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8/31/2010 Katrina oral history: CWO Carter Owens

U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program


Katrina Archival & Historical Record Team (KART)

Hurricane Katrina, 2005

Interviewee: CWO Carter Owens , USCG


ISC New Orleans
Interviewer: Not Mentioned
Date of Interview: 27 October 2005
Place: Alexandria, Louisiana

Abstract:

CWO Owens traveled to LORAN Station Grangeville before Katrina hit New Orleans. By Tuesday
August 30, Owens and his crew were in New Orleans with their two small boats. They were the first
Coast Guard small boats to enter the water at the I-10/610 split. Within an hour there were
hundreds of boats lining up to launch. Owens and his crew recovered approximately 40-50 people,
including animals, in the first few hours. Some people did not want to leave their homes and many
other people required medical attention. They transported the evacuees to the I-10 split. On the
first day, people were brought to a triage site where there were EMTs and ambulances. They were
asked their names and addresses and then moved to the Cloverleaf. On the first day, Owens did
not know where the evacuees were being transported to. However, on the second and third days
he transported evacuees and saw where they were being off-loaded. He saw a lot of fear in the
eyes of the evacuees when they were left at the Cloverleaf. They rescued several hundred people
over the three-day period. Late on Thursday they returned to the LORAN station. During the last
month his crew has been working salvage and recovery operations for the ISC.

Q: Can you please state your first name, your last


name, and spell your last name?

CWO Owens: Carter Owens; O-W-E-N-S.

Q: Thank you. And your rank in the Coast Guard?

CWO Owens: I am a Warrant Officer.

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Q: And how long have you been in the Coast
Guard?

CWO Owens: Twenty two years.

Q: Could you briefly give us an overview of your


career path that led to you being at ISC New
Orleans? Is that where you are?

CWO Owens: Yes. I was a Chief Damage


Controlman on a 378 and then I applied for the
Warrant rating of Mat [phonetic] and I was
selected and picked up the rating of Mat
[phonetic] CWO2 and I was given a job as a
Facility Engineer at Group Astoria where I did
four years with the FP there. And of course my stellar OER write-ups directed me towards a large
ISC facility and I was awarded the ISC New Orleans job.

Q: Okay. Now prior to Katrina hitting the Gulf Coast, what preparations were you making at the
ISC?

CWO Owens: Well during the week we met a few times as the command cadre would meet and
talked about the hurricane preparedness. We have a format; a set of things that we do in a
Category One, Two, Three, Four, Five, and as the hurricane neared the coast and we were sure
that it wasn’t going to change direction we set Hurricane Condition One on Saturday, the 27th I
think it was.

The Hurricane Duty Section is comprised of several people from each department including the
majority of the Facility Engineering Department. We were recalled in by the command to go to the
ISC to prepare it for the final departure as we set Hurricane Condition One. We arrived on site on
the 27th at about noon, which was a Saturday, and got the checklist started. We started to go
down the checklist and it took us about 24 hours to prepare the facility for the final departure and in
the meantime we also had to go over to the D-8 Flag Quarters (REPFAC) to secure it, which took
some time, but we got everything done in about 24 hours.

We left the facility on Sunday; the day before the hurricane, at around two o’clock; 2:00 p.m. and
then we headed west. Our primary evacuation point was LORAN Station Grangeville, which is
about 75 to 80 miles from ISC New Orleans - its northeast of Baton Rouge – and it took us about
eight hours to get there. We’re in the contra-flow [phonetic] so what we did was we . . . one of the
projects was to move all of the government vehicles off of the facility over to the Naval Support
Facility. There was about 12/14 of us and we all piled into government vehicles and transported
them out of there. That was our means of departure; government vehicles.

