Canton Repository

September 12, 2005

Stark Guardsmen search flooded New Orleans streets

Copley Washington correspondent

NEW ORLEANS, La. — As they search for survivors of Hurricane Katrina, National Guardsmen from the Stark County area are doing their best to persuade residents who stuck it out to leave their devastated neighborhoods.

But even in this northeast section of the city where telephone poles are snapped, houses are collapsed and many neighborhoods are still submerged under black contaminated water, not everyone is ready to comply with the voluntary evacuation.

“I’m not goin’,” declared a man who identified himself only as Rick, as he chatted up three members of the 1-148th Infantry Battalion from North Canton in the sweltering heat Sunday. “Basically, what I’m trying to do is just get everything cleaned up,” he said while standing outside his mobile home, which had lost part of its wall during the storm.

Sgt. Raymond Kunkler of Akron, one of the leaders in the Army Guard unit based at the Akron-Canton Regional Airport, applied gentle pressure.

“It’s really looking like about three months,” Kunkler said, speculating when power or water might be restored. “It’s definitely a suggestion to leave.”

“You all listen to the game last night?” said Rick, changing the subject. He had a battery-powered radio, he explained.

Before the guardsmen left, Spec. Noah Timberlake of East Canton noticed a gaping wound on Rick’s elbow, and asked if he was keeping it clean in the highly contaminated environment. “I’ve got hydrogen peroxide,” said Rick, who described himself as a contractor and figures business soon will be booming in this ravaged area.

The soldiers, who are camped out along the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, have joined thousands of military, law enforcement and firefighters from all over the nation who are searching for survivors, locating dead bodies and maintaining order.

In the past week, the North Canton unit has checked out the majority of homes in its several square mile area, either by foot, truck or boat, depending on the level of flooding. Most have been abandoned. The job has increasingly become one of looking after survivors who refuse to leave.

In front of a house with an overturned van and large pile of garbage in the yard, Ray Wheeler was feeding several dogs and insisting he would stay.

“See my dogs, right?” he said, as several tough looking canines barked. “I want to take care of them and keep an eye on this neighborhood.” All his neighbors left, he said. “I’m trying to keep these houses safe while they’re gone.”

The Guardsmen, many of whom are in their 20s, have never been on a mission like this.

“It’s a different world down here,” said Spec. John Saeger of Canal Fulton, as the sun began to descend into the huge lake across the street from the battalion’s camp. “It’s a big-time eye opener. It just shows you the amount of loss you can really have. It makes me appreciate life more.”

Emaciated dogs are a common sight. The soldiers said they have rescued as many as they can and reported them to a group that is picking up stray animals. Boats that escaped from their moorings litter the streets.

The troops are bunking in a partially constructed medical office complex within sight of the city’s Lakefront Airport and nearby Bally’s Casino. They get power from a generator, but there is no running water and it is rare enough gets a strong enough signal to make a call on a cell phone.

Out front, pine trees are uprooted and telephone holes are bent almost to the ground from the hurricane.

After checking on residents who had remained, Kunkler’s group on Sunday drove into a submerged area in a five-ton, high-clearance military vehicle. Moving through the opaque water carries risk. The day before, one of the trucks unknowingly drove into a canal as it went through the flooded city, burying the front end in the contaminated water.

Later in the morning, two Guardsmen donned waders to reach houses surrounded by water as almost a dozen other soldiers followed in a truck.

“At first you don’t know what to expect in that water,” observed Pvt. 1st Class Greg Clark of Jackson Township, who was wearing waders for the first time.

Pvt. 2nd Class Chris Hopkins of Canal Fulton said the coolness of the water felt good.

“You could see tadpoles and little lizards swimming around,” he said.

The troops, who have been here for almost two weeks, are getting a little weary, some of them said. They have no indication when they might return to Ohio. But they are proud of the security they provided at the Superdome early in their mission and their success in locating survivors since then.

“I’ve got a 1-year-old baby boy,” said Spec. David Dickey of Waynesburg. “My son is my life. That’s the toughest part,” he said.

Timberlake would like to get back too, but he realizes how fortunate he is compared to so many who lost everything in the hurricane.

“At least I have a home to get back to,” he said.