Berrien County volunteer tells tales from the bayou

Published 3:08 am Tuesday, March 28, 2006

By By JOHN EBY / Niles Daily Star
DOWAGIAC - It's no accident the U.S. Coast Guard distinguished itself in New Orleans while coping with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina tarnished so much of the rest of the federal disaster response.
As Gaye Blind, a volunteer with the Coast Guard Auxiliary, explained to the Cass County Conservation District 61st annual meeting Thursday at Dowagiac Conservation Club, structure deserves some credit for saving 23,273 lives.
By the time an official declaration had been made, the Coast Guard had already responded - even though 20 percent of the Coast Guard stationed in that area lost their own homes.
Another key to the Coast Guard's effectiveness, she said, is that “many people can make judgment calls. You don't have to report to one authority. That was needed in New Orleans.”
Blind, of Baroda, is executive director of Berrien Conservation District and a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary deployed to New Orleans last fall.
Blind said the Auxiliary is the volunteer arm. The Coast Guard has two others, regular duty and Reserves. “I think 9/11 shook us all enough to say, ‘We need more help than our armed forces can give us.' ”
A month after the Aug. 29, 2005, hurricane swamped the Gulf Coast, Blind was among 3,000 deployed to Atlanta.
Once she got to Louisiana she was stationed in Orleans Parish, which is the city of New Orleans proper. Baton Rouge served as a staging area for New Orleans operations. Blind was one of 50 sent there from 12 different states.
With her PowerPoint presentation Blind (rhymes with wind) promised “a very different New Orleans” than television pictures during “search-and-rescue.”
A tent city was erected in Baton Rouge. There were 20 115-person tents.
Blind said a command center had been set up with computers, but there was no power - or water for drinking or bathing and no post offices, hospitals or banks open. There were two police stations, but 200 patrol cars had been damaged or destroyed. “There were only six working (fire) stations. Forty-one were unusable.”
From the hotel roof they could see Red Cross and Navy hospital ships.
Streets were hard to pinpoint with their signs twisted or absent.
Blind's job was to assess people's needs and get them help - food, clothing, shelter - “what do you need?”
The idea was to go to churches, Rotary clubs and other community organizations to identify citizens with needs.
But there mostly dusty gray sediment, not people.
There were more cars in trees than driving on streets.
They revised their six-week mission to going door-to-door in the residential neighborhoods 12 hours a day. Phone service and computers were still out. Even cell service was spotty.
Lack of communication slowed arrival of government assistance. There was no mail service to deliver checks and many had no addresses.
Two Disaster Recovery Centers were set up with Internet access, but still many people couldn't get there.
Where they ate meals was staffed by the U.S. Forest Service for 50 different rescue and relief organizations.
United Public Radio of New Orleans broadcast from Baton Rouge.
That's where she learned Oct. 8 that 1,000 bodies had been recovered and that New Orleans police had commandeered 200 Cadillacs.
There were two gas stations open. Rail service had been restored from Chicago.
When the fisheries biologist encountered a fish in the street, Blind was determined to rescue it - even after the Army Corps of Engineers warned her about the alligator gar's teeth. They improvised a “trough” with a pillow case and some drapes to return the fish to the canal.