After the Storm
Story told by and photos by SFC Jim Lee
We were the first responding—outside of Louisiana—National Guardsmen on the ground there, of all the states. We beat the active-duty army—we beat the 82nd Airborne. They had been given orders almost simultaneously with ours, and they were about a day and a half behind us, maybe two.
The hurricane didn't wipe out downtown New Orleans. That needs to be put in perspective because where we were—Plaquemines Parish—and St. Bernard's Parish and Jefferson Parish—were all wiped out.
We're talking, certainly in Plaquemines, over 50,000 left, not homeless, like we would say, "they're homeless and they're going to go back," but homeless forever.
Their homes are destroyed. Or they are not on the same property they started, and only frames are there, a rooftop here or there.
People who lived in homes that were built by their great-grandfather were going back to nothing. Nothing.
We landed with food, with a lot of military MREs. Meals Ready to Eat, they call them. People say: Meals Refused by Ethiopians. They're a good meal. And they're certainly sustaining. But there's a limited number of them, and they taste the same. It doesn't matter if you eat enchiladas or chicken tortellini. It's just got a different name to it, and maybe a little different consistency.
But we were handing this out to the people who had remained behind. We were handing out water and meals.
We were issued weapons, and we were issued ammunition: three magazines, with rounds, and we were issued M-16s. We were told that our mission at that point in time was to go down to provide security from the looting that was occurring.
When we actually got on the ground in Louisiana, we found that the looting was minimal. There was very little looting.
Folks at NAPA and two other auto-parts stores gave us the keys to their doors. We had to get equipment working that had been underwater.
So they gave us, carte blanche, the keys to the hardware store. If they had taken pictures of it, at that point in time when we were coming out with all of this equipment, there would have been a news media cut that said "New Mexico National Guard Looting Stores." But we had a notebook, a plain old spiral notebook, and we would write down everything that we took.
So the media didn't help us in that it gave the impression there was all this lawlessness that was occurring.
They came to me and said, "Put together a team, go find out where they need you, and go to work." Our job was to provide, to restore, fresh-water facilities to southern Louisiana. That's what Plaquemines Parish is.
Our leadership told us: "We're not running the boat. We are there to help the people of Louisiana." So those of us in a leadership position, when we went to our counterparts in the civilian community, it was almost scripted to the extent that I walked up to my counterpart and said, "Hi, I'm Sergeant First Class Jim Lee from New Mexico, and we're here to help you. What can I do?"
Well, I went to my counterpart, Gene Fox, who was in charge of all the fresh-water and sewage facilities in southern Louisiana. He breathed a big sigh of relief, and said, "Man, there's a million ways you can help. I'm so glad to see you."
Later on, he said—I'm using his words—that "we were sitting there looking at each other. We were devastated. Then in the door walks Jim Lee with the New Mexico National Guard and says, 'What can I do to help? And you just tell me. We're here, we're gonna do it.' That spirit that came through my door changed our whole attitude."
When I walked through the door I saw guys standing around looking at each other, drinking soda pop or water we'd provided them. But they weren't working. There were probably 36 people normally working in these facilities, as fresh-water treatment operators and sewage treatment operators. There were about 12 left.
What people don't realize is that the operators of these plants didn't build them. They're operators. It's like driving a car. A lot of people can drive a car but not many people can work on the same car that they can drive, and even fewer could build one from scratch, can go out and find the tires and start at the frame and build it up. And that's what we had to do.
That southern area of Louisiana is where the sulfur mines are, where sulfur is mined. So you're dealing with petroleum, chemicals, sulfur that's surfaced, and mix all that together and you have methane. And it smells just like a sewer.
Gene Fox said, "I don't know where to start. Let's go take a look. My people will help you." I said, "We're here to help you." And he said, "Let's go look and see what we've got. I haven't even been able to really do anything because it's still underwater. When we get stuck, I hope you have pieces of equipment that can pull us out. Because our equipment is all gone. We don't have any. It's underwater, too."
