Then, last August, Milam found himself in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, seeing things he’d never seen—like alligators in the flooded streets and an 18-wheeler on a rooftop—and doing things he’d never done, like dropping into the drink and having his helicopter fly away so he could hear cries for help.
That night, Milam found a man and four dogs, lifting them to safety when the copter returned.
In all, the Coast Guard evacuated about 33,500 people after Katrina, six times as many as it did in all of 2004. The sheriff of St. Bernard Parish says the Guard was the only federal agency to provide any significant help for a week.
When officials came down from Washington and asked the sheriff how he’d fix FEMA, he told them to blow it up and give the Coast Guard what it needs.
So how did an agency with relatively modest resources rescue so many? A few answers:
- Wild improvisation. It’s what the Guard does best.
- Experience. Guardsmen are deployed every day to deal with oil spills, make drug busts and handle all kinds of rescue operations.
- Trust in its people. This is the Guard’s signature characteristic. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the Guard’s Atlantic Region commander was at a doctor appointment. By the time he rushed back to work, captains had already closed the ports in New York, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
They didn’t need to ask permission, and neither did he when he sent three cutters to New York harbor.