may be eligible for reimbursement of those expenses, AOPA said.
This year's Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 through November 30, is expected to yield a total of 18 to 21 tropical storms, with 9 to 11 becoming hurricanes, including five to seven major hurricanes. "This may well be one of the most active Atlantic hurricane seasons on record, and will be the ninth above-normal Atlantic hurricane season in the last 11 years," said Brig. Gen. David L. Johnson, USAF (Ret.), director of the NOAA National Weather Service. NOAA experts have found optimal conditions for hurricane development this season, including unusually warm ocean surface temperatures and minimal wind shear. "The tropics are only going to get busier as we enter the peak of the season," Johnson said. Stay tuned.
Here are many links for more information and ways to help:
AVweb Newswriter Russ Niles and Editor Glenn Pew contributed to this report.
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