So the first thing that we established was I've got some really good mechanics down here, and I know, as a mechanic myself, that I can make a diesel engine that's been underwater run. In fact, I can run diesel engines underwater. We put snorkels on our military vehicles so that they stick up above the water level and we put our air intakes up above the water level, and our exhausts, and we drive them through rivers and streams.
I'd chosen six really good people to go with me, and I was number seven. And I'd like to think that I chose better people than I am.
So anyway, Gene Fox and I went down and looked at the first facility. He said, "If they're all like this, we're done."
And we talked for a few minutes and decided, no, it may take us some time, but they're not done.
We had to push part of a house aside so we could start through the front gate, and all this was underwater, salt water. Which smells. We're talking about miles and miles of that environment. I challenge you to go open the lid up on your septic tank and stick your head in it and take a good, deep breath.
We went out to the river and looked at the water pickups, and we were up to our knees sometimes in water and muck and garbage. The Mississippi River is the water source for all the fresh water. The water table's at four feet or thereabouts, and it's brackish water. Here in New Mexico, in our springs and so forth, the water goes through things that decontaminate it to the point where, probably from any point of contamination, a mile later, it's clear and actually drinkable, potable water.
There, you don't have that. You have all this composted material and tree roots and branches and limbs that have been there for centuries, so if you try to pump water from a well there, you're going to pump non-potable water. So they use the Mississippi River and run through a processing system that they make drinkable water from the Mississippi. But the Mississippi had been trashed really bad at that point.
We were able to take measurements on where the debris was, and that debris was 28 feet up in trees. So we knew that we had a wave there that was at least 28 feet high, and it was there long enough to cover. It wasn't like the tsunami where the wave came in and went back out. This wave came in and stayed as a result of the pressure from the hurricane.
We went south at that point to reconnoiter what we were faced with.
We were going down the road, and this is Highway 23, which extends from Belle Chasse, which is a suburb of New Orleans, all the way to Venice, which is at the very southernmost point of Louisiana, all in Plaquemines Parish.
So anyway, we come around a curve and a herd of 50 elk runs across the road in front of us. You come around a turn in a Louisiana highway and a herd of elk runs across the road, you kind of wonder. Been using the wrong weed or something. Bad MREs. But it turned out there's an elk farm there, and the flood had pushed the fence and let the elk onto the highway.
As we were approaching the water facilities, there were coffins on the dike. It turns out that in Louisiana they bury the dead above ground. Because the water table is so high, they can't bury them like we do in the Southwest. So they're buried in crypts and mausoleums. That wave had opened those up and freed the dead.
And throughout the time that we were working there, throughout all of southern Louisiana, I don't think we ever worked anywhere that we weren't in sight of a coffin. In one case, I counted 20 coffins where we were working.
You don't know who's in the coffin, and you don't know what graveyard the coffin came from. In a couple of cases early on, they'd just take the coffin to the nearest graveyard, because that seemed like where you ought to go with it. Well, it would turn out that it didn't belong in that graveyard.
So, we formed a graves registration detail. We called it the Coffin Detail. Those folks went out with the coroner's office and made some attempts to identify the remains and get them back to the right point. As we began to let people back into the area, it became a little easier because people could come in and identify the remains, and we even had some guys working with us who recognized coffins from their families. Surprisingly, some of them came from graveyards that were quite a distance away.
Anyway, as we're going down the road, there's not only some coffins up on the hillside, but there's a coffin in the middle of the road. That coffin stayed in the middle of the road for about a week. We just drove around it and kept on going because nobody wanted to disturb the coffin, and rightfully so, until something could be done.
And as we began to drive around and you could start seeing out into the trees, there were more coffins up in the trees. So there was a pretty good-size graveyard that had given these up. And later on we found that that was true.
Around on the other side of the dike and behind the trees, about a half a mile, there was this large graveyard that had given up its dead, and had distributed them all over southern Louisiana.
Back to what our function was. We identified, on the western shore of the Mississippi River, an immediate need to get the Port Sulfur water processing facility working. The reason that we did that was because we couldn't really get to the eastern shore.
We had access to suburban water-processing facilities around the Belle Chasse area, and one main one, so we had fresh water in Belle Chasse, because it, again, like New Orleans, hadn't been hit by the eyewall of the hurricane. The maximum amount of water in Belle Chasse itself had probably been on the order of one to two feet. And growing deeper as you went to the south.