We arrived at the LORAN Station Sunday evening and briefed the Officer-in-Charge at the
LORAN Station and kind of waited for tasking. We sat around on Monday and we just watched the
news and watched the hurricane come in, and later on that night; Monday evening, we got a phone
call from Commander Schaeffer and somebody; I think it was Sector, to try to commandeer some
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small boats and try to get down to the city to do some Search and Rescue. So we did, we
commandeered two small boats; an 18-foot john boat and a, what was it, a 14 or 16-foot flat
bottom john boat and that was our tasking for the day after the hurricane was to perform Search
and Rescue. We got on site down in New Orleans. We ended up . . . the furthest we could go east
was the I-10/610 split, which became, I think, famous for the first two or three days. That’s where all
the small boats . . . they set up logistics there and it was their operational point and we were the
first Coast Guard small boat at the I-10/610 split to enter the water. Both of our boats made the
water before really anybody else showed up and within the hour it was amazing to see that there
were hundreds of boats lined up to launch into the water. And so by that time we had already
recovered . . . .

Q: This was Tuesday morning?

CWO Owens: This was Tuesday morning.

Q: Yes.

CWO Owens: By this time ISC Boat Number One and ISC Boat Number Two – those were the
names that we’d given them - had recovered, I’d have to say within the first couple hours more than
50 people including animals.

Q: How many crew persons were on each of these boats?

CWO Owens: There were three Coast Guard crew on each boat.

Q: And were you armed?

CWO Owens: No, we were unarmed, just lifejackets and sun protection because it was pretty
warm.

Q: And were people flagging you down or did you encounter a lot of people who didn’t want to go?

CWO Owens: Oh yes, the majority of the people wanted to leave their homes. There was some
reluctance. A couple elderly people didn’t want to leave their homes but after I guess they spent a
few nights in there then they decided they didn’t want anything more of that so we were able to
extract them safely the following day. I think I’m getting ahead of myself. So that very first day that
we were out recovering people we did that for basically the whole day until sundown. They had set
a curfew; there was a curfew in place. Plus we didn’t have any navigational tools onboard.

Q: When you went through the city there, were you in shock at the flooding and everything; the
damage, that occurred?

CWO Owens: Not really, only because one of the jobs I had in the Coast Guard was I was a
member of the Gulf Strike Team out of Mobile and I’ve been through natural disaster recovery
salvage operations before. So no, I wasn’t too overwhelmed at that time. I am a little now because
when we drive down to the facility everyday I notice all the damage and it’s kind of sad in a way.
But the first couple days, no. I can probably bet you that some of the guys that were with me were.

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They were pretty young guys so they may have been. That would be a question you’d want to ask
them.

Q: And the evacuees, did any of them state why they didn’t evacuate New Orleans or why they
wanted to stay, some of them, that didn’t go with you?

CWO Owens: I mean at that point no one was complaining that they should have left because it
was worthless to even try to understand, but most of them were eager to get off their rooftops or
get out of their house more than anything. Like I said before, we came across an elderly lady who
refused to leave her house because she was on the second floor of her house and the only thing
she had on was a bathrobe and some slippers. She was too embarrassed to leave her house.
Well she wouldn’t come out of the house so we told her we would come back and see her the
following day. In the meantime I had given somebody up on the shore her residence, you know her
address, and to keep an eye on her. The following day - I wasn’t in the boat the second day - but
the following day I told my crew to go back to that house and see if she was ready to come out.
She was ready to come out and she came out. But a lot of the evacuees weren’t complaining.

Q: Did you see many that needed medical attention?

CWO Owens: Oh yes.

Q: And were you able to assist them in any way or if there were helos overhead were you able to
signal to them visually?

CWO Owens: Well most of the evacuees that I dealt with were at the I-10/610 split where it was
mostly a boat evacuation; you know a boat launching point.

Q: A LORAN? (Not sure what this question was)

CWO Owens: Yes, LORAN. Helicopters were taking people to other parts of the city but a lot of
the evacuees that were being picked up and dropped off were old. A lot of them were coming from
hospitals and from retirement homes and stuff so there were a lot of older people.

Q: So you were bringing them back to the I-10 split. At that point there was . . . I mean you were
just letting them off, there was nobody there to receive them or take them anywhere, is that
correct?

CWO Owens: On the very first day, which was Tuesday, within the first couple hours the operation
just filled up with rescuers and ambulances. They had ambulance support. They had EMTs on site.
The first day was a little rough but they had a nice system worked out. On the second day - I wasn’t
involved on the boats on the second day. I was a Transporter - when the boats would come in and
drop the evacuees off they came to an initial triage center site where they told them their names
and gave them their address, what section of the city they came from, and then at that point they
would get into the back of a pickup truck that I was driving, or a van or something, and we would
take them to a secondary point where if they needed more medical attention they would receive it
there. And at that point they would be loaded up into a larger bus and taken down the road a
couple miles to the, I think it was the Clearview exit. (It was Causeway Blvd)

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Q: The Cloverleaf?

