Springfield State Journal Register

September 10, 2005

Patrolling New Orleans
Springfield officers look for survivors


NEW ORLEANS - Only minutes before, the police had been walking the streets and knocking on doors to retrieve anyone who still remained in this city devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

But within six blocks of their starting point, their progress up fashionable Calhoun Avenue was halted when they ran into water.

The team, including five officers from the Springfield emergency response team and several from other Illinois police departments, still had several blocks to go.

So, packed into the open bed of a five-ton, high-clearance military truck, they proceeded into the opaque black lagoon that surrounds houses, cars, vans, street signs, trees, grills and anything else still standing in this once lovely but now deserted neighborhood.

As the water got deeper, there was a clear sense of trepidation among the dozen and a half police in this vehicle. No one could see beneath the surface of the toxic mess.

Sgt. Todd Taylor, a narcotics officer who is commander of the Springfield contingent, acknowledged later that it was a little frightening.

"Hey, what could happen to this truck?" he said. "Could it hit something and flip over? You have a hazard. You don't know what that water's going to do. Who knows what's in that water."

Since arriving Sunday, the Springfield police and a handful of colleagues from other cities who are with them have spent most of their days searching by foot for survivors.

"It went a little slow this morning," Taylor said.

The team found seven people Wednesday and 14 Thursday during walks through a variety of neighborhoods strewn with fallen trees and branches, downed wires and other hurricane damage. They didn't find anyone Friday.

Springfield police officer Bob Byrne figures most of the people already have left what now seems eerily like a ghost town.

The storm knocked out power, and water supplies are contaminated.

Earlier, the team picked up an elderly woman so weak she could barely make it to the truck. Hesitant to leave her home or her dogs, she finally assented.

The law enforcement group, which receives its search assignments daily from Louisiana State Police, had less success in persuading a Vietnamese couple to leave even though their food was spoiled and the wife was running out of needed medicine.

Taylor said the husband "was talking about God and the Bible and if he was going to die he was going to die. ... They were adamant they were not leaving," said Taylor, who suspects the woman really wanted to leave but her husband would not let her.

No person in any house in the neighborhood made his or her presence known as the truck, driven by an Illinois National Guardsman, moved through the neighborhood that is now a swamp.

At least two officers donned breathing protection while others deflected overhanging tree branches and hanging or downed power lines that could have injured them or caught on the truck.

"This is the first time we've been in this deep," said Olympia Fields Police Chief Jeff Chudwin. "I hope there are no potholes in this road. That's water you don't want to fall into."

Except for a swirling wake left by the slow-moving truck and occasional bubbles that rose to the surface, the rancid stew seemed as still as tar.

Even dragonflies were avoiding it.

Byrne noticed a yellow Ryder truck partially under water in front of a house.

"They didn't quite make it out," he said during Friday's patrol.

"Hey, we can only stay here two hours," another police officer joked as the truck passed a two-hour parking limit sign poking out of the water.

While they have been awed by the gratitude and hospitality of the Louisiana residents they have come here to help, the officers expressed frustration that they are not allowed to continue their searches longer into the afternoon.

In compliance with a curfew, searchers are required to be out of the city by 6 p.m.

"We've still got three hours of daylight left, maybe four," said Mark Houston, a Springfield officer. "I just want to do what I can do to help out."

Springfield detective Mark Devaney thinks it would make sense to keep the teams in one area for a few days rather than rotating them each day.

But he believes the authorities running the relief effort are doing the best they can.

"They've got a lot on their hands," he said.