So we had water in Belle Chasse, but we didn't have water south of there. We could probably get it down to about seven to 10 miles from Belle Chasse, depending. There were a couple of instances where fire hydrants had gotten knocked down and they would spew water. We had to valve them off and things like that. But we would get it at 10 miles pretty easily.
But we saw that we could get fresh water—with a little bit of innovative plumbing, and a little bit of time—at least down to the Port Sulfur plant.
And then if we could get the Port Sulfur plant working, we would have fresh water that would carry us on to Empire, which is about 40 miles south of New Orleans. I have to give credit to Gene Fox, who's retiring, incidentally, but he had worked for the water company there almost his entire working life, and he was brilliant. He knew every valve and every trick, and every bypass. When we'd get a pressure drop, he could focus us, and we would head off on his focus, and sure enough would find out where. And he knew people by name, just like being in the Mimbres or rural New Mexico.
"May Bradbury's house over here, that's got to be the one. That's some old clay pipe going into that house and that's the one that's spitting out the water because that house has been shifted now and it's probably ripped up that clay pipe." We'd go over there and sure enough, there's an old clay pipe sticking up in the air with water squirting out of it. So you'd valve it off on the system and you could go on.
He and I went down, and we decided we needed to attack this one water-treatment facility. It's on about a two-acre piece of ground, and it was a sulfur-processing plant that had been turned into a fresh-water processing plant. The fresh-water holding tank was over a million gallons, full of salt water because it had been underwater. It's a mostly above-ground tank, but it's probably 75 feet square, 12 feet deep. Every electric motor had been under water, salt water. Every electric control panel had been under salt water, and the backup generator for the facility had been under salt water.
We looked at each other and decided that maybe with a couple weeks of real intense work and 20 to 30 people, we might be able to get this plant where we could do something with it.
We went out to the river, to the river pump, and found that the entire pier that the pump sat on was missing. Was gone. So the pump was just setting up on the pilings that held it in place. The waterlines were still there, but everything was catawampus, and the pipes were pinched off. Like your water hose, except huge. I couldn't get anybody but me and another fool to go out to the pump itself.
People would keep johnboats in their backyard, and they'd float in and they hung up in the trees and things, so anyway we liberated a couple of johnboats. We poled ourselves like Tom Sawyer out to this pier and climbed up to get up there.
The first time I went out to the pump I walked the pipeline, and it's a 20-inch pipe, but there's no supports on it, so I just walked it out there, because we grew up walking fences in New Mexico. I looked back at the guy that was supposed to be walking out with me from the water company, and he was standing on the pier with his arms folded, saying, "You know, I think that's a pretty dangerous thing you're doing there. I don't think I need to do that. Why don't you yell back at me what you find out there."
And I have to pass on that the sense of humor in Louisiana is just as good as the sense of humor in New Mexico. You had to have a lot of that there.
One of my guys actually said, "Hey, I'll go with you, Sarge. I can remember putting a canoe in the Rio Grande. It was one me and my brother made. This can't be any worse than that—let's go."
And so we poled out there and worked on that pump a little bit, but still it wasn't going to work.
So we come back and we decided to use it as a fresh-water facility, and using Gene's knowledge of the water system we actually sent water down to Port Sulfur. We did a little bit of innovative cowboy stuff. We got water coming South through the fire hydrant system.
I put Sergeant Hacker, this female sergeant, in for the Meritorious Service Medal. Which is a real honor. It's a high-level non-wartime honor. The reason I did that was because she earned it.
I've worked underground, so it doesn't bother me to go into an underground mine, and that's basically what you're going into when you go down into this big blockhouse. It's a sealed storage unit. It's got big concrete hatches on it but they're only maybe only two and a half feet by two and a half feet, and down inside of it it's cavernous. It's huge. So you've got to go down there and these soldiers are afraid that there's no air and no lights, and it stinks and you're going into a mine.
