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Disaster overwhelms even seasoned rescuers

FEMA teams from around the country went to Mississippi's devastated Gulf Coast in an effort to assist local officials looking for survivors.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

By mid-afternoon Wednesday, medical specialist Lt. Jose Arias walked into the rubble that was once this seaside community's old-money neighborhood and declared: "Worse than Andrew."

Arias, a paramedic in the Miami-Dade County fire department, should know. He is part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Florida Task Force 2 -- a team of search-and-rescue veterans of every powerful hurricane to hit the Southeast in recent memory. Andrew, Charley, Frances, Ivan and now Katrina: The team has worked them all.

"Yeah, worse," echoed Lybbi Kienzle, the owner and handler of one of the most important members of the team: Josh, a Labrador-and-golden-retriever mix federally certified in search-and-rescue. "We just went through Katrina ourselves [in Florida], and we just knew they were going to get killed."

Divided into five squads, Florida Task Force 2 spent its first day along Mississippi's Gulf Coast performing its most important task: looking for trapped victims of Hurricane Katrina. Braving a heat index of 100 and carrying 40 pounds of rescue and survival gear on their backs, they located one cadaver -- a man buried neck-deep in rubble in Gulfport -- and capped about a dozen leaking natural gas lines. They walked door to door along a 63-block area just west of downtown Gulfport to check for trapped people and animals, and responded to emergency calls from local authorities.

"We're a small department," said Mike Brown, deputy chief of the Long Beach Fire Department. "It looks good when these guys walk in."

"This place," Brown paused for a moment as his eyes teared up and his voice caught, "has been devastated."

By Wednesday, 11 FEMA teams had responded to Mississippi's devastated Gulf Coast to assist local officials. Seven teams had traveled to Louisiana.

"This is still prime rescue opportunity," FEMA Operations Chief Fred Endrikat told response teams from Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Florida in an early-morning briefing before deploying them. "Approach it like that: Approach it with urgency. This is obviously a long-term operation."

High temperatures, little water
For now, the search-and-rescue teams had more immediate concerns. They were told local officials believe the Mississippi Sound has turned into a huge vat of biohazards because of an estimated million pounds of dead shrimp, a million pounds of processed chicken, and a million pounds of chicken manure. At this time of year, temperatures are in the 90s and the humidity is high; rescue dogs such as Kienzle's Josh are highly susceptible to heatstroke. Sewer systems are damaged and leaking. Natural gas lines are broken. There is no running water and no power, and miles and miles of damage, and the smell of rotting flesh and animals is beginning to set in.

"Make sure you're careful with your folks," Endrikat advised the task force leaders. "Everything you're dealing with out there is dangerous."

Long Beach, a 10-square-mile city of 18,000 people, needed help Wednesday with three "hot zones" -- areas where people were believed to be trapped under rubble. As Kienzle walked with Josh and encouraged him -- "You ready? Ready? Go ahead, boy, search!" -- Florida task force members scoured the blocks where fancy homes once stood.

A Moorish-patterned tile floor marked the footprint of one home that used to exist. Among the thousands of pounds of splintered wood, bricks, damaged cars and boats, and broken furniture, lay the details of people's lives: a curved wood smoking pipe, a 33-rpm record of Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney singing "White Christmas," a collection of Oscar Wilde's works opened to the play "Salome."

Long Beach officials, who had found one body earlier in the day, called upon the Florida search-and-rescue team because of reports of at least three other trapped people. Two of the reports turned out to be false. The third was to be investigated by a FEMA task force from Pennsylvania.

Saving sea lions
The only unusual flesh the team found was thousands of smelly chickens that were blasted out of a nearby processing plant by the storm surge, and a 13-year-old sea lion that was washed out of the Marine Life Oceanarium, four miles away in Gulfport.

The sea lion was rescued by a couple during the height of the storm as it washed by their home in a huge tidal wave. Two days later, the two were keeping the sea lion, named Pocahontas, hydrated in a child's wading pool and fed it fish scavenged from the freezers of the empty homes around them.

"Next to any trapped bodies, the sea lion is our number one priority," said Long Beach Deputy Chief Brown. "We're working on clearing this road so the seaquarium people can come and get it."

The first day of rescue work done, members of the Florida team returned to the Harrison County emergency command center, drenched in sweat and exhausted, to await further orders. They might go out for another eight-hour shift at night; they might get a break and not be deployed until tomorrow. How long they will remain here is unknown. But for this day, they had fulfilled their mission.

"We cleaned a large area and made sure nobody was trapped along there, and that's our main goal," said Lt. Bob Hernandez, a squad leader and Miami firefighter. "I would call it a success."