The National Guard’s critical role in Katrina search and rescue has always been scanted by the national media, even as they’ve grudgingly acknowledged the stunning lifesaving success of the Coast Guard. The general tone was set by the New York Times a month after the storm, when it portrayed the Louisiana National Guard as inept and mostly knocked out of action when its headquarters at the Jackson Barracks flooded.
Send in the Guard is the first film I’ve seen that gives any sense of the amazing things the National Guard accomplished, as well as the sheer scale of the aerial rescue effort that began immediately on Monday, right after the storm passed.
There are scenes of helicopters crowding the skies, looking at points as if they are certain to collide. The hoist operations, where rescuers drop by cable to inundated homes, chop holes in roofs, and strap in survivors, look every bit as frightening as crews told me they were — and particularly when they were flying by and beneath power lines. Boat teams paddle through raw sewage to save desperate victims.
The show, alas, isn’t a critique of press coverage of Katrina, and the narrative sticks to much of the conventional wisdom. It slides past the issue of where the Guard’s command center went once Jackson Barracks flooded. As I’ve documented elsewhere, (and sworn congressional testimony has confirmed) the Times’ account was grossly misleading — the Guard was staggered but unbeaten, and subsequently set up a functioning command and air traffic control center, complete with a high-tech satellite uplink truck, at the Superdome. That center received thousands of survivors brought in by helicopter and boat, and also coordinated aid coming into the stricken city. While the national media was reporting murder, rape, and rampant anarchy at the Dome — none of which happened — we never heard a word about the command center and rescue operation based there.
For the record, we’ve since learned that three agencies anticipated the storm and quickly swung into action: The Coast Guard, a branch of the much maligned Department of Homeland Security, rescued about 30,000 New Orleans residents stuck in attics, on rooftops, and clinging to trees as floodwaters rose. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, another 20,000 plus. And the Louisiana National Guard augmented by various out-of-state guard units, and their federal overseer, the National Guard Bureau, accounted for 17,000 more. Volunteers, local police and firefighters, even FEMA rescue teams all played major roles. How many of the rescued would have died is unknowable, but tens of thousands clearly faced death from drowning, dehydration, heat stroke, and disease — which becomes quite clear when you watch this production for the History Channel.
Bear all of that in mind this week during the orgy of finger pointing about how help was slow to arrive. While the newsies were ludicrously preening and “speaking truth to power,” the real heroes were out of range of the cameras, struggling and succeeding against desperate odds. You finally get to see them in action in Send in the Guard 8:00 P.M. (EST) Tuesday on the History Channel.
– Lou Dolinar is a columnist for Newsday.