For one thing, I wouldn't put a soldier or anyone into something I wouldn't go into myself. So I wasn't being stupid; I went down there and checked it and I felt it was all right. But it's really hot and it's really ugly and I'm down there wondering, How am I going to get these guys down here? Because there's two or three inches of this swamp sludge in the bottom of it and that's got to be absolutely cleaned out.
And I hear Sergeant Hacker yell through this hatch: "Sergeant Lee, you OK?" And I said, "Yeah, I'm fine. It's fine down here. It's going to be a little ugly, but we can work down here." And she said, "OK!" and the next thing I know here comes Sergeant Hacker down the hatch.
And she's coming in and she's bringing shovels, and she's got this waterline that we'd tied into a fire hydrant, which we'd gotten to that point, down, and she's bringing this inch-and-a-half water line down. Coming down the hatch ladder into this thing.
Well, I looked up and this whole team's coming down. All these guys. They are not going to let that female show them up. So they come down and we sweep this million-gallon tank.
Later on, Dalcour, which is across the river, has to be swept. And it's two 50,000-gallon tanks, so they're smaller tanks but they're still the same thing. Those guys over there, at the same time as we are sweeping this tank, they're supposed to be sweeping those tanks. Well, they refused to go in the hole.
The NCO in charge of that team tells me, "I just couldn't get them to go in the hole over there. We feel it's unsafe. We can't go over there."
I said, "OK, I can fix this. You stay with me tomorrow. I'm going to put Hacker in charge of that." So I sent her across the river with this team who had refused to go in the hole over there at Dalcour.
She got over there, and she didn't even slow down. She hit the ground running, grabbed the hose, grabbed the stuff she needed, dropped them in, went in the hole. The civilians were telling me, "She went in that hole, and those soldiers stood around there and looked at each other for about 30 seconds and the next thing you know they are going in the hole."
The day before, none of them would go in. The next day, every one of them went in the hole.
When we landed in Louisiana and we took that first step out into the community there, we walked into a war zone. Forty miles long, 30 miles wide, from New Orleans south on that peninsula that the Mississippi River delta makes, into the Gulf of Mexico, was obliterated, like in combat.
The reason that I say it like that is because it didn't go out to sea, it didn't wipe it clean, it just simply turned it into debris. It turned homes into debris. The walls of homes were destroyed, and then floated around and intermingled with the walls of other homes. A frame house would float up off its foundation, and go a quarter or a half of a mile away. It would float into trees and cars and power lines and whatever else, and it would destroy itself to the point where you might be able to identify it a quarter of a mile away as your house, but everything in this house was gone.
All of the things that you've collected for your entire lifetime, and in many cases your entire family's lifetime, the family history. Pictures, trinkets. They're not trinkets. Memorabilia. Things that your grandmother gave you. And that includes the jewelry that has been passed from generation to generation, the chairs, the—everything, everything, is gone. Your entire life is gone.
We're not talking a couple of homes, a block of homes, even, not two blocks or 10 blocks. We're talking 50,000 people. And everything they've ever had is destroyed.
I have a little girl, and she has these little teddy bears. I've given her teddy bears through the years because it's fun to do as a dad, and she plays with them a little while or she puts them in her room.
And I'm out here on the dike near one of these coffins and there's this teddy bear there. I can't touch it and pick it up. Because the little girl, maybe she's going to come and find that teddy bear. I am looking at what could have been my little girl's teddy bear laying there next to a coffin. Within 15 feet of a coffin. And you look at that and it really hits you at home. I mean it really gets inside of you and walks around.
We started to clean this one site up, and one of the guys came to me and said, "You know, Sarge, when we take our lunch break do you mind if I go down and look and see if I can find my house?" No one had been allowed to go down there and no one could. I'd been to see his house, this particular individual. I'd been down there with Gene Fox, and I knew what he was going to see when he got there.
So I said, "You know what, I'll go with you, Mac." His name was Mac. Little Mac. He was deaf, and had overcome that handicap to work, and so it was fun because we had to talk with a lot of hand gestures and yelling and he had a hearing aid and he had to crank it about 110 percent all the time. Nobody could understand him, because you know how the deaf slur their speech. But I understood him.