CWO Owens: Yes . . .

Q: Yes, okay.

CWO Owens: . . . where that big triage center was set up. I had the opportunity to go down there
too and that wasn’t a pretty site. It was pretty dangerous down there I think.

So they were happy to get off the boat. In my opinion they were happy to get off the boat and they
were safe but when they got to that triage point I saw a lot of fear in their eyes because it wasn’t a
very good place to be, I don’t believe, which is just my opinion. So yes, they were receiving
medical attention.

Q: Yes, and you said that they had worked out a pretty good system to receive these people and
transport them?

CWO Owens: Right.

Q: Who worked that out? Was that like a multi-agency thing; everybody just kind of worked
together and worked it out?

CWO Owens: Yes, because on the first day the Center, which is the I-10/610; the major artery
there, was the primary means of launching assets and recovering evacuees. It became too
cluttered in there and so they used the other two off-ramps – on-ramps at that point - to basically
launch assets in the middle, on the center ramp, and then recover the victims on the, well I guess it
would be the 10 split side. I mean that’s where all the people were being offloaded and
transported. So somebody had worked out the system. I wasn’t involved in the planning but it
seemed to work well for the next two days.

Q: So the second day you were transporting people. Continue; what happened after that? What
did you do on the third day?

CWO Owens: Okay, on the second day I was a Transporter. I did it again on the third day
because I had some real eager young people who worked for me that wanted to go out on the
small boats and go out and do their civic duty; do their thing, and I said, “Hey, you can have all the
fun. Go do it”. And so I ended up just being the Transporter for two days and that was through
Thursday. At the end of the day on Thursday we packed up our stuff and went back up to the
LORAN Station where we’re home-ported out of and then we were given other tasks by our
command and we didn’t go back down there. So Thursday night was our last.

Q: And where was your command; they were still up in the LORAN Station?

CWO Owens: That’s where the Hurricane Duty Section was working out of.

Q: Okay.
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CWO Owens: At this point the Hurricane Duty Section wasn’t needed there because they had
moved their operation from the I-10/610 split to somewhere else in the city. I don’t know where they
moved it to.

Q: Did you or your crewmembers; the people that were with you have any safety issues, like did
you feel threatened at any time?

CWO Owens: No, I mean the two vessels that we were working with, they were good sound
vessels and small boats. We had all of the safety devices applied to us plus the two . . . the Senior
Chief who was leading the IC Boat Number Two - I was leading IC Boat Number One – we both
had a lot of experience in these things before so we didn’t let the safety issues get too out of hand.
But no, there were no . . . the only threat that some of the people may have had was there were a
lot of evacuees on rooftops who were very eager to get off the roof and they were willing to jump to
the boat, which was not a safe thing to do for either the Coast Guard member or them.

Q: Now are there any particular or memorable instances from that whole period when you were
out, either in the city doing the rescues or transporting people; any memorable persons you
encountered or instances that happened?

CWO Owens: Well not really. I mean I don’t think so.

Q: Was there any concern about the water at that time? Did you look at it and say, “This is bad
stuff”?

CWO Owens: Well the first couple of days the water may have been unsafe anyway but we tried
to keep our hands and stuff out of the water. I mean we were cautious about that. We weren’t too
concerned with the water at that point; the first couple days.

Q: You were more into rescuing the people.

CWO Owens: Yes, I mean the adrenalin definitely kicked in.

Q: So do you know how many people that you pulled off, or the people within your group rescued
from within the city and pulled off?

CWO Owens: The first two days . . . well there were three days that my crew was out in the small
boats. I’d say there was easily several hundred. You know I mean there may have been more than
that.

Q: Now you finished up there. What happened next with your group; where did you go from there?
Did you get relieved out of the LORAN Station and end up coming here to Alexandria?

