A team of 45 U.S. Geological Survey scientists has received a 2006 Service to America Medal for their search and rescue work in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The scientists, led by Thomas Casadevall, USGS regional director in Denver, Colo., are from the USGS National Wetlands Research Center in Lafayette, La., and the USGS Louisiana Water Science Center in Baton Rouge, La.
Casadevall and representatives of the team received the medal in Washington, D.C., Sept. 27, in recognition of both their humanitarian and scientific work immediately after Hurricane Katrina hit the Louisiana coast on Aug. 29, 2005.
Among the team representatives at the awards ceremony were Gregory J. Smith, director of the wetlands center; Charles Demas, director of the water center; James B. Johnston, spatial analysis branch chief at the wetlands center; and Wayne Norling, wetland center's safety officer.
Also attending as a guest at the event was USGS employee Debbie Norling, who spearheaded the center's donations of food, water, clothing, and blood and coordinated evacuee shelter volunteers in Lafayette.
The team is one of eight recipients of Service to America Medals, sponsored by the Atlantic Media Company and the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service to recognize the accomplishments of America's public servants. Medals are given for significant contributions by federal employees based on their commitment and innovation as well as the impact of their work on addressing the needs of the nation.
Although not trained in search and rescue, 25 USGS employees put to use their knowledge of boats and flood waters acquired doing research when they answered a call from the State of Louisiana for help. They joined a multiagency state and federal team in navigating the flooded streets of New Orleans and rescuing stranded citizens from rooftops and porches. The group directly rescued about 600 people and provided food, water and other assistance to about 2,000 more from Aug. 31 to Sept. 5.
The group had the immediate support of Dr. Casadevall, who was the first U.S. Department of the Interior senior executive to reach Louisiana after the storm. He was aware of the importance of senior leadership support during a crisis as he himself began his career in 1980 with another natural disaster, the eruption of the Mount St. Helens volcano.
Not only did USGS scientists perform boat rescues, but they also used their spatial technology skills to help locate more than 8,000 callers to 911 from Aug. 30 to Sept. 27, when flooded streets and responders unfamiliar with the New Orleans area made locating some victims impossible. The USGS team was able to convert street addresses to latitude and longitude and produce maps for boat and helicopter rescuers with Global Positioning System equipment. For those without GPS, scientists provided maps with geographic coordinates overlaid on street grids. More than 600 maps and other information products were produced daily.
In addition to the immediate "geoaddressing" of 911 calls, USGS produced maps and data for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Urban Search and Rescue Incident Support Team. To do this, the USGS team worked in shifts 24-hours a day from three days after the storm until the end of October. They produced detailed street maps for ground searches that included such information as search intensities, open roads, boat access points, and 911 call data.
The USGS team also supplied the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with maps of the city's levee system and pumping stations. At the Corps' request, they installed temporary real-time water-level gauges in Orleans, Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parishes as well as Lake Pontchartrain to measure the dewatering of the metropolitan New Orleans area.
The spatial analysis team helped 15 other government teams in mapping work, including the Louisiana Governor's Office of Emergency Preparedness, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, Louisiana Geological Survey, Louisiana State Police and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The USGS team has previously received recognition for its efforts from the Department of the Interior, the Louisiana House of Representatives, FEMA and ESRI (formerly known as the Environmental Systems Research Institute).
Another USGS employee, Emily H. Majcher, hydrologist at the Maryland-Delaware-DC Water Science Center, was a finalist for the Service to America Medal for her work in developing new technology to treat contaminated wetlands without disturbing the surrounding ecosystem.
Department of the Interior senior advisor Robert J. Lamb was a finalist for his work in pioneering new conservation strategies built on cooperation among government citizens, environmental groups and the private sector. Finalists were honored in June in Washington, D.C.