We loaded up and we went down there. He had inherited what we would call a fishing lodge from his dad. He'd grown up cleaning fish and taking these people out to these fishing lodges, almost houses on stilts, out in the delta, and people could camp and fish.
Well, the houses were all gone. Not only are they gone, but his home, generations old, is gone. His marina, his wharf, his docks, his boats, they are destroyed. Gone.
Little Mac looks at it and kind of looks back at me and says, "Well, it's gonna take a little work to get this back." And that's it.
Such courage. He just looks up and you could just see the pain in his face and eyes. It's visible pain. "OK, I'm just gonna have to restart. We'll do it again. I'll get it back. I'll rebuild it."
His house was way over there on a dike, far from where the foundation was.
And that was the first one.
Every day, around lunch time, we would go find somebody else's house and give them the opportunity to go in, if we could, and use our trucks to pull out what they could, or see what they could see, or do what they could do. In no case, ever, was the house where it started.
Most of these folks are black. That's the community. We don't have very many black folks around us here in New Mexico. So you have to realize the way they talk, with the Louisiana jargon, and they're black, and it's a little bit different culture than ours. So that was intriguing to me to begin with. Just to listen. Because they talk the old black ways, and they still have the culture.
Clarence—we called him "Snipe"—had worked for the sulfur mines for 28 years. They laid him off and shut the mine down that he was with, after 28 years. There's no retirement. He didn't have the 30-year retirement.
So he had taken the little bit of severance pay that they gave him and he had bought himself a welding truck, a rig, with all the accoutrements. He went to work for the county, who didn't pay as well as the mines. But in the evenings he had his little welding, blacksmith kind of business going. He's a little older than me—he was 60. So that welding truck was his retirement.
We drive up to his house, his front door, but there's no house there. There's a foundation and no house. And no truck. And he wasn't worried about the house.
He said, "I can rebuild the house. But my truck. . . ."
We look, and there's trees. You know how that section of Louisiana is pretty thicketed, in the bayous like that? So we look around a little bit, and he spots his house. Now, it doesn't have the porch on it. It's got four sides and the roof is kind of crunched down a little bit, but the house is there. But Snipe's not worried about the house, still.
And it's like two neighbors down, on their place. Every piece of land's about an acre, so it's about three acres down there is his house. Which is OK because the guy that's behind him, his house is on the other side of that, and the guy behind him is on the other side of that. They were just going to have to sign over deeds.
But anyway, he says, "There's the house, but I don't see my truck!" He had put a lot into that truck. And it was a good one.
So we go down and we look at the house and he still doesn't know where his truck is. As we're walking up to the house, he stops and he looks down, and he looks back up. "Well, I found my truck."
Boy, I tell you. You talk about bells going off and the pain. And so I look down, and his house was setting on his truck. And the worst part of it is the truck's driven all the way down into the mud. Not deep into the mud, but it's driven into the mud, and the cab is crushed, and the welder's crushed, and it's destroyed. Totally destroyed.
I said, "Well, Snipe, you got insurance?" And he said, "No, don't have any. When they laid me off from the mine, the first thing I had to stop paying on was the insurance. It's gone. It's just gone."
Sixty years old. A gray-haired old man like me. A gray-haired black man in southern Louisiana without much of an education other than the skills that he's developed working for the mines. Everything he's got is gone.
But he looks up and he says, "That's just the way things happen. I'm going to have to rebuild it, but maybe I can find enough to do it with."
But he doesn't have anything.
And when you look at that, and you say, "What can I do to help?" That's when you really mean it. What can I do to help?
Back to what our project was. You can't let people back to their homes without fresh water. They don't have to have electricity. They can live without sewage. They can go out and put an outhouse up, or a port-a-potty or whatever. But you can't let them back without fresh water because, first, you are in the Louisiana bayous, and you've got 50,000 people or so.
There's not enough bottled water in the world.
You might as well run potable water down the fire system, which is what we did, because that's the only way you're going to get any water down there, and you don't know who's going to drink it. And they have to drink it.
This is a humid, hot, place. You wake up in the morning sweating, just pig sweating. You have salt stains, salt water stains all over your clothes, everything.
