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Helping: Utahns find survivors as hope wanes

A flood victim is helped from a boat in New Orleans. Many remain in city despite pleas to leave.
A flood victim is helped from a boat in New Orleans. Many remain in city despite pleas to leave.
Eric Gay, Associated Press

It was the standout moment for members of Utah Task Force One, who spend their days walking, searching and digging for survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

Near Biloxi, Miss., the team was searching a house for possible survivors, convinced the task was more of a recovery mission, when they found the elderly couple inside was alive.

The husband was bedridden and his wife wouldn't leave his side, said Unified Fire Authority Battalion Chief Erik Sandstrom.

"They didn't have any food, very little water," Sandstrom said. "They were sitting there waiting to die."

The search-and-rescue unit is among dozens of Utahns who have already landed in or are awaiting their call to the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast region to either find and rescue the living or identify and bury the dead.

Despite their work and training as funeral directors, Laura Procunier and Brian Sisson, who are on standby with the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (DMORT), say nothing can prepare them for the devastation that has taken the lives of thousands.

"It doesn't matter how common this is in your life," said Sisson, funeral director at Heber City's Olpin-Hoopes Funeral Home. "Seeing that will still impact you one way or another. You just do the best you can."

DMORT teams are under the direction of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and provide a variety of services: mobile morgue operations, forensic examination, remains identification, search and recovery and family assistance.

Some frustration

While Procunier and Sisson expect to be busy, one group of local firefighters says their skills have yet to be put to use, although they arrived in Atlanta on Sunday. Unlike their colleagues in Utah Task Force One, a group of South Salt Lake firefighters assisting in FEMA's outreach program spent Monday going door-to-door passing out information to residents on how they can start the process of making financial claims to the government.

Foote said because of the scale of what FEMA is facing, things were understandably a little disorganized the first day. He admitted that was frustrating for his crew.

"It will take time to get things organized, but that time has to come awfully quick," he said. "(FEMA) has got to make sure they have a plan. We have to look organized and get our act together; otherwise there will be more bad press."


In contrast, the work hasn't stopped for Utah firefighters in Mississippi.

The group left Aug. 30, a day after Hurricane Katrina devastated part of Louisiana and Mississippi. The 28 members of Utah Task Force One, the urban search-and-rescue team made up of members of the Salt Lake City Fire Department and the Unified Fire Authority, drove straight through for two days to Camp Shelby, Miss.

Sandstrom said his team hit the ground on Sept. 1.

"We were given an area and county to go home-to-home, lot-to-lot. We've been doing that every day since," he said.

In many areas, there aren't any "homes" to search.

"In a lot of areas the homes are gone. There's no homes whatsoever," Sandstrom said. "It's unbelievable. It's truly unbelievable. It's just wiped clean. There's not even sewer pipes or anything. It's just wiped clean."

Crews spend 13 to 14 hours a day looking for survivors, although in some cases they find only dead bodies.

Dealing with horror

Procunier, director at Riverton's Broomhead Funeral Home, said she has seen terrible things before and just "learns to deal with it." She was deployed to New York shortly after 9/11 and worked around the clock identifying and providing the casualties proper burials.

If asked, Procunier and Sisson will likely work in New Orleans for about two weeks.

Deseret Morning News graphicDNews graphicHurricane Katrina: By the numbersRequires Adobe Acrobat.

DMORT officials provide debriefings for every worker before they can return home to make sure they have dealt with any mental problems or issues the workers might be dealing with after witnessing such devastation.

But debriefings or not, nothing can ever erase such a horrific picture from your mind, Sisson said.

"People are geared in a way whether they can do it or not do it," Sisson said. "But just because you are geared to it doesn't mean you can ever be ready for it. You learn to cry when you need to cry. You just have to release it all."

Another challenge to adapt to is the heat and humidity.

"(It's) not what Utah boys are used to. It's not the best conditions to work under," he said.

Search and rescue

The Urban Search and Rescue Team is a self-sustaining unit, meaning it provides its own food and water, and sleeps in tents when necessary to avoid using up resources in the areas the team is helping. In some cases, Sandstrom said, logistics personnel are forced to drive 120 miles each day just to find food and water for the search team.

"It's been a long trip," Sandstrom said. "It's been a very emotional thing for rescuers."

But Sandstrom said it has also been very rewarding, especially when the residents they are trying to help are the ones who try to offer them water for their hard work. Unlike reports about some areas of New Orleans, rescuers in Mississippi do not worry about being shot at by residents.

"The people are happy to see us. They have treated us wonderfully," he said.

Sandstrom said his team expects to be home by the weekend.

"We're glad we're here, but we wish we hadn't had to come here," he said.

Guard in action

Utah National Guard soldiers are saving lives every day in the storm-ravaged New Orleans area, Maj. Hank McIntire said.

Together, 16 soldiers from Utah's 19th Special Forces Group 1st Battalion joined with Alabama's 20th Special Forces Group to rescue over 3,000 people.

"They are fully engaged in rescuing people off of rooftops, getting people out of buildings, and doing anything else that is needed," McIntire said.

The soldiers arrived in New Orleans Saturday and are specially trained in water rescues and are assisting in the massive search-and-rescue effort throughout New Orleans. The group brought with them Zodiac boats, kayaks and scuba gear. They were expected to be in the city for at least two weeks.