New Orleanians of the Year 2005: First Responders

Amid the chaos and devastation of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans' "First Responders" saved thousands of lives. In doing so, hundreds of unnamed cops, medics, military personnel and civilians also saved a city. We owe them all more than we can ever repay.


It's axiomatic by now that crisis tends to bring out the very best as well as the very worst in people. Hurricane Katrina was no exception. While the storm ravaged southeast Louisiana and flooded most of New Orleans, hundreds of "first responders" -- cops, firefighters, medics, military personnel, and just plain neighbors helping neighbors -- answered the calls for help and rescued thousands stranded by the catastrophe.

Collectively, those first responders are an easy -- and obvious -- choice for Gambit Weekly's New Orleanians of the Year 2005.

Because the overwhelming majority of Katrina's heroes are anonymous, we have chosen four from different walks to represent them all:

• Harbor Police Chief Robert Hecker, a veteran cop whose forces rescued Fats Domino and others from the Lower Ninth Ward, but whose heroics have caused his superiors to investigate him for insubordination.

• Dr. Ben deBoisblanc, an emergency room physician at Charity Hospital who led a team of medics who risked their own lives to keep critically ill patients alive when the power went out and the world thought the hospital was already evacuated.

• Jessica Guidroz, a Coast Guard petty officer who commanded rescue operations in flooded neighborhoods and oversaw a massive transport of stranded refugees.

• Andrew Sartin, a Lower Ninth Ward resident who paddled his pirogue from house to house to make sure his neighbors did not drown after the Industrial Canal levee breached.

Their stories are familiar yet singular. They remind us, in the words of deBoisblanc, of "the miracle of human resolve." Or, as Sartin put it, that "people just don't treat you [elsewhere] the same as they do in New Orleans."

How blessed we are for that and for our 2005 New Orleanians of the Year.

Rober Hecker
Chief, Harbor Police Department

By Allen Johnson Jr.

Before his appointment as chief of the Harbor Police a decade ago, Robert Hecker served under seven police chiefs in 28 years on the New Orleans Police Department. No doubt those chiefs faced many crises during their careers, but none can compare to the nightmare Hecker faced during and after Hurricane Katrina.

Hecker's Harbor cops conducted countless rooftop rescues in flooded neighborhoods amid sweltering heat. They tried valiantly to answer endless calls for help even though their own communication systems were crippled. And when their police radios were working -- on one channel -- they had to compete with frantic calls for backup and reports of sniper fire, widespread looting, fires and more.

Charged with protecting hundreds of millions of dollars worth of property owned by the Port of New Orleans, Chief Hecker directed a contingent of Harbor cops assisting in the rescue of thousands of people in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, the Lower Ninth Ward. Among those saved was the legendary Fats Domino, who never left his old neighborhood.

He also set himself apart in a very New Orleans way by cooking meals for his officers during a break from one of the worst disasters in U.S. history. The weary cops dubbed their cheeseburgers "Chiefburgers."

In spite of his heroics, Hecker has not won universal accolades. The state attorney general's office is reportedly investigating the Harbor Police Department's chain of command, and Hecker himself is under an internal review by Port authorities for alleged insubordination -- after he refused to suspend rescue operations and evacuate during Katrina's aftermath. He declined comment for this story, citing the investigations. Hecker's attorney, Frank DeSalvo, says the Harbor police chief has done nothing wrong; DeSalvo has filed whistler-blower complaints on behalf of his client.

Hecker has strong support from the private Metropolitan Crime Commission, among others. "With the information we know, I think it is the view of the MCC that some hard decisions had to be made," MCC Vice President Anthony Radosti said of Hecker's refusal to evacuate Harbor cops after Katrina. "He did the right thing by being out there, by having his officers rescuing people and protecting hundreds of millions of dollars worth of property, when the city Police Department was basically collapsing."

Before publicly supporting Hecker, Radosti emphasized that he made a number of calls to several federal law enforcement agencies. "They all agree [Hecker] has a good working relationship with them and that he has a good reputation in his community," says Radosti, a retired NOPD detective.

