Springfield State Journal Register

September 09, 2005

Redpath aiding rescues
Springfield alderman in New Orleans


NEW ORLEANS - Alderman is not the first job that comes to mind when one thinks of saving lives.

But in the past four days, a dozen water-borne conservation officers led by Springfield's Ward 4 Ald. Chuck Redpath have braved what they describe as a horrendous scene and pulled some 40 people to safety from the toxic soup that has deluged New Orleans.

"It's been pretty hairy," said Redpath, 48, who is deputy chief of the Illinois Conservation Police in his day job. "There's still bodies floating."

He and his men have been plying the dark, oily, smelly waters left in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 17- to 20-foot boats looking for survivors in the submerged city.

Since they first launched their watercraft Monday, they have been operating primarily in an area northeast of the famous higher and drier French Quarter.

The crews are part of a major land and boat-based search and rescue operation that has drawn participants from law enforcement agencies across the nation and rescued scores of residents left stranded in their island homes.

Earlier this week, one of the crews rescued a 65-year-old man who had been surviving on Dr Pepper for five days.

They went to his house after a state trooper who has a family connection gave them his address.

As the boat approached the house, they used a megaphone: "Is anyone in the house? Do you need assistance?"

Out came a feeble reply: "I'm in here, I'm in here."

After getting the man out of his house, the rescuers flagged down one of the Army helicopters that are omnipresent in the sky over the shattered city. The chopper swooped down, picked up the man and took him away for medical care.

The conservation officers arrived Sunday as part of a 110-member state task force that includes state police, Chicago police, Secretary of State police, sheriff's deputies and municipal agencies.

While Redpath provided assistance during the 1993 floods in Illinois, nothing has prepared him for this.

"I've never seen such devastation," he said. "It's not just what the hurricane did, but looters destroyed the town. They just destroyed businesses, they busted windows out and busted doors in."

Police and rescuers have been shot at, though none in Redpath's group. So while the boat patrol wear their tan ranger-like uniforms to avoid alarming survivors, underneath they have bulletproof vests.

They also are armed with pistols, automatic rifles and shotguns.

The day begins when the several hundred search and rescue personnel meet at a staging area near the city's convention center for a detailed briefing and assignments. The rescuers are under the command of Louisiana state police.

Matt Landry, a Louisiana state trooper who was assigned to guide the team Thursday, grew up in the neighborhood they were searching west of the French Quarter.

"Take a right at the second light," he called out at one point. After a moment, Landry reflected: "I never thought I'd be giving these directions from a boat."

Among those who have been rescued by Redpath's crew were four people who had taken refuge in the second-floor rectory of a church, including a 3-month-old baby and his parents. A woman in the group was allowed to bring her pets on board because she was holding them, Redpath said.

Pets typically are not rescued because people are the priority.

"There's lots of animals that are dying," Redpath lamented. "We gave water to a couple of dogs." Many of the abandoned dogs are weak, and that makes them dangerous, he said.

While the majority of stranded residents are happy to get out after a week of near helplessness, not everyone goes willingly.

On Wednesday, a man in his 50s refused to come down from the attic of his submerged, two-story house that had become his compound.

"He wasn't leaving," Redpath said. "'I'm a Marine,' the man said. 'I'm going to stick this out. I've got my animals here. I'm not leaving. This thing ain't going to beat me."'

"We weren't going to get in a fight with him," Redpath said. "We gave him water."

Redpath was slightly incredulous.

"These people don't understand this water isn't going to go be gone for a while," he said.

The team reports the location of floating bodies but does not retrieve them.

"If we only thought about every dead body that we saw, it would drive us nuts," said Joe Morelock of Clinton, another of the rescuers. "You've got to keep your head in the game. Saving lives and protecting each other is our main goal."

Redpath found out Thursday that their last day will be Wednesday. The floodwaters are starting to drop.

Until then, it will continue to be demanding work. The men, who are staying at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, La., are up at 5 a.m. and on the road to New Orleans within a half hour. They search for survivors until the end of the day. By the time they are back and have cleaned up the boats and trucks, fixed any flat tires, decontaminated themselves and had something to eat, there's enough time for a few hours of sleep before the job begins anew.

"It's rewarding, though, when you get to pull those people out and they've got a smile on their face," Redpath said.

He makes a special point of his pride in his men.

"They're good guys," he said.

Staff photographer T.J. Salsman contributed to this report.