GREGG K. KAKESAKO / GKAKESAKO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Lt. Cmdr. Tom Meyer returned to duty at Barbers Point Coast Guard Air Station yesterday after spending a week flying 23 rescue missions and shuttling more than 200 people to safety from New Orleans and other areas hit by Hurricane Katrina.
Isle pilot recounts
his 8 days of rescues
What began as an annual routine flight refresher for Hawaii-based Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Meyer developed into the most emotional and demanding moments in the 14 years he has been in the Coast Guard.
Meyer spent more than a week flying an HH-65 Dolphin helicopter up to seven hours a day while volunteering in the New Orleans area. His crew rescued about 200 people from rooftops, balconies, streets, apartment buildings and other high-ground areas during eight days.
"The silence of the air crew spoke for itself," said Meyer in trying to describe the depth of destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina. "The devastation was just cataclysmic. I have never seen anything like it."
Meyer, an HH-65 Dolphin helicopter pilot assigned to Barbers Point Coast Guard Air Station, conducted interviews with the news media after his return yesterday.
Meyer was in Mobile, Ala., ready to begin a week of refresher training Aug. 27 when the hurricane warning was posted for the Gulf Coast. There are still 14 other Hawaii-based Coast Guard members in the Gulf Coast area.
"There were zero questions that we would be in the city and operating as quickly as possible after the storm passed," he said.
He said that from the beginning, Homeland Security officials "made it clear what our mandate was." Before the eye of the hurricane passed the shoreline, Coast Guard aircraft and crews were ready to move in, he said. Coast Guard air crews from the Baton Rouge area, Meyer said, "were some of the first aircraft into the city (New Orleans)."
They were joined by Coast Guard rescue personnel from Mississippi and Alabama soon after Katrina's winds decreased. More than 4,000 personnel responded to the disaster. The Coast Guard reports that its crews saved more than 23,909 lives between Aug. 29 and last Thursday.
Meyer said Coast Guard aircraft were in constant communication with each other and two airborne communications centers -- a U.S. Customs P-3 Orion and a Navy E2 Hawkeye surveillance aircraft -- that were flying around the clock over the storm-ravaged area.
In a few cases, people refused Coast Guard help.
"There were two people wandering," Meyer said. "It looked like a father and son with their dog. We took the basket down to them.
"This was an area where you could barely see the street since it was littered with lumber. They looked at the basket and they walked the opposite way. I still wonder what happened to them," he said.
His first search-and-rescue mission was on the night of Aug. 29, after the Category 4 hurricane ripped through the Gulf Coast and several breaks occurred on the levees protecting New Orleans.
He said the unified command center in Mobile was getting reports of people trapped by the rising waters.
"But their locations were reported by street addresses, which doesn't help me since I can't see street signs when I am flying," Meyer said.
That information had to be translated to latitudes and longitudes by a computer.
Meyer had been stationed at Mobile for four years before his Hawaii assignment and was familiar with the Mississippi-Louisiana Gulf coastal region. He said the magnitude of the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina really hit an emotional note with him and pilots from the region with whom he flew with throughout the week.
"These were not houses that were damaged. They were homes that no longer existed. They were apartment complexes that were down to the slab. Cars strewn all over ... cars strewn in the Gulf of Mexico. It was just unbelievable. The bridge on Highway 90 ... well, there wasn't span that existed anymore," he said.
"It was also very stressful," Meyer added, noting that there was not only the danger of hovering and hoisting people out of dangerous situations, but also an increasing number of rescue aircraft to deal with.
"We were operating in high-density traffic where there were at least 30 to 40 other aircraft within a 2- or 3-mile radius. It was hard not hitting another plane out there."