The Louisiana Association of Chiefs of Police also has applauded Hecker's actions during the Katrina crisis. The statewide association has called for a fair and impartial investigation of any allegations against him.

As Hurricane Katrina tore through the city on Aug. 29, initial news reports stated that the city had "dodged a bullet." Then the levees broke.

Late that Monday afternoon, according to published reports, Harbor Police Corporal Glenn Smith called Hecker. He told the Chief that thousands of people in the Lower Ninth Ward were trapped in their homes by flooding. People were drowning in the floodwaters.

Hecker sent two teams of officers and two boats to the St. Claude Avenue bridge to assist NOPD officers in search-and-rescue efforts. It was not an easy commute. Officers had to weave their way around storm debris and flooded streets.

"From the first day, they (Harbor cops) were down there below the Industrial Canal with us," said NOPD Capt. Timothy Bayard whose own narcotics and vice officers rescued thousands of people.

As the floodwaters rose, cops could hear people in the distance, screaming for help. When the rescue boats passed some houses, they could hear the muffled cries of people trapped in attics. The rescuers borrowed a fire ax from New Orleans firefighters, then chopped through rooftops and attic vents. Hecker's cops helped countless stranded Ninth Ward residents into the safety of the boats, then ferried them back toward the bridge. Lacking a boat ramp, the Harbor cops climbed out of their rescue vessels and carried the elderly and disabled to dry land.

"No matter what we told them to do, they did it," Bayard said. "They never bitched. That's a sign of leadership."

Bayard, who has been Hecker's friend for 30 years, said the chief has grown as a commander since leaving the NOPD. "I think he became a better leader. He became stronger. He was good before; he's better now."

Radosti says the value of Hecker's Harbor cops to the Katrina rescue operations may never be truly known. "Who knows how many people they saved because they were there? Who knows how many would have died if they had not been there?"

Fats Domino has a good idea how. Photos of the famed singer wading to safety, assisted by an NOPD officer and a Harbor cop, were broadcast around the world -- after initial reports erroneously counted him among Katrina's victims.

Ensuring the safety of the city's musical giants and its working poor isn't in the mission statement of the Port or its Harbor Police Department. But, when Hecker ignored orders to evacuate -- and instead kept himself and his men in the thick of search-and-rescue efforts -- he showed a fierce loyalty to a much higher authority: the greater public good.

Hecker is married to a 36-year veteran civilian employee of the FBI. They live on the North Shore.

Ben deBoisblanc, M.D.
Professor of Medicine and Physiology, LSU Health Sciences Center
Director of Critical Care Services, Medical Center of Louisiana

By Clancy DuBos

Doctors and nurses in the Intensive Care Unit at "Big Charity" are accustomed to doing whatever it takes to get through a crisis, but nothing could prepare them for Hurricane Katrina's catastrophic twists and turns. For five days, they risked their lives to keep more than 40 critically ill patients alive -- after the world assumed that Charity Hospital had been evacuated.

The hospital's emergency activation team took the usual precautions, evacuating all but about 50 ICU patients as well as their own families, and then hunkered down in the face of the storm.

As Katrina roared ashore, windows blew out on several floors -- including the ICU, which quickly flooded with several inches of water. That was just the start of problems for Dr. Ben deBoisblanc, 50, Charity's ICU director, and more than a dozen other doctors, nurses and technicians who stayed behind after the initial evacuation.

"The power went out, but the emergency generators kicked on and all seemed well," deBoisblanc says. "An hour later, for some unknown reason, we lost all power and began bagging our patients in total darkness. We were able to restart the backup generators late in the day (Monday), which allowed us to start cleaning up the mess in the ICU. Although the city was without power, we were high-fiving each other over a job well done."

DeBoisblanc explains that "bagging" involves manually pumping air into the lungs to keep a patient alive. Over the course of several hours, it's exhausting.

"The day crew went to sleep late Monday but was suddenly awakened at 3 a.m. on Tuesday to help bag patients because the emergency generators went out again," deBoisblanc recalls.Ê"As dawn broke, we began to understand why -- water was pouring into downtown New Orleans from every direction, and it flooded our generators on the first floor."

This time, the generators went out for good.

