Local Firefighter Recounts Scene in New Orleans
‘It’s the worst I’ve ever seen,’ says rescue specialist Brian
Adam Clark Signal Staff Writer
“You can’t necessarily see the bodies, but you can smell them,” said veteran firefighter Brian LaBrie.
In New Orleans since the day Hurricane Katrina made landfall, LaBrie, of Santa Clarita, said it is the worst disaster he has seen in his 17-year career as a swift water rescue specialist for the Los Angeles Fire Department.
LaBrie was deployed to New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He was in Oklahoma City for the bombing of the federal building in 1995, and he was in Los Angeles for the 1992 riots.
On Aug. 29, he and the 13 other members of his team were deployed to New Orleans where they have been rescuing hundreds of men, women and children.
“People ask me to describe it. I tell them it’s the (Los Angeles) riots, Sept. 11 and the Sacramento floods all rolled into one,” said LaBrie, who also is affiliated with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and is part of a rescue team that is generally the first on site at any national disaster.
LaBrie said he and members of his team have met death, destruction and violence at every turn.
“(There is) the massive destruction of the water and the flooding,” he said. “There is the violence where rescue workers are being shot at and boats are being stolen at gun point, and then there is the massive death (toll).”
Despite the horrible conditions, LaBrie said he and his team have been bringing in survivors by the hundreds. Their first night in the water, they rescued 197 adults and 40 children.
Some families have managed to stay together, he said, but many have been ripped apart. One of the hardest things to deal with are the orphans they find, he said.
One particularly difficult situation involved four children who were brought in without parents. The police department was overloaded at the time and was unable to do anything, LaBrie said.
“Usually we would turn them over to the police department ... we couldn’t do that this time because there were too many of them. We had to put them on the bus and send them to the shelter.”
Many of the men have families of their own, so “it was really hard for (them),” LaBrie said.
The violence is also unbelievably bad, he said. His team had to stop going out at night because of looters.
“It was too violent at night,” he said. “Most of the looters come out at night.”
Even during the day, the rescue teams didn’t go out without armed patrol. “We had (Drug Enforcement Administration) and (military) with us,” he said. “They all carried machine guns.”
Worse than the violence are the water conditions, he said.
“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen. There were rumors of E. coli in there; we were swimming in raw sewage, dead bodies, chemicals (from) the chemical plant and pesticides,” and a crude oil spill at one point, LaBrie said.
He said the Environmental Protection Agency has tested the water and is awaiting the results.
Despite the hardships, LaBrie and his team continue to work using every means available to them. “One day all the teams had to be airlifted into an area because that was the only way to get there.”
LaBrie said they find people everywhere, on their roofs and in upper levels of houses that are not completely submerged.
Nevertheless, as many as 50 percent did not want to be rescued, he said.
“A lot of them didn’t want to leave their pets,” he said. “We weren’t able to take pets because we couldn’t take a pet over another person.”
Due to the water condition and the overall level of destruction, LaBrie said it is not possible to guess when exactly survivors will be able to come back to the city.
“The water level is going to have to drop a lot,” he said. However, it has started to drop already, measuring a foot lower on Wednesday.
With an estimated 10,000 dead and 40,000 missing, LaBrie said it is going to take quite a while to search through all the houses and find all the dead bodies.
“It’s coming to the point where it’s no longer a rescue operation. It’s a humanitarian issue,” he said.
LaBrie said he is back in Santa Clarita for a few days to take care of some family issues.
His team is still in New Orleans and he expects that he will go back as well. Some of the team members are expected to be there through Thanksgiving.