The snakes were bad there. We killed 27 cottonmouths. Within the day we got there, they gave us lengths of PVC pipe, about six feet long, that we carried with us. And everywhere you walk, you punch that pipe into the debris ahead of you, to move out the snakes, or at least identify them.
A cottonmouth is a kind of brownish-looking snake, but when he sticks his head up and opens that mouth, it's like cotton white inside and it just shines at you and you can see it.
They killed 13 of the 27 snakes, two girls in my unit. These girls beat them to death with a hose so fast you wouldn't even know there'd been a snake there. They were hell on snakes. And so we started calling them the Snake Killers.
Later, I'm down in the well trying to get the debris out. And there's snakes and frogs and turtles and all this stuff in this thing with me. I'd poked around pretty well to know I had seven snakes in there, but none of them were cottonmouths. So as long as one didn't try to crawl up and dance with me, I was going to be all right with that.
I'd grab one of those snakes and I'd get him in my rake and throw him up on the bank. A couple of soldiers were walking up talking to each other when I heaved a snake out of there. There was a coffin by the well and two other coffins up on the bank, so the soldiers were already a little edgy.
So here comes this water snake flapping up out of there and lands right there by them. And I looked out of the well and they're just froze. And pretty soon the snake goes crawling away and the soldiers kind of collect themselves, come over and say, "What was that?"
The next day after we left Louisiana, those guys were pulled off of the mission. They're an international guard, and their leadership felt that it was too dangerous. And to this day I don't guess there's anybody's gone back into that. Which is pretty sad because it was important work.
By the time we were done we had four operating water facilities in southern Louisiana. They are still astounded down there at how quickly some of this got done.
Back to the other side. The bad side.
I don't know how those people are ever going to recover from what they're faced with. But I do know that whatever we can do to help them we should do.
The most devastated parish, because of its size and because of it being in the immediate path of the eyewall and so forth, was probably Plaquemines Parish.
And we from New Mexico, that's where we focused.
The Coffin Detail found a coffin that was obviously homemade. It was a wooden coffin and it had been broken up in the storm. And just a small distance away, there was a body.
It was the body of a three-year-old child.
And these guys had to handle that baby. And put her in a body bag.
And deal with the emotion of knowing that this child had been laid to rest.
And the worst thing that they had to deal with was they had no idea who the child was, where the child came from, what the background, the history or anything of the child. And they had no way of finding or knowing, because of this wooden coffin.
Wood floats long distances. It's not like the heavy coffins you would purchase from a coffin manufacturer. You have this baby that at least had a secure home at one point in history. And it had a name and it had a place. And it had meaning.
There's just story after story. The devastation. The stories of the people, the tears that are shed.
The tears that were shed when we went to leave.
There was a lot of emotion because we made a lot of friends.
The people in Louisiana and in Plaquemines stood up. They had signs on the streets, saying, "THANK YOU, NEW MEXICO NATIONAL GUARD, FOR BEING HERE FOR US" and "PLAQUEMINES PARISH THANKS THE NEW MEXICO NATIONAL GUARD." All over the streets.
We had a personal rule that we didn't take anything from the citizens.
We were there to give.
And they would try. You'd go into a place as the stores started to open, and you'd buy a cup of coffee or something and they'd say, "No, you can't pay for that." You'd have an argument: "I have to pay for this!'
The love that they showed us easily offset the inconvenience, or whatever you want to call it, of going down there.
If we can do something to help them we need to do that, still, at this point.
Rita came through and reflooded Dalcour and Pointe a La Hache. There are still four towns left that we never could get to. I mean, we could get to them on the Mississippi River levy and we could look over and see the town, but we couldn't put people on the ground there.
We don't know what we are going to find when we go to those towns. It will be months before we really know.
The last count that I heard there was 1,700 known missing. Seventeen hundred people who we figure were just swept out to sea.
It's like nothing anyone has ever seen.
The worst disaster ever to happen to the United States.
They took New Mexico in. We became family.
That's why I'd like to see the relief focus on Plaquemines Parish. I'd like to see Grant County adopt Plaquemines Parish.
It would be helping ourselves, our family.