"We realized that we needed to get our patients out ASAP," deBoisblanc says. "Soon after losing power, a sanitation crisis unfolded when we lost water pressure for toilets.ÊFEMA had instructed us to prepare for evacuation later on that day (Tuesday), and much to our surprise the governor's office was telling news agencies that we had already been evacuated.ÊNo outside help came until Friday."

What happened in the interim was nothing short of heroic. "It began to become clear that if we were going to get out, we would have to get ourselves out," deBoisblanc says.

The group located several small diesel generators, and a technician used his "Mississippi credit card" -- a hammer and screwdriver -- and some oxygen tubing to siphon diesel from an ambulance on the ER ramp.ÊThat provided some power, but some patients still had to be hand-bagged. Medics worked 12-hour shifts and sought temporary refuge on Charity's rooftop -- along with rats seeking higher ground.Ê

By Wednesday, FEMA's absence caused a morale crisis as fear, grief and despair took hold. Cut off from police, National Guard and FEMA, several ICU residents used their cell phones to text message CNN. That triggered a call from a private-air ambulance service and the offer of a helicopter.ÊThe only problem: Patients would have to be carried by hand through chest-deep water to the top of Tulane University Hospital's parking lot across the street and several blocks away.

Dr. Joe Lasky, Tulane's chief of pulmonary and critical-care medicine, paddled a canoe from Charity in search of help. He found a National Guard 5-ton truck with a driver who had lost contact with his commander. On Wednesday evening, the medics put their first four patients in the back of the truck and drove them to Tulane's garage.ÊOne was a 23-year-old man whose condition was so dire that deBoisblanc and others had to insert aÊchest tube in him in the back of the National Guard truck -- without anesthesia.ÊThe team then "borrowed" a pickup truck (with the keys left inside) to ferry patients to the rooftop, where they set up a mini ICU for the next two days as helicopter evacuations began.

"The first ride for me was surreal -- moonless night, unlit buildings and towers, pilots with night vision goggles," deBoisblanc says.Ê"We dumped our patients with brief medical records taped to their forearms into waiting ambulances for dispersion all over the region.ÊA day later I got a call that the 23-year-old was alive and doing well."

By Friday afternoon, the crew had completed their mission and walked the three blocks back to Charity in chest-deep sewage -- just in time to discover that FEMA had arrived to begin evacuating the hospital.

"I cried when I left Charity, perhaps for the last time ever," deBoisblanc says. "Some were tears of triumph, some were tears of profound sadness."

The triumph, he says, was "for the miracle of human resolve that allowed a group of civilian doctors, nurses, and respiratory therapists to accomplish what the federal government could not." The team lost only two patients -- one who was expected to die and the other an elderly woman whose husband stayed with her, fanning her in the heat.Ê"She died in the arms of her resident physician who could do no more on the rooftop than comfort her with the touch of a hand," deBoisblanc says of the woman.

DeBoisblanc says he feels sadness because valuable time was lost and because valuable resources were misused as a result of "the anemic early response."Ê

Fortunately for the ICU patients, the response from deBoisblanc and his colleagues was right on time.

Jessica Guidroz
Petty Officer 2nd Class, United States Coast Guard

By Eileen Loh Harrist

A relatively late starter in the military ­ she joined at age 23 ­ Jessica Guidroz focused on building her skills as a Coast Guard officer. In three years, she'd been promoted to Petty Officer 2nd Class and had become a full-fledged boarding officer, with federal law-enforcement authority, and a coxswain (small boat skipper). Stationed on Lake Pontchartrain in her hometown, Guidroz' duties were routine -- boater education, search and rescue, safety inspections, and making sure that vessels pulling out of The Dock and Jaeger's on the Lake were piloted by sober drivers.

Even as Hurricane Katrina approached, things seemed normal. The Coast Guard crew usually evacuated during major storms, and this was no exception. "We've done this so many times, it's routine; you almost become complacent," Guidroz recalls. As the storm showed no sign of veering from New Orleans, though, Guidroz started preparing for the worst.

