In the last days of August 2005 a local firebug was keeping me busy flying initial attack helicopter firefighting in the evenings after my regular work day had ended. Paula and I were sitting down to a late night supper, checking the news to see “you know who” fly on the latest fire, when the initial Katrina weather alerts began to filter in. I was up at two a.m. watching the news on the night Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast. When I returned to bed I said to Paula, “This is going to be bad.”
Although Louisiana has more helicopters than any other state it looked like they were going to need a few hundred more, from somewhere. I know Washington State is a long way away from Louisiana and I knew there was no National Disaster Plan that actually coordinated efforts but we had to get involved. I called the Federal Government’s Interagency Centre in Boise Idaho, the response was that no contractual agreement existed that would allow any of the more than 300 aircraft they held under contract from private operators to respond at this time. Useless. Our call came at about 2 p.m. the next day. The F.B.I. needed a helicopter in New Orleans and they needed it there in 24 hours. How and why the F.B.I. was calling a helicopter company almost 2000 miles away is another story in itself, but we quickly got the helicopter ready at the hangar. With my gear packed, a “see you sometime” kiss to Paula, I was on my way by 4 p.m. with about 2 hours of light and 1850 miles to do in 21 hours.
At 10 p.m. flight service in Salt Lake advised me the lightning I was seeing was a fast moving front, which forced me to divert and land for a few hours in Burley, Idaho. By 3 a.m. I was back in the air, but behind schedule. The next day was fly, fly, fuel, eat snacks Paula packed, fly, and fly. I began to get a better picture of things as I got closer. The F.B.I told me there would be a trailer and shower when I got there. Sure, I know B.S. when I hear it, the F.B.I is no different. I found myself under direction to fly to Baton Rouge instead of New Orleans, and had to explain that “No, I will not be ready to fly when I get there at what looks will be 9 p.m.” I had been up for 17 hours, napped for 3 and had another 18 hour day just to get there. We agreed to meet the next morning at 8 a.m. I had been calling ahead searching small towns for rooms as I flew and finally found one. The airport manager was barbequeing at home when he heard me fly in at about 9 p.m. The manager delivered me to the Motel, handing me about 4 lbs. of barbequed pork, beef ribs and beans. God bless my fellow aviators.
I could talk about my flying exploits in the New Orleans area on Katrina disaster relief. There are, as you can imagine some good stories. But I want to tell you about some people I met. A lot has been said about the people who survived Katrina. People behaving badly make news. Families sticking together and helping each other through devastating personal and financial loss is not sensational news. Just humans at their best.
The good news was that I got to the Emergency Response Center in Baton Rouge before President Bush arrived. His helicopter was going to be landing next to mine very soon. Bad news was that the FBI wanted me to fly them out right away and the airspace was now closed. “Its called a Presidential TFR” I told the agents, “and busting it would be akin to a White House over flight and may result in death, disgrace, at the very least a revocation of my license and I suspect about 30 days in the electric chair.” After several calls on the part of the FBI and a very detailed call to the FAA emergency help desk by me, we were granted special permission to leave in the next 5 minutes. I checked my transponder code about 3 times as we flew towards New Orleans. Nervous? You bet. We made it through the first day in New Orleans.
Back that evening in Baton Rouge at the Emergency response center I watched dozens of helicopters coming and going The media was camped out everywhere, police, military and my buddies from the FBI and secret service. No trailer, no shower, no food but I was still way better off than most of the folks I had seen that day, so no complaints either. One of the FBI folks, a New Orleans resident (now homeless) told me that he had a cousin living here in Baton Rouge and that his cousin may be able to put me up. He would call him for me. The call went like this,
“No Dusty he is not an agent, not a criminal and no he is not currently charged with any crimes. All his previous charges were dropped for lack of any living witnesses”. This seemed funny to who ever Dusty was and I was invited to come over to their home that night. Thank You.
David and Dusty Snyder were waiting for us when we arrived at their suburban Baton Rouge home that evening. After introductions on the front porch I moved my gear into their house and apparently one of their daughters bedrooms. The pink my little pony decorative theme was a hint to the little girls age. I was not the only guest. There was Davids sister from New Orleans and his Uncle Frank and Aunt Mabel from St Bernards Parish.
“Have you eaten?” was Mabels first question. I had, in fact. Least I could do was buy my buddy from the FBI dinner. When we sat down at the table it was quiet but friendly. It seemed that about ten family members were unaccounted for after the storm. In this part of the country literally everyone knows each other or are related and their whereabouts are usually known.
