By Scott Prater | Mountaineer staff
As Hurricane Ida bounded for the Louisiana coast late last month, Fort Carson firefighters stood on alert, ready to deploy. Based on regional scheduling criteria it was their turn to answer the call for assistance, should any be needed in the south and western regions of the U.S.
Once national emergency planners deemed it necessary, they delivered the activation call. Fort Carson firefighters Kenny Bower and Fred Carney then hurriedly loaded their equipment and joined a convoy of Colorado emergency responders headed for Lafayette, Louisiana.
Meanwhile, Louis Montoya, assistant chief of operations for the Fort Carson Fire Department, boarded a flight for Baton Rouge.
Bower and Carney arrived in Louisiana some 22 hours later in the morning Aug. 28, just hours before Ida made landfall. Montoya was already in Baton Rouge and set up in an incident command post, but even his trip required some maneuvering, as all flights into the state capitol had been cancelled hours earlier. After landing in Houston, he drove more than four hours, but made it in time to begin planning and prep work prior to the storm’s imminent landfall.
Local emergency planners had prepared for the worst, and that’s exactly what they got.
Ida, a Category 4 hurricane, hit the state’s gulf coast with a fury, delivering sustained winds of 150 mph and gusts as high as 172. After-action reports from multiple weather outlets indicated that the storm tied a record for the strongest cyclone to ever hit the state.
Over a span of roughly 24 hours, Ida had damaged more than 15,000 structures and destroyed more than 1,800 in southern Louisiana, according to a National Urban Search and Rescue Response System report. More than a million homes and businesses were also left without power as the storm downed roughly 2,000 miles of transmission lines.
Firefighters and emergency responders quickly went to work the following day. Bower and Carney had spent their first day and night prepositioned in a recreation center gymnasium near Lafayette but hit the road
Aug. 29 along with the Colorado Task Force 1, bound for New Orleans, to render aid and evaluate damage.
Colorado Task Force 1 is made up of firefighters from more than 25 fire departments around the state. Team members took a bevy of equipment and supplies with them, including three sets of boats (aluminum and inflatable rubber), three semi-trailers full of gear, three box trucks, two F350 trucks for communications equipment and a planning trailer, plus two vans for search specialists and dogs.
“We started out driving south on I-10, but at some point, we had to venture onto back roads to avoid debris and downed trees,” Bower said. “Eventually, we made it to New Orleans where we performed primary searches and damage assessments.”
Meanwhile, Montoya was assigned as a division safety officer for firefighters on the ground.
“My task was to study and analyze maps and data for a wide area, whether for water operations or search and rescue operations, noting locations of hazards, such as chemical plants and fuel-storage facilities, downed power lines and anything that could possibly hinder or injure.” Montoya said. “At the same time, you have to conduct risk analysis and then relay all of that information on to relevant responder teams in the area.”
After searching and evaluating for a day in New Orleans, the task force was then assigned to Grand Isle, Louisiana, one of the state’s hardest hit areas, to continue its mission.
“We staged about 40 miles from Grand Isle and then drove in each day, where we conducted 360 degree walk arounds on each structure,” Bower said. “We were looking for severe damage and uploading reports in real time to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials.”
While evaluating structures, firefighters also checked for residents, but found very few in Grand Isle.
“We were there for a while, though, long enough to see residents come back,” Bower said. “That was a different feeling. It hits you hard, watching people see everything they’ve worked and lived in now mostly or partially destroyed. I’d say 50% of everything was torn up. There were 10-foot water lines on the sides of buildings. That storm surge was real.”
After spending more than a week on Louisiana’s gulf coast, the team returned to Colorado Sept. 7. Post-storm reports indicated that responders performed more than 500 rescues and assisted nearly 1,200 people.
For Bower, his first deployment for a hurricane response, the experience proved enlightening.
“It was one of kind,” he said. “It really made me appreciate what I have here. And it made me appreciate the search and rescue mission, especially sense we were able to provide real-time data to decision makers, which justified resources and how quickly those resources could arrive.”