HomeNewsArticle Display

A city underwater gets help from above

NEW ORLEANS -- With a combined force of 26 helicopters and about 400 people, pararescue teams composed of reservists and active duty Airmen are flying 8- to 10-hour missions over New Orleans' flooded city to save lives.  Rescuing more than 2,000 people in five days, the pararescue teams locate and retrieve the residents, drop them off at a collection point, and then circle around again looking for more.  (Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Bill Huntington)

NEW ORLEANS -- With a combined force of 26 helicopters and about 400 people, pararescue teams composed of reservists and active duty Airmen are flying 8- to 10-hour missions over New Orleans' flooded city to save lives. Rescuing more than 2,000 people in five days, the pararescue teams locate and retrieve the residents, drop them off at a collection point, and then circle around again looking for more. (Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Bill Huntington)

JACKSON, Miss. -- With their homes and city underwater, many citizens of New Orleans have been looking to the skies for help from helicopter rescue crews of the Air Force Reserve, Air National Guard and active duty.

Hoisted aloft from rooftops and carried aboard from broken bridge spans and other locations isolated by flooding waters, more than 2,000 people have been saved by pararescue teams in the past five days since Hurricane Katrina hit the city.

“We got the call on (Aug. 30) and flew straight into Jackson from the east coast of Florida and immediately started flying rescue missions,” said Col. Timothy Tarchick, 920th Rescue Wing commander from Patrick Air Force Base, Fla. “We arrived at our staging area in Jackson at about midnight and then flew straight into the city to look for survivors.”

With a combined force of 26 helicopters and about 400 people, the team comprises reservists and active duty Airmen from Valdosta, Ga.; Cocoa Beach, Fla.; Fort Walton Beach, Fla.; Las Vegas; Tucson, Ariz.; Portland, Ore.; and New York City.

Flying 8- to 10-hour missions, the rescue teams must first fly about an hour and a half to get to the flooded city from Jackson. The rescue teams locate and retrieve the residents, drop them off at a collection point, and then circle around again looking for more. To double their range, the helicopters often refuel in air to spend as much time in the city as possible.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the affected families in New Orleans,” said Lt. Gen. Michael W. Wooley, commander, Air Force Special Operations Command, Hurlburt Field, Fla., during a visit with the pararescue teams Sept. 3. “The motto of air rescue is ‘That others may live’ and that is exactly what we’re focusing on. The things we train to do in wartime are an easy transition for us to be saving lives here today.”

Trained to rescue downed pilots and military troops in combat behind enemy lines, the Air Force’s rescue teams are a very small community of highly elite professionals.

“Most of our people are veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq,” said Col. Joe Callahan, 347th Rescue Wing commander, Moody AFB, Ga. “They are hard-driving volunteers working around the clock and doing everything they can to save the people that no one else can reach.”

Trained to provide immediate medical treatment, the pararescue jumpers first seek out storm victims with critical medical conditions. These people are flown to temporary medical facilities set up in the local area and then on to the hospital in Baton Rouge, La., or other critical care facilities.

“The important thing is that we’re helping the people who are in the most need first,” said Master Sgt. Randy Wells, an aircrew member with the 920th Rescue Wing. “Because of the heat, we’re seeing the very old and very young in the most danger out there. When we can, we try to load a lot of children on our flights.”

Most of the hurricane survivors are flown to collection points on safe ground, like Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans. They receive medical attention, food and water, and await transportation out of the city.

“I don’t know how those guys do it,” said Adele Betucci, a New Orleans resident who was rescued off the roof of her flooded home Sept. 2. “These guys on the helicopters, they saved us.”

“I want to thank everyone for doing a fabulous job,” said Karen Greene who was evacuated to Louis Armstrong Airport with a suspected fractured right hip. “Thank you so much.”