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Hurricane Katrina will likely be recorded as the worst natural disaster in the history of
the United States, producing catastrophic damage and at least 1,836 casualties in
the New Orleans area, along the Mississippi Gulf Coast and in south Florida.
The United States Northern Command established Joint Task Force (JTF) Katrina based out of Camp Shelby, Mississippi, to act as the military's on-scene command on Sunday, August 28. Approximately 58,000 National Guard personnel were activated to deal with the storm's aftermath, with troops coming from all 50 states.
Military helicopters continued airlifts throughout the days, ferrying in supplies and taking many people out of New Orleans to the Louis Armstrong International Airport in nearby Kenner. By September 3, according official reports the facility so far has processed 40,000 people, with priority given to the sick and injured.
Coast Guard helicopters where already on scene and several days into the disaster, National Guard helicopter crews joined the desperate effort, using less well-equipped UH-1 Hueys hugging one or two survivors up time after time. And by the end of the week, the skies over New Orleans were a beehive of rotary wing activity, with craft as large as the huge Skycrane or tandem rotor Chinooks , large Sikorsky H-53s along with most every other helicopter model in the Armed Forces inventory.
The Army's III Corps and two Air Force rescue wings contributed over 30 helos as well. At the height of operations, the various elements of the Department of Defense had more than 350 helicopters and over 70 fixed wing aircraft involved in Katrina relief efforts. Below is a summary of the helicopter units deployed:
On the afternoon of the storm, NAS JRB New Orleans' emergency management team quickly moved into action to clear the runways and repair the control tower. Within four hours, flight operations began when the first Coast Guard HH-65 landed at the JRB to start relief operations. The Coast Guard had also prepositioned rescue helos to Shreveport, La., and other aviation assets in staging areas near the threatened area in advance of the storm. By 5 September, the Coast Guard had 43 helicopters and 8 fixed wing aircraft conducting operations in the region.
Of the 60,000 people stranded in New Orleans, the US Coast Guard rescued over 33,500. Congress recognized the Coast Guard's response with an official entry in the Congressional Record and the Armed Service was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.
Hour by hour, pilots held their HH-65 Dolphins or HH-60 Jayhawk helicopters in rock-steady hovers as their crewmen lowered rescue baskets and raised up desperate survivors one by one. Hour by hour they worked, pausing only to refuel — their crews at times needing to be all but ordered to sleep and comply with the crew duty limitations.
The Coast Guard raced tirelessly to save as many as possible, maintaining its superlative safety procedures to make sure the crews and rescuees made it back every time.
Assault carrier USS Bataan (LHD 5) was already operating in the region as the storm approached. She steamed westward to embark four MH-53s from HM-15 based at NAS Corpus Christi, Texas, which joined two MH-60s from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 28 already on board. Late in the afternoon of 30 August these helos began search and rescue operations in the vicinity of New Orleans.
The Navy soon sent assets from the Norfolk, Va., area, including three amphibious ships: USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7), USS Shreveport (LPD 12), and USS Tortuga (LSD 46). On 4 September, Iwo Jima moored pierside in downtown New Orleans and became a hub for military and civilian helicopter activity in the heart of the city. The amphib became the HQ for Joint Task Force Katrina led by Army Lt. Gen Russell Honore. Aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) also deployed to the area along with USS Whidbey Island (LSD 41) on September 1st. Truman embarked elements of 13 Navy helicopter squadrons and by deploying close to the disaster area, shortened the mission time for operations that had previously been flown from Pensacola. The carrier also provided support to NAS JRB New Orleans in the form of aviation boatswain's mates and cooks to keep that vital station in operation.
The demand for aircraft, particularly helicopters, led to the deployment of aircraft from across the services and the country. Helicopter Antisubmarine Squadron Light (HSL) 43, HSL-47, and HSL-49, and HSC-21 arrived from NAS North Island, Calif., with their MH-60 Seahawks. Three Marine squadrons from MCAS New River, N.C., sent six CH-53E Super Stallions and two CH-46E Sea Knights, and Heavy Helicopter Squadron (HMH) 772, a reserve squadron from Willow Grove, Pa., sent four more Super Stallions. Naval Aviation units also provided key logistical support; Fleet Logistics Support Squadron (VR) 57 and VR-58 moved in Seabees and HSL crewmen; evacuated hundreds of citizens; and transported tons of supplies.
US Air Force's 347th Expeditionary Rescue Group from Moody, Ga ( More than 20 HH-60G Pave Hawks
operating from Allen C. Thompson Air National Guard Base in Jackson, Miss )
This is the first time the command has assigned helicopters outside its normal area of operations.
The helicopters assigned to 20th Air Force are primarily dedicated to providing security ‘top cover’ for America’s ICBM force. However, because of their inherent capabilities, such as forward-looking infrared system, they are also ideally suited for search-and-rescue missions.
Bell Helicopter Textron : In coordination with FEMA, they dispatched six helicopters to the Gulf area. They were one Bell 430, one Bell 206L4, and four Bell 407s including one NVG (night vision goggles) equipped on station in Lafayette, LA. flying medical aid missions. In all sixteen pilots and customer service representatives from Bell joined forces with federal and local agencies.
International helicopters Response :
Canada: On September 2 the Government of Canada announced it was sending three warships, along with a Coast Guard vessel, with three CH-124 Sea King to the area. Over 1,000 personnel are involved in the operation, including engineers and navy divers.
Netherlands: The Koninklijke Marine (Royal Netherlands Navy ) 's frigate Hr.Ms. Van Amstel arrived from the Netherlands Antilles with her Westland Lynx attachment onboard.
Republic of Singapore Air Force: Three Singaporean CH-47 Chinooks and 38 RSAF personnel from a training detachment based in Grand Prairie, Texas assisted in relief operations from 1 September. They had so far ferried about 700 evacuees and hauled tons of supplies in 39 sorties on 4 September.
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