By: Rear Admiral Sinclair M. Harris
RDML Harris was the Amphibious Squadron 4/Iwo Jima Strike Group during humanitarian assistance and disaster relief – Hurricanes Katrina/Rita in 2005. On the ten year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation to the gulf coast, we asked him to share his reactions and what he remembered during the response of his strike group.
As I look back on the ten years since, I continue to be proud of the work from Joint Force in response to Hurricane Katrina. With very little guidance and incredible reports on the news filling the airways, the IWO JIMA Amphibious Ready Group, with elements of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, rapidly deployed to the Mississippi Coast. At the time I remember telling my Sailors and Marines that I didn’t have clear guidance on what we will be charged with doing when we arrived. Responding to the disaster on our Gulf Coast was the first time that most of us had been assigned to a Defense Support of Civilian Authority (DSCA) mission. We had very little knowledge of the situation and, as far as I could tell, the C2 was still being figured out. What I did know was then Captain Nora Tyson (now VADM) was already on scene with BATAAN. She told me to hurry and we did.
Commander’s intent is important. It’s a critical leadership element and provides a standard operating model for your crew. I already knew this operation was going to be a first for my crew, and I expected each of us to find the good and do it. Feed those who are hungry; give shelter to whoever needs it; give water to the thirsty; comfort anyone that needs help…these are our citizens…fellow Americans…find the good and do it. That was my commander’s intent.
What I saw when we arrived was horrifying. It was worse than any war zone that I had seen. It looked as if a giant had pounded everything within a mile of the coast to smithereens. I remember an older woman sitting on her bags in front of the foundation that was her home for more than 40 years. She sat there waiting patiently for her daughter to pick her up. In her time of need, she asked us if she could do anything to help us while she was waiting. I was in tears. I knew Southern hospitality from several tours throughout my career, so I was not surprised by the grace and humor shown by the people most devastated. Everyone I met showed complete appreciation to our men and women. Sometimes, all they wanted was someone to hug and to say thank you. I truly believe the presence of our uniformed men and women helped many to cope with the difficulties they were dealing with in the early days after Katrina struck.
We have to remember that the bridges were out of service and the airport shutdown, so the only way to provide support was from the sea. Vessels like the SWIFT (predecessor of the Joint High Speed Vessel) made countless runs up the Mississippi river keeping the logistic support flowing to the ships supporting the city. The Coast Guard was busy rescuing people and organizing the interagency response, so it was the Navy-Marine Corps team that served as the initial life line to much of the Gulf Coast and the city of New Orleans. Hurricane Sandy was a more recent example of the same thing. Sailors, Marines, Soldiers, Airmen and Coast Guardsmen worked seamlessly with Civilian volunteers in response to the tragedy. Their passion and desire to do anything to restore hope was evident in everything they did. There was no job that they would not do and they worked around the clock doing it. We prayed with folks from Biloxi to the River Walk in New Orleans. Heck, the Mayor of the city and his staff had not slept or had a hot meal in days when we arrived, so we rolled out the best we could muster, had the medical staff give them all a quick check-up and gave up our racks (including my own) for them get some rest. You may even recall seeing the Mayor sporting an Iwo Jima shirt and PHIBRON FOUR Ball Cap on TV.
Our service men and women were selfless and caring to all. And, we showed our citizens the compassionate side of human nature throughout the region. Many commented to me that now that they saw us, they knew America actually cared. I expected my Sailors and Marines to find the good and do it. I learned in the process that people are capable of giving and coping with much more than you previously expected. As I conclude my Navy career, and prepare for retirement, our response, and especially the people of New Orleans, remains a shining moment of good.