When the storm passed, the crew drove back to New Orleans with their boats, searching for a launching spot that wasn't covered in debris. It took a day to find one -- a tiny boat launch in Tangipahoa Parish -- and the crew headed toward the Coast Guard station on Lakeshore Drive. "Once we got to within eyeshot of the station, the visual reference that I always used was The Dock and Jaeger's," Guidroz said. "But I'm looking for my visual references and I don't see them. I'm looking on radar, and I still don't see them. There was nothing but pilings."

At the station itself, chaos: Rescue helicopters, unaware the facility was empty, had dropped about 60 people there. Left to their own devices, the refugees had broken into the military complex. Restoring order took a full day and involved a full-scale shakedown for guns, drugs, alcohol, and other things that are "not good in a crisis situation," Guidroz says. "Quite a bit of stuff came out."

Back in the water with her crew, Guidroz piloted a 25-foot boat through Metairie and Lakeview, banging on roofs and yelling, scanning for open attic windows, convincing reluctant evacuees to leave. At one point, Guidroz' commanding officer told her crew to take a break, but she couldn't. "I knew I couldn't stop, and the rest of the crew was saying 'We've got to keep going.' There was no way we were going to be able to rest."

So they went back, retrieving civilians to dropoff points that generally had no water, food or shelter from the burning sun. At one spot, the crowd became so hostile toward Guidroz' crew that they feared for their safety.

Guidroz had heard reports that numerous people fleeing the levee breach had fled to the University of New Orleans, now a small island. "We heard them say 2,000 [people] -- and we're like, 'Say again?' I was thinking a couple hundred. They're like, 'Two thousand.'"

By this time, Coast Guard reinforcements had arrived and Guidroz, as senior petty officer, was put in charge. "I was nervous for a minute and then was like, 'I can do this.' This is what they train us to do."

Commanding eight boats and their crews, Guidroz headed toward UNO, which had no facilities for a marine landing. "You know how the seawall steps come up out of the water? We drove the boat up onto those steps and used the force from the outboard engines to keep us pushed up on there."

With the boats able to handle just 10 passengers at a time -- and not enough life jackets -- the rescue was arduous, dangerous, and exhausting. "We got the first round of people and started loading them in. It's pretty dangerous, the steps are all slimy and you're not tied down," Guidroz says. Local firefighters in the crowd helped maintain order. "We told them, 'We'll be back; we need 80 people separated in lines of 10.' We just kept doing that over and over for several days." The routine involved searching passengers for dangerous contraband, loading them onto the boat, bringing them to the station, and driving them in government vehicles to a dropoff point at the Causeway exit of Interstate 10. "That was terrible," she recalls. "There was trash everywhere, people sleeping on the ground, mobs who were very upset."

Always, Guidroz found herself dealing with people in various states of desperation. Once she was trying to convince a reluctant mother, who didn't want to let go of her baby, to hand her the infant so the mom could board. During the delay, "this other woman ... started trying to claw her way over the lady and was knocking the baby out of her arms," Guidroz says. "These people were starting to get scared that they weren't getting saved, because it was just taking so long. You try to explain what's happening to people but they're so desperate that none of it registers."

After several days piloting a boat into devastated neighborhoods, ferrying thousands of people to safety, and seeing destruction on a scale so vast that it seemed surreal, what finally broke Guidroz down was an image on TV.

She had been haunted by the memory of the young mother who had almost been trampled. She remembered how "the baby was wearing this diaper that you know hadn't been changed in days." That night, a news channel showed images from the Houston Astrodome, and there she was -- the lady with the baby. "She was in Houston now, and she looked like she'd showered and her kid had on clean clothes. That moment is when it clicked," Guidroz said. "Here was someone we had actually helped, and it fell into place that we were doing something that really mattered, something really good. I sat watching this and just cried and cried."

Andrew Sartin
Lower Ninth Ward Resident/Citizen Responder

By Frank Etheridge

During his first interview following Hurricane Katrina, Andrew Sartin concluded his Sept. 5 statements with a wish that bordered on demand: "I just want to be back in my raggedy-ass house." His words echoed the sentiments of thousands of his neighbors.

