We got in last night, here's an overview of the previous 72 hours...
Got a call Wednesday morning from a security corporation customer that had been tasked with protecting and helping 300+ folks trapped in The Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New Orleans on Canal Street. The water was rising, they could not get out, food and fresh/clean water was gone, no electricity or phones, and they were now desperate and in a quickly deterioriating security situation.
They bought the last of the 1,350 MRE Tray Packs we had here along with my promise to promptly deliver. Rented U-Haul, loaded it up along with a pallet of bottled water from Wal-Mart, but then with no driver I could find/trust quick enough, grabbed my two boys (Eric 18 & Logan 16), who are naturally always eager for any excuse to skip school, and we took off that evening with it all.
We were to meet up at La Place city 40 miles west of NO, which was the checkpoint where all eastbound traffic into NO was stopped on I-10, by one of their security people who would be able to get us through all the checkpoints and guide us all the way to the hotel. Original plan was to get in & out of there just before dawn Thursday morning, the quietest time, and then be headed back home with the rising sun in our rearview mirror.
On the road and before we even got out of Texas Wednesday night, though, we get a call that things were getting nasty fast and they wanted to now, instead, await the arrival of a larger security team that was enroute to deploy there at the hotel that would also escort us in. That was fine with us, as we'd been listening to FOX and CNN reports on our satellite radio as we drove all night, so we agreed to slow down, find a hotel, and await a new rendezvous time in the morning. It was after 2AM before we finally found a room in Beaumont, Texas, and just barely, especially with all the hurricane refugees already having booked everything around.
Thursday morning we are told ETA of security team arrival still vague and thus time to meet outside NO still not yet set. However, they had just gotten a shopping list via satellite phone from their security people in the hotel, in the meantime, of additional medical supplies and basic clean clothing that was also needed for which we then went shopping for. This ran about $1,400, including an additional 30 more cases of bottled water while we were at it.
Shortly later, another, more urgent, specific list request comes in of a large quantity of shotgun and rifle ammunition that will have Gander Mountain there in Beaumont remembering us for a long time. So, now, we are toting beans & bullets, the news is getting more dire, and the boys are getting excited as 'riding shotgun' looks like it'll take on a much more practical meaning. We start getting serious now about talking specific tactics and the use of the 'just in case' weapons we've brought along.
Finally, we get the call and time set to meet up is nailed down and we are heading east into Louisiana. Along the way we continue to also listen closely to all the news reports about NO situation and are amazed to hear a woman being interviewed from inside the Ritz talking about how truly desperate the situation is there for them all as she pleas for help. This whole adventure for my boys just then became stunningly very real as they realized we were the ones bringing them their food and water.
We finally meet up with our 'contact' at La Place and two more trucks he'd brought along that we discover only then will also be making this trip in tonight with us, too. One a flatbed with eight large rectangular and full fuel containers (smartly devoid of any fuel placards today) and the other a large mobile crane to remove them at the Ritz hotel for it's now, out of fuel, dead generator.
After brief introductions and sitrep, such as that the additional security teams have been even further delayed in their arrival, thus, he announces, we'll be trying something else tonight for cover, and we pull out together in pre-arranged order, with the, I'm glad to see, fuel truck pulling up the rear. Our 'contact' guy has a few words with the checkpoint police and our four vehicle caravan is waved through the barricades and we head off towards NO.
The darkened Interstate is alive with racing police cars, fire trucks and ambulances, all of them with their flashing and strobe lights on as scenes of the hurricanes and man's destruction increases the further we go along. We pass clusters of them every so often surrounding a scene of looters being arrested, a fire, auto accidents, etc. Everything is either pitch dark or flashing, no other lights from homes and streets around, and my cell phone no longer works. Eventually, in exiting the interstate, though not sure exactly of what routes we took in the darkness and with so many signs blown away, we've headed south and after winding around snapped telephone poles, wrecked houses and debris, we end up at the 'new' New Orleans Fire Dept Command Center at Holy Trinity college.
It's on the West Bank of the Mississippi River in a suburban residential area in the Algiers section of New Orleans. I discover later on that over 300 Fire and EMT personnel now live in one of these buildings and they have all their fire and emergency trucks surrounding it, since having abandoned all their flooded fire stations. From here they continue to efficiently launch their fire fighting and rescue operations, with Central Dispatch now at the reception desk of this building right at the front door. Their professionalism was amazing especially since about 80% of them are now personally homeless from the hurricane. You would not know the depth of their loss from their outward attitude, team work and sense of purpose. I had to tactfully ask a half dozen of them individually how many there had really lost their own homes before I could believe it was accurate, as they just seemed so focused on their work and had everything running so well in their new consolidated fire station... and home.
