With winds over 170 miles per hour, Hurricane Ida made landfall as a Category 4 storm Sunday, leaving at least one person dead, cutting power for nearly 1 million in the New Orleans area and even temporarily reversing the flow of the Mississippi River.
Since downgraded to a tropical storm, Ida prompted the response of state and federal agencies to help with search and rescue, food delivery and damage assessment.
Included in the recovery is Utah’s own Task Force One, a disaster response team that arrived in Louisiana Saturday ahead of Ida’s landfall.
How is Utah helping?
One of 28 federal disaster response teams, Task Force One is comprised of local firefighters, emergency room physicians and even K-9 teams. Its members have responded to large-scale emergencies around the country, including Hurricane Katrina, the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
Each member is certified to Federal Emergency Management Agency standards and are deployed as federal employees.
“We are completely independent, meaning we are self-sustaining,” said Bryan Case, the task force’s program manager. “We can just show up, go to work and we’re not a burden on anybody.”
Currently five members — and a few dogs — from Task Force One are in Louisiana south of New Orleans, functioning as part of the “overhead team,” which coordinates search and rescue efforts in areas hit hard by the storm, Case said.
Although the members of the task force “aren’t necessarily doing rescue work,” Case said, they’re providing critical support to rescue crews checking commercial buildings and residences and coordinating with locals on where to focus efforts.
“They’ll be using various types of tools to cut through materials, to lift and move materials, to shore up buildings, technical devices like cameras to locate people who might be trapped in a building,” Case said of the search and rescue crews. “They’ll also be using some of our K-9s that are really remarkable in finding people in rubble in collapsed buildings.”
Case says crews are still in the process of figuring out how widespread the damage from Ida is, and that it’s possible that additional resources could be called from Utah to Louisiana and Mississippi in the coming days.
Lessons from Katrina
It’s a scene Case is all too familiar with in his 23 years with Task Force One.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Case traveled to Louisiana as a technical search and rescue specialist, using cameras to look for missing people — often recovered as bodies — checking attics and void spaces.
“We were all pretty busy, we spent I think nine days in Katrina and it was a ton of work, a ton of work,” he said. “It’s kind of strange that this is the 16th anniversary to the day for it to make landfall.”
Case was one of many Utahns who jumped to action during the catastrophic storm that killed almost 1,800 people and would later be dubbed the costliest disaster in U.S. history.
With help from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 140 truckloads of commodities and supplies — about 5.6 million pounds — had been shipped into areas affected by Katrina. Thousands of Latter-day Saint volunteers followed, giving 9,204 manpower days helping 1,606 church members and 3,226 people not of the faith.
Hundreds of people displaced by the storm would later be evacuated to Utah, welcomed into Camp Williams, the home of the Utah National Guard. By Sept. 27 of that year, all those who had made their temporary home at the camp were assisted in finding more permanent housing. Some of them are still living here in Utah.
“A lot of our tools and methodologies are the same,” Case said. “We have a few refinements and updates to a few of the technologies, but for the most part the work and the training that occurs at our level is pretty much the same.”
However, one lesson from Katrina has stuck with search and rescue teams across the country, Case said.
“We have a much more robust water response capability now, with more boats and water rescue training,” he told the Deseret News. “Because the hurricanes, even though they’re a wind event, they’re also very much a water event.”
Some businesses in the Beehive State are also standing by, including Rocky Mountain Power, which as part of a formal emergency assistance agreement will assist in hurricane restoration efforts, if called upon. As of now, there are no requests.