“The phones and cell phones don’t work in New Orleans now” I said. “Have you flown over most of the area and in particular St. Bernards Parish?” they asked.
“Do you know where Shell Beach is?”
“Yes, I do.”
“And how does it look?” Everyone was staring at me. How do you tell somebody that there is no Shell Beach anymore. Not a stick of wood. Not a wrecked car. Not a boat. Nothing you could recognize as anything. Water and floating debris. A greasy oil sheen where you lived for how long did you say? 87 years? I toldl them what I saw and then took a big drink of my water. Mabel looked at the table, “Anyone want some more tea?” she asked, walking to the fridge. Nobody spoke for a bit and then Uncle Frank said,
“Well,I knew it would be bad. We’ll get by, always have.
“Is there land showing in places?” It was the sisters turn to ask.
“Yes, it was those places we landed today.”
“What about animals, were there dogs? I had to leave my dog behind,” she almost started crying.
“There were more dogs than I had ever seen wandering around.” I said. Thinking back on the day, I had been fortunate to run into friends and fellow pilots at the International Airport in New Orleans, they stocked me up on food and snacks from their supplies. I handed it all out to the dogs that day. Every where we landed, hungry dogs. No cats. I walked around the back of a house situated close to a levy on a piece of higher ground. A little island of green grass in a wasteland of submerged houses and businesses in a mostly commercial district. Whoa! A horse in my face. I don’t know who was more startled, but I made the louder noise. How far and through what had that horse swam to find the only food and dry ground around for miles. Survival. Nice horse, I hope he lived.
After supper everyone went off to bed early. Depressions escape. Sleep. David sat and talked to Uncle Frank and myself. I mostly listened. Uncle Frank was known to most as “Blackie” Campo and he and his family had come to Louisiana via the Canary Islands. There had been Campos in this part of the world since the1800’s. The Campos were outdoorsmen, hunters, fishermen, guides. Blackie owned,(used to) a marina, three houses, dry dock, fishing supplies, bait, fuel and free fishing advice, guiding if you really wanted to catch fish. David had worked summers for Uncle Frank. A great guy to work for, tireless, stronger than any two men. I didn’t doubt it. Uncle Frank had those huge hands you just stared at after he had shook your hand. At 87 he was still an impressive figure, wide shoulders, big arms, a voice like the first two notes on the piano. As it turned out, a voice that could tell some great stories too. Blackie had been one of the first people inducted into the Louisiana Sportsmens Hall of Fame, and David said “that Uncle Frank was still one of the best fishing guides in Louisiana.”
Frankie is what he liked to be called. He said to me, “Yeah, I’ve done some fishing in my life”. Had been the fishing guide to five Presidents. Five letters from five Presidents, thanking him for his work. All those letters and all those photos, memorabilia, memories, locked safely in the trunk of the car, sitting on high ground where it had never flooded through countless previous hurricanes. Gone.
David had gone to bed. Frankie and I were talking. It was late. I would stay up as long as Frankie wanted to talk. Frankie needed the audience and I could listen to his stories all night. A life, full. A day spent fishing with Frankie would have been a great day whether you caught fish or not. Presidents could fish with whomever they wished. I knew why they had gone fishing with Uncle Frank.
Every night at the Snyder’s was an event but I needed to go. I would miss Frankie quizzing me on my days and sometimes night flights and I especially would miss his stories. The last night, Frankie was listing the gear, antiques and memorabilia that they had lost when Mabel came out to the living room.
She looked upset and I thought she was going to tell Frankie to get to bed. She was the boss and Frankie adored her.
“I’ve been listening to your list,” she said “when it hit me that all our financial books are gone too. No record of all those fisherman you carried on the books for months Frankie.” All the bait, fuel, repair bills. These were commercial fisherman. Once large operations with multiple boats, some boats in tact some not. A lot of money owed, no records.
“That’s all right Honey,” Frankie said. “They know us, we know them. They’ll pay their bills when they can.” Mabel didn’t look so convinced. “Good night gentlemen.”
I left the next day.
I never saw the Snyders or Campos again. I call every now and then. “Please cash the check my company sent you David” I had said. David would not take money for my food and lodging when I was leaving. Stubborn. How was Uncle Frank doing? Was there anything to salvage? A little, he said. But guess what Uncle Frankie is doing?
“Fishing, relaxing?” I was joking of course.
No, he bought a fuel truck and he is fueling the commercial fishing boats around the area. I asked him, “well, Uncle Frank, do these guys have any money to pay you for the fuel?” “No,” he said and they won’t have any money till they bring in some fish. Someones got to help”.
The world could use a few more Blackie Campos. I’ll never forget him.