It's here that I also begin to really appreciate just how connected our 'contact' is and why we've come here. It's about 10PM now and in moments a dozen of the fire trucks, with all their lights flashing, are lining up to make a run near where we need to go to get fresh water to a local hospital that's been cut off there. We are being sandwiched right into the middle of their caravan that will also be escorted by numerous police cruisers. Once positioned, we all move out, every light flashing, up to the toll booth for the cross over the bridge and Mississippi River into 'indian territory'. The boys and I are impressed as final reviews of the 'plan of attack' are checked to assure all know their parts in it.
It's then, on the starting line, that a weak link was fully exposed. The hired crane driver/operator has been having serious second thoughts since the get-go and his attitude now stinks and the Fire Dept personnel pick up on it quick and are not eager to risk have him screwing up their well orchestrated high-speed run. He's scared and we'd already stopped twice on our way south from the interstate as he complained continually over the radio to the contact before we'd even gotten to the fire station. Our contact had had to stop our progress twice to pull over on the highway to take him aside and talk to him and the second time it had escalated to getting in his face and calling his boss and reading him the riot act, too. Now, all our contact could do was have us all quickly bow out so as not to hold up our Fire Dept hosts from their primary mission to the water starved hospital.
As the boys and I drove back I explained what the word SNAFU meant. Looking back now, though, with later having seen the obstacle course of debris that awaited us over the bridge, it was best we did not go in then, as our U-Haul, a juicy looter magnet of a target sitting still, was to be following behind him. If he froze up at the wrong time, or did anything stupid, our options would likely have been fewer.
We all four vehicles ended up back at the Fire Command Center at the college where our contact had the crane operator take off half the fuel containers there before releasing him and telling him the safest route back to his home. The boys and I helped, then the contact took off with assurances he'd be back soon with Plan "B", and we all then crawled into the truck at 2AM for some much needed, though sweaty, sleep. Then at 4AM he's back, waking us up and telling us the security team we'd all been looking for would be here in 12 hours. We would have a new plan then for going in with them.
He also told me then that the people in the Ritz had recently been gotten out, and while I was glad to hear that for their sakes, I was too tired to fully digest all that right then, but I knew the risk/reward ratio for this originally humanitarian mission had just shifted for me and the boys. How far we'd push accomplishing any delivery into the area now needed to be looked at anew.
The Ritz was now abandoned and opened to looters and squatters and firebugs. The security teams would be to protect and defend hotel properties, which was pretty clear to me now was what it was always being funded primarily for as I learned they had more than just the Ritz under contract to secure. So, the MRE's and ammo, while they would have done anyone stuck there a lot of good, perhaps even lifesaving, would be now solely for sustaining the property security forces.
He then introduced us to the District Fire Chief who invited us to stay inside their compound where they had better security. I can't say here what he had going on, but nobody went outside for a walk after dark and everybody always slept securely inside. We were OK where we were with the truck, cause we were within a stones throw of the AR-15 and shotgun toting gate guards where we'd parked it and had been visiting with them earlier so they were watching out for us there. (Half of the firemen wore side arms, too.) It was the running water, showers (cold), electricity via generator, though not enough for AC, good food, etc. that had us eagerly agreeing to come into the compound. True to Fireman's form their resident cook was a real professional chef! We were ushered into a big lounge room where the EMT's were all bedded down, most everybody was sleeping on the carpet, not crowded, but just scattered sleeping bags, a few with thin camping mattresses, some with nothing but a sheet, men and women. We all found a spot and crashed quick enough.
Breakfast chow line was 7-8 AM so, tired or not, we got ours while the getting was good, then hit the showers before they threw us out for being 'over ripe'. Visited with the EMT's over breakfast, funny bunch of people, they kidding the boys about the great vacation I'd enticed them into by letting them play hooky from school, heard some of their exploits, too, like the recently 'commandeered' trucks and equipment for their own emergency use now.
I was envious of the boys, they eventually went back to bed and got another 6 hours or so. I got to visit with more of the Firemen and EMT's and learned about what they'd been seeing and dealing with, professionally and family-wise. Lost homes, lost contact with scattered family members, etc. Most of them had nothing there for personal clothing, so we gave the Chief our six big bags of new clothing (mens & women's socks, underwear, t-shirts, sweat pants/tops, etc.) originally intended for the occupants now safely gone out of the Ritz.
2PM came and went, and not until 6PM did the contact roll in with two pick-ups full of hired guns just arrived. Plan was to get the fuel truck and my U-Haul positioned half-way up the bridge into 'indian territory' before sundown and leave eight armed security with us while the rest, about two dozen, drove and swept the route, secured the destination, left some there to hold the perimeter, and then the rest would come back to escort us down to them. This was a safe bridge because you could not get onto it without going through the police barricades, nor was any foot traffic allowed. It was all police, fire and rescue traffic up and down it. As dusk arrived the flow from out of 'indian territory' of emergency responders was thick and our side of the bridge for going in dropped to a trickle. With darkness, too, the sporadic gunfire began on our side of the bridge, but far below and off to the sides. No shots came our way, but we kept down and away from the edges of the bridge and also well away from the fuel truck. With my nightvision scope I later watched looters pushing shopping carts below us and scatter whenever car lights were seen coming there way.
