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The Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—A Message from Greg Smith, Director of the USGS National Wetlands Research Center in Lafayette, Louisiana

The smile and the hope in the eyes of 7-year-old Jovan, a small boy from a New Orleans neighborhood just east of City Park , made it all worthwhile. Three others in Jovan's family were in our USGS boat and headed for safety, food, water, and shelter. Up to then, Tina, Jovan's mother, was focused only on keeping her extended family of 12 together. If we couldn't do that, they weren't leaving their home, which had flood waters up to the second story.

But we did it. Our three boats, staffed by volunteers from the USGS National Wetlands Research Center and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Lafayette Field Office, made a difference to that family and hundreds of others last week as we operated the desperately needed boats for search and rescue.

Our teams were joined by the USGS Louisiana Water Science Center , NOAA, and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in providing on-the-ground search and rescue, logistics support, humanitarian relief, and the technology that directly enabled the search effort.

Our USGS staff members quickly responded to urgent requests from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the Louisiana State Police. They needed geospatial systems to convert street addresses of desperate 911 callers trapped inside homes, schools, and hospitals to latitude/longitude GPS coordinates. We created maps with these coordinates, and as the maps came off the printer, helicopter pilots grabbed them and ran to their choppers. Thousands of people, including 19 teachers trapped for days on the roof of Chalmette High School, were rescued.

The USGS National Wetlands Research Center in Lafayette sits on the edge of the frontier of the impact zone. Communication to the outside world is difficult. We are collecting thousands of dollars, food, clothing, blankets, and toys for the evacuees housed in the Cajundome sports complex only two blocks from our Center. Many of our staff are housing more than 60 evacuees, including friends and family, as well as scientists from the New Orleans area.

As I walked away from one of our daily center-wide briefings, I overheard one of our Wetlands Center employees tell another, "I have never been so proud to be a USGS employee." Our search and rescue volunteers have returned to Lafayette safely and with a deeper understanding of true humanity. What we have seen will be with us forever and will make us appreciate, understand, and, I hope, revere life a little more each day.

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries performed amazingly in their search and rescue mission, and we have seen fish and wildlife agencies from nearly every State in the Nation. The American people were well served by these agencies and their dedicated employees. The USGS and USFWS teams were perfectly matched with the City of Phoenix 's Arizona Fire Department Battalion 4, Task Force 1, which arrived without boats. We were able to get them to their assigned search locations in USGS boats. Some of the task forces spent hours waiting for boat operations to move them through the neighborhoods of New Orleans.

Our mission is not over and in many ways will become more difficult. The human toll has been massive and for many is incomprehensible. We are turning our capabilities and efforts to deliver critical science and technology to assess the destruction and immediate risks to the victims and the workers who remain in the impact zone and nearby.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, we provided maps to rescue crews from our Wetlands Center 's two bases: one at the FEMA Incident Command Center in New Orleans and another at the Baton Rouge Office of Emergency Preparedness. These maps initially guided rescuers from all over the United States into the back alleys and boulevards of New Orleans . These on-demand maps will continue to guide efforts in the next phase of recovery in locating hospitals, electrical substations, pumps, and other facilities that are being repaired by thousands of workers from all over the Nation.

The science we need for the future is emerging rapidly among our partners here and across the USGS. The landscapes have changed. The human landscape will bear scars of loss. The conservation landscape will change in ways we are now beginning to understand. The coastal landscape will respond to the physical, chemical, and biological processes that we must understand in order to move forward.

We know what must be done, and I know the USGS is up to the challenge. For now, we ask for your continued thoughts for all of the people affected. Please know that your concerns have lifted our spirits as we navigate these uncharted waters of life on a new Earth that looks different to all of us.

The landscapes of the Gulf Coast have changed forever, but the people and spirit of the Gulf Coast will prevail.

Gregory J. Smith
Director, USGS National Wetlands Research Center
Lafayette , Louisiana
September 9, 2005


 


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