CWO Owens: Okay, well keep in mind now the Hurricane Duty Sections involvement . . . what we
were supposed to do is in the event of a hurricane or in the event of the aftermath of a hurricane,
whether it’s New Orleans or not, is we secure the facility and then we were supposed to return to
the facility when things are safe to open up the facility and prepare it for the ISC members to come

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back to work. In this case that wasn’t going to happen. So the Hurricane Duty Section remained an
entity for about two weeks after the hurricane and our sole responsibility at that point was to go
down to the ISC and recover pertinent information, pertinent materials such as medical material,
files, medicine, and just stuff like that. And so as the Hurricane Duty Section that’s what our
responsibility was. We were the guys to go down there and get in there and get stuff out. The ISC
still wasn’t wrapped up yet. They were still spread out across the lower parts of the country. I can’t
really answer that question because I wasn’t with the ISC at that point.

Q: But where did you go?

CWO Owens: We remained at LORAN Station Grangeville.

Q: For how long?

CWO Owens: We’re still there.

Q: Oh!

CWO Owens: Civil (FE) Engineering is still there and we’re still there because we; my guys, go to
the city everyday and we’re in a salvage and recovery operations mode now.

Q: And how is that going? Are you going to be involved in the Venice; that area too?

CWO Owens: No, it’s just strictly ISC property.

Q: Okay.

CWO Owens: And we’ve been doing it since a month ago at the ISC because it wasn’t safe to go
into the city because the ISC is in the upper 9th Ward and it was underwater for a long time.
Normally the only way to access the ISC at that point was by small boat.

Q: What kind of damage did the ISC sustain from the storm?

CWO Owens: Keep in mind that the ISC is actually split in half. You’ve got an industrial side and
then you have the administrative side. The industrial side was a total loss and the administrative
side; buildings “A”, “B”, and “C”, buildings “A” and “B” received about a foot and a half to two feet
of flood water on the first floor and the “C” building, which is a few feet higher than the “A” and “B”
building, did okay. There was no flooding in the “C” building but the roof, they lost about 40 percent
of the roof membrane, which blew off, and so we had water damage from the roof into the “C”
building.

Q: Now is there any way to secure it better now that you’re going to have to do an assessment and
rebuild or repair what’s there? Do you have any ideas as far as how to make it better?

CWO Owens: Well you may want to strike this off of the record later on but the ISC is pretty much
condemned. We’re not moving back to the ISC where it’s currently located.

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Q: Do they know where they’re going to locate it?

CWO Owens: MICHAUD. Civil Engineering Unit in Miami with MLC, LantArea and our command.
We’re discussing several options on temporary versus permanent construction and that’s in the
works, and someone from my command can speak to that. I’m not sure if I’m obligated to talk
about that.

Q: Well did you personally sustain any damage from the hurricane? Did you live in that area or did
you have family in that area?

CWO Owens: My family . . . I’m a geo-bachelor and my family resides in Oregon, so no, my family
wasn’t involved. But I live on the West Bank in a small apartment complex in Terrytown. Most of the
buildings there, about 50 percent of the apartments are condemned; ruined. I have an apartment to
live in, I just can’t move back there right now.

Q: So where are you living right now?

CWO Owens: In LORAN Station Grangeville [laughter].

Q: Oh, okay [chuckle]. Now is there anything that we haven’t covered that you’d like to share with
us, anything you’d like to say about the whole experience?

CWO Owens: Well the experience; I’ve lived in the south for several years and so hurricanes are
a nerve racking experience anyway but Katrina just really sucked, this one. I had just reported to
the ISC on July 5th so I was just getting comfortable in the environment and we were
accomplishing a lot of great things at the ISC. The new XO; Commander Flynn, and I had some
good things that we were going to try to help sustain the ISC to live for another ten years, and you
know the rest of that.

Q: Yes.

CWO Owens: You know the history now.

Q: So what are you going to do next as you think about what’s going to happen next for you
personally?

CWO Owens: Well as a Facility Engineer I am out of a job right now but I am being tasked to do
other things, for instance the Salvage and Recovery operations. I don’t know. I don’t have an
answer. I’m not sure what I’m going to do.

Q: Alright.

CWO Owens: And that’s the end.

Q: Thank you very much.

END OF INTERVIEW
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