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Civil Air Patrol volunteers affected by hurricanes

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (March 22, 2006) -- During Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, hundreds of aircraft flew missions to evacuate the stranded residents of New Orleans.

But, it wasn't just military aircraft running rescue missions in the congested skies above the hurricane-stricken region. Members of America's Civil Air Patrol also provided support to the agencies working there.

Dick Gremillion, Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honori and Civil Air Patrol Col. Rock Palermo discuss hurricane relief efforts at the operations center in Lake Charles, La. After Hurricane Rita, Colonel Palermo spent nearly three weeks directing local emergency operations in his hometown of Lake Charles. He was drafted as operations section chief and later deputy director because of his past disaster management experience. U.S. Air Force photo by Tom R. Malmay Jr.

"We did a lot of spotting of survivors on rooftops and relaying that information to the emergency operations center," said CAP Col. Rock Palermo. "We also found suitable landing zones for helicopters as well and did aerial photography."

Colonel Palermo is a civilian pilot and a lawyer in Lake Charles, La., about 200 miles west of New Orleans. Immediately following Hurricane Katrina, he was asked to volunteer his efforts in New Orleans as part of CAP operations there.

While he did some flying during the relief efforts of Katrina, he mostly took pictures out of the back of a CAP aircraft. Those pictures were immediately transferred to a laptop computer, then to a phone, a satellite, and back down to an end-user.

Sometimes pictures were in the hands of local, state, or federal agencies within minutes of the shutter release, he said. Much of that photography was of schools and hospitals.

The CAP also took pictures for National Guard aircraft that needed to scope out potential landing zones, flew key disaster relief personnel around the region, and spotted stranded citizens on rooftops so helicopters could rescue them.

CAP pilots don't fly expensive military aircraft, but typically use civilian-grade passenger aircraft, like the Cessna 172 or 182. Those aircraft are suited to fly lower to the ground. That, coupled with a CAP pilot's familiarity with their region of responsibility, makes CAP an obvious choice to scout in disaster areas inside the United Sates.

"When we get a call to go look at Tulane University or the Touro Hospital, we know where those locations are," Colonel Palermo said. "We can fly low and slow over them and take the photographs we know are important to the end user. So, our low and slow aircraft are of great benefit to the country and they are efficient."

Important work

The CAP isn't usually involved in something as large as Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Rita work. Many CAP missions are usually specific to their region and may involve hunting downed aircraft.

Out West, for instance, the CAP may search for lost skiers or hikers. In Louisiana, they may be more involved in finding hunters or fisherman. Around New Orleans, CAP does work spotting hazmat spills around the many chemical plants there. Running missions like those at Katrina are not usual, said CAP Maj. Cole Flournoy of Shreveport, La.

"The Katrina experience has dwarfed anything I have done in the Civil Air Patrol," he said. "Going to look for downed aircraft and turning off emergency locator transmitters that have gone off by accident -- that is a lot of what we do. The critical need for emergency services from the CAP and other agencies in south Louisiana and Mississippi called for a rapid and extensive mobilization of all our resources, not only from the Louisiana Wing of the CAP, but from the CAP nationwide.”

As a civilian, Major Flournoy, who holds a doctorate in psychology, is the director of a mental health program for prison inmates in Caddo Parish, La. He is rated as an airline transport pilot with 3,000 flying hours in civilian aircraft and also serves as a check pilot and instructor pilot in the CAP. During the war in Vietnam, he was in the U.S. Naval Air Reserves and performed maintenance work on Douglas A4 Skyhawks aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Bon Homme Richard in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Most Americans watched Katrina unfold on their television sets. But few of them went to New Orleans to participate in the relief efforts. But Major Flournoy said he knew he'd be going to help out when he first saw the devastation unfold on the news.

"Seeing the flooding on television was certainly spellbinding," he said. "Even though I've been to New Orleans many times, watching the physical devastation and suffering on television was a surreal experience. I knew the CAP would need to serve in some capacity. So, I got permission from my employer to take whatever time was necessary to support.

"Once we arrived at our mission base in Baton Rouge three days after the hurricane, we immediately started flying a variety of missions," Major Flournoy said. "We flew General Honore’s helicopter crew back and forth between an Army base near Hattiesburg, Miss., and Naval Air Station New Orleans. We flew the Louisiana State University Board of Regents over LSU New Orleans to assess damage, we flew photo missions for several school boards for damage reconnaissance of schools in the disaster area, and we flew numerous first responders in and out of New Orleans.

