As Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast in late August 2005, Chief Master Sgt. Michael Kurtz and fellow National Guardsmen in the 106th Air Rescue Wing waited for the inevitable call. By Aug. 30, one day after the storm made landfall in New Orleans, the levee system designed to keep the city dry buckled, sending Lake Pontchartrain surging into nearly 80 percent of the city, trapping residents whose homes suddenly began to wash away.
At the Westhampton Beach airbase that serves as home for the 106th, a thin crew remained after large deployments overseas to assist in Iraq and Afghanistan as the United States fought two wars.
Mr. Kurtz, a flight engineer from Riverhead, happened to be among those still on duty there. As the situation in New Orleans became a catastrophe — and Katrina turned into the costliest hurricane in U.S. history, claiming the lives of 1,833 people — the anxiety continued to grow for the 106th.
“We’re waiting and waiting and finally we got the word,” Mr. Kurtz said.
Col. Michael Canders, former commander of the 106th, received a personal phone call from the Air Force special operations command. The message was clear: “You’ve got to send everything down there you’ve got,” Mr. Canders recalled.
Two of the 106th’s HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters, already stocked for deployment overseas, took off for New Orleans, joined by a C-130 plane.
During the 10 days from Aug. 31 to Sept. 9, 2005, the rescue squad pulled 161 people “from the jaws of death,” Mr. Canders said in a Newsday story shortly after the mission that served as a defining moment in their careers.
“There was nothing like flying over a city and seeing the streets completely filled with water and people standing on their roofs — five days after the hurricane,” said Mr. Canders, who now teaches aviation at Farmingdale State College.
Both Mr. Kurtz and Mr. Canders have since retired from the National Guard, as have most of the men involved in the Katrina rescue effort. Mr. Kurtz retired about two years ago, just shy of his 60th birthday, after a career of nearly four decades. He spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan, helped in the search and rescue for John F. Kennedy Jr. after the 1999 plane crash and responded to more hurricane relief efforts than he could remember off the top of his head.
“Katrina was a unique situation because so many people were stranded in the water,” he said.
As search and rescue operations go, the crews in the 106th typically follow a distinctive plan. They look for a certain boat, for example. Details like the color of the boat or what individuals were wearing can trickle in to help the helicopter crew narrow in on the victims.
In New Orleans, though, there was no such plan.
“You weren’t looking for a person, you were looking for anything that needed help,” Mr. Kurtz said. “Rescue as much as you could.”
On the first day, the 106th pulled 48 people to safety, more than some crews will get in a lifetime, Mr. Kurtz said. The two helicopters worked in 12-hour shifts, one during the day, one at night. They flew over an underwater city, dodging power lines, pulling people to safety as shingles from their homes ripped off and shot up toward the helicopter. The crews would fill the helicopter with as many people as it could fit, fly to a drop-off location, then head back out for more. When the helicopter needed fuel, the C-130 stood by and the airspace over Lake Pontchartrain became a massive aerial gas station.
It took time for all the rescue teams to coordinate the best plan of attack.
“When we first got there it was a free-for-all,” Mr. Kurtz said.
Each helicopter crew included a pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer, gunner and the pararescue men who would secure the victims and hoist them back into the sweltering hot chopper. The pararescue men would land on a home and break open a hole in the roof to look for survivors when none were visible. Some victims left messages on their roofs, pleading for help.
One family in particular stood out to Mr. Canders in the early days of the rescue operation. Their home featured lettering on the roof, detailing how many people needed rescue. The water had risen nearly to the height of the roof.
As family members were loaded into the helicopter, one of the crew snapped a picture.
“You see the father and one of the young kids, and I just wondered, how did they make it out?” Mr. Canders said. “Really, all the people, I wondered if they ever came back to New Orleans.”
Another rescue that still resonates with Mr. Kurtz involved pulling an obese man to safety out of the top of a five-story building. Mr. Kurtz said his helicopter found the man at first, but the two pararescue men couldn’t pull him aboard alone. During the next shift, another set of crewmen had to come back and devise a plan to lift him safely.
After 10 days, and more rescues than they’d ever done, the crews from the 106th packed up and headed home. For New Orleans, a massive effort remained to rebuild the city.
“I don’t think people realize how big of a catastrophe this was,” Mr. Kurtz said.
Mr. Canders returned to New Orleans about two years ago, he said. Along with his wife, he tried to retrace his steps and find some of the homes where he rescued people.
“The whole neighborhood was gone,” he said. “The particular house that had the lettering on it, I couldn’t find that.”
Still, he saw a city that had bounced back and returned to life. He uses many of the lessons learned from Katrina in his classes today.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years,” he said.
Photo Caption: An aerial view of flooded New Orleans 10 years ago, taken from a helicopter by Michael Kurtz of Riverhead.