The teams showed up about 10PM after positioning a few of their people outside the Ritz to secure our destination. One pickup truck would lead and another pull up the rear, both with nine or ten armed security members 'locked and loaded' and the vehicles then looked like bristling porcupines with all their gun barrels. Our contact man had long ago apprised the local police and National Guard that might possibly be roaming in the area of who they were and the route they'd be taking to assure none of the good guys taking up positions, nor us racing through town, were mistaken for the bad guys. We rolled out with Eric riding shotgun and plenty of additional rounds close and at the ready, Logan was using the night vision in the middle along with the video camera in his lap and was prepared to steer if I needed both hands to return fire out the drivers side.
I remember going up the bridge and seeing no traffic at all going our way though still some leaving out, the rest was mostly a blur after coming down and off the bridge and into town cranking around corners and debris and looking for additional obstructions up ahead as we wound around blackened streets and rubble. I'm following the fuel truck and careful not to close the distance if he brakes hard/fast while I'm also looking for alternate left & rights all along the way for if he got disabled under fire as we did not want to become a stationary target then, too. We finally turned onto Canal street and saw ahead lights and a row of media vans and motor homes and people milling about and went past them at Camp street and then back into the blackness again and then knee deep water somewhere around Bourbon St.
The stench was bad as it splashed up around us and I was glad Eric had suggested we'd need to bring our masks, surgical gloves and decon solutions as I remembered seeing the EMT's back at the Fire C&C being treated for very nasty looking skin infections on their legs from exposure to it. We pulled up in front of the Ritz but it was likely too deep to drive into it and we were told there would also be a delay moving a forklift into position for off loading the fuel truck, so rather than sitting exposed and breathing that nasty water, we transferred ourselves, weapons and gear to one of the pick-up trucks to be moved back out of the flooded area until the vehicle would be ready to be off-loaded inside.
The security team had their own motor home and bus that had brought down their team adjacent to the news media back up Canal street so we got off and stayed near there. An hour later they got me to ride back down to unlock the back-end after they had driven it inside. Their pick-up truck could just barely make it through the even higher water to get onto the grounds of the hotel. I'd left them the keys for the vehicle but not the back-end as I had our personal gear right inside and pressing against the door and did not want anybody opening it and having it drop off into that water or even just the wet ground from people tracking it all around. I secured our stuff and they got busy pulling the pallets of water and MRE's out while I went back up to where the boys were. A little after midnight there was some gunfire up a side street to our position and seemed to be coming closer for awhile before ceasing, but nothing again immediately threatening after that. We earlier had seen a National Guard armored vehicle loaded down with serious troops at the ready go through our location, so maybe they got into that. We all caught a couple hours of sleep in the bus along with the security forces as they rotated guard duties, then at daybreak we started poking around.
You've seen the pictures and video of all the destruction, so we'll just share here a few of ours below. We couldn't take digital photos at night and risk somebody screwing up and having the flash go off, so all our best stuff is on video where we had used our night vision attached to it. When it got light out we'd liked to of gone exploring up some side streets, too, but to stray much from our perimeter invites not only bad guys, but even friendly fire to be walking around armed down there, so we did not risk it. One of the 'good guys' had been killed three blocks away that morning by the National Guard mistakenly.
Anyways, with the truck now unloaded, we had the option to either stay till late afternoon and have an escort out or leave anytime we wanted. I started watching our for any police cruisers and finally got to talk to a captain in an unmarked car. Ideally, I wanted to at least follow out a police or National Guard unit going our way, but could not find anything. Finally, though, after talking to everybody I could and going over maps and directions we decided things were quiet enough we'd skidaddle. This time we'd go out with the back end wide open showing an empty truck not worth messing with and we'd be very light now and much faster. We said our good byes and headed out purposely the wrong way up the one-way Camp street until we got to a lone 3 man National Guard outpost at a major intersection where we confirmed our route out cause the signs were all missing or twisted up. They assured we had it all straight, wished us luck, and we found and got back over the bridge onto the West Bank and kept moving till we were back on I-10 heading West past La Place. Then stopped in Gonzales, Louisiana for a much needed BurgerKing pit stop and finally secured and got out of sight all the weapons, very tired now and thankful all had gone well and everybody was safe. Not sure yet the boys will so quickly agree to play hooky from school again and 'ride shotgun' when I suggest it in the future, but they most likely will.
Never boring here...