"One interesting flight for us was the evacuation of several firefighters to Dallas," he said. "One firefighter would not leave his pet tropical fish behind so we strapped down his aquarium on the floor of the aircraft. The worried firefighter and fish all arrived safely in Dallas with only a minimum of splashing around!"

Actually flying over New Orleans was even more eye-opening than seeing it on the television, especially for those that have been in, worked in or lived in the historic river town.

"One of the most eerie feelings was the fact that as far as you could see, these neighborhoods were underwater," Colonel Palermo said. "On television, you see maybe one or two neighborhoods. But from 1,000 feet, you see hundreds of these neighborhoods, and you know that all of them would have to be bulldozed because water was up to the rooftop. And that water was staying there and it wasn't receding."

"The aerial missions performed by the pilots and other aircrew members could not have been done without the many dedicated CAP members who served as staff members on the ground," Major Flournoy added. "From operations staff, to chaplains, to food service and laundry, those members are the unsung heroes of the CAP effort, in my opinion. Without their tireless efforts and thoughtfulness, these missions would not have been possible."

Dangerous flying

Colonel Palermo was never in the military. He learned to fly while in law school, and his flying instructor encouraged him to dedicate some of his free time to the CAP. But the colonel says he imagines that what was going on over New Orleans was akin to something you might see in air war.

Safely negotiating all the aircraft, he says, was overwhelming.

"What was surreal about it was the number of aircraft," he said. "I've never been in a war operation. But I can't imagine any more aircraft that existed than what existed in New Orleans after the storm."

After Katrina, there were hundreds of aircraft performing various missions over New Orleans. And many of them were on their own, insofar as tower control, said Major Flournoy.

To alleviate the congestion, the Air Force had an E-3 Sentry (AWACS) aircraft in the air, and the CAP put up their own aircraft to make sense of the flying going on below.

"Since there were no control towers on the ground in New Orleans, some of the coordination of our flights had to be done by what we call 'High Bird,'" Major Flournoy said. "I'd fly at 3,000 to 4,000 feet and talk to all the other CAP aircraft in the air in the area to make sure they were okay and to relay messages."

"This was some of the most dangerous flying I've ever done, mainly because of obstacles and other aircraft. You really had to look out for yourself," he said. "There were no radar advisories. Everyone in the flight crew had to keep a sharp eye out for other aircraft, especially the numerous rescue helicopters.“

In their own backyard

When federal troops respond, it is often to an overseas location -- to areas far beyond what most Airmen would refer to as home.

In New Orleans, some of the very people that helped were already familiar with the area, had worked there or even lived there. And when Rita hit just a month later, some of those who flew Katrina missions had to go home to take care of the disasters in their own backyards.

Colonel Palermo spent nearly three weeks after Hurricane Katrina directing the local emergency operations center in his home town of Lake Charles. He was drafted as operations section chief and later deputy director because of his past disaster management experience. As a result of the work he did there, he didn't get a chance to go back to his own home, which suffered great damage from the winds of Hurricane Rita.

"I had a big water oak that crashed in to my home," he said. "I didn't see it for a couple of weeks after the storm. I was busy with the emergency ops staff coordinating the distribution of food, water, generators, fuel and ice."

While the colonel stayed in the operations center, his wife got a chance to make it back and assess the damage to their home.

"It was very emotional for her and somewhat disheartening for me," he said. "But there wasn’t a lot I could do about it -- me and tools don't particularly work well together. But I am a fairly good manager for emergency operations. The best thing for me to do was try to help as many people as possible. I had to carry on with the operations."

Colonel Palermo said that other areas in Lake Charles were also severely damaged.

"A lot of our own members could not respond because their own homes were devastated," he said. "There is a long way to go as far as recovery in South West Louisiana...Katrina gets all the attention and for good reason. But Hurricane Rita did equally destroy livelihoods and parts of the economy that we have yet to recover from."

CAP brings skills

The CAP is a corporation, funded by the federal government, with federally purchased aircraft. It is meant to serve local governments in times of crisis, and to serve, in certain circumstances, as an auxiliary to the U.S. Air Force.

But it is the people of the CAP, almost entirely volunteers that really contribute to what CAP brings to the table in any emergency situation.

During hurricane Katrina and Rita relief and recovery efforts, the CAP flew some 984 sorties. Ground personnel conducted more than 100 missions in support of the effort, and overall members put in over 11,000 hours toward the effort.

"We all have skills and think our skills can be used to protect human lives and mitigate disasters," Colonel Palermo said. "And we use our skills in CAP to help those in need, whether it be flying as aviators or photographers or radio communicators. All those skills can be brought to bear as force multipliers for state, local or federal agencies."