An exhausted and frustrated Sartin spoke those words from a stranger's house in Atlanta a few days after rescuing hundreds of his Lower Ninth Ward neighbors, after the mandatory evacuation of the city he never wanted to leave, and after begging for gas money to make the trip to Atlanta. With a long, hard road that's taken him to Georgia to Florida to Texas -- all of which are now images in the rearview mirror -- Sartin is back home in New Orleans. Not that the final destination of his post-Katrina flight was ever in question. "I came back in the minute they let me back in," Sartin says recently, speaking on his cell phone as he shopped for sheetrock and other building supplies.

Sartin is known to his Lower Ninth Ward neighbors as Mike Knight, the name he used in the last description of his heroic efforts ("Last of the Ninth," Nov. 22). He's also known as "the neighborhood hero," according to state Rep. Charmaine Marchand, a long-time neighbor of Sartin, a 45-year-old auto mechanic and one of countless anonymous New Orleanians who stepped up in the face of Katrina's wrath and aftermath to help rescue others -- often at great personal peril.

Sartin rode out Katrina's early hours in his living room in relative calm. He stepped out on the morning of Monday, Aug. 29, for a smoke. During the time it took Sartin to finish a cigarette, he says, the water had rushed over the curb and was flowing over his yard toward his house. Knowing without asking that the nearby Industrial Canal levee must have breached, Sartin sprung to action. He untied his pirogue and began rescuing his neighbors, many of whom were stuck on roofs, treetops and "anywhere they could to get above that water."

Sartin first ferried his neighbors to the roof of Martin Luther King School for Science and Technology on Caffin Avenue. When that roof reached capacity, he took other neighbors to the St. Claude Avenue bridge. Sartin stopped counting the number of people he took in his boat after 200, but he estimates he could have ferried upwards of 500 neighbors to safety. He worked without sleep for the first two days, he said, and after that point worked between short naps taken in his pirogue, which he tied to his roof antenna. "I must have gotten possessed," he says of his stamina during that experience.

While that possession, along with adrenaline, helps explain how Sartin worked with tireless valor, he credits his favorite pastime, fishing, for giving him the skills and experience he needed to handle the job. "I'm lucky I'm a fisherman," Sartin says. "Because of that, I wasn't scared. I was knocked out of the boat trying to reach a few people, but I know how to swim, so I didn't drown. I would look out and see this giant black lake of water, but I wasn't scared, because I've fished every lake around here."

While Sartin claims no fear of the water, it's clear after multiple interviews over several months that the cries for help, the desperate voices of his neighbors struggling for survival in the midst of death and destruction, still haunt him. "As long as I heard somebody hollering for help, I went for them," Sartin says. "I still hear them, hollering for help. It's still fresh in my mind."

Sartin also faced the gruesome task of grabbing the bodies of drowned children. At times, he risked his life while jumping from his boat onto a family-filled roof that had been ripped from its house. "I was the only person around with a boat," he says. "I just did what I had to do."

"I love New Orleans," Sartin says in explanation of why he came back. "During all this mess, I've been all over. I'd go wherever I could find some work, even if it was just for a few days. But everywhere I went, people just don't treat you the same as they do in New Orleans. I just wanted to come back the whole time."

A native of Columbus, Miss., Sartin speaks of his early working days "picking peas -- something I swore to myself I'd never do again." Before Katrina, Sartin worked as a mechanic. Post-Katrina, he's frustrated by the lack of employment opportunities he's found since investing personal money in reconstruction equipment such as wheelbarrows and sledgehammers.

That, and insurance companies.

"These insurance companies are just crazy," Sartin says. "There's no straight answer for them. There's no check. My house is still here, but I have to replace everything in it. The whole place needs to be worked on. New roof. New sheetrock. Everything."

While Sartin seems undaunted in his determination to rebuild his life in New Orleans, he again offers a sage summation of all he's endured, a statement of join-the-club hardship reflective of the collective Gulf Coast experience the last few months. Sartin uses an adjective and phrase repeated too often in the dark days after Katrina, but words that perhaps best encompass 2005 for one heroic man and one tragic city: "I'm devastated," Sartin says. "The whole thing. It's just, well, devastating."


Add a comment