EDITOR’S NOTE: Daily Times-Call staff writer Pierrette J. Shields and photographer Joshua Buck arrived in St. Bernard Parish on Tuesday evening to accompany the Colorado National Guard’s 3650th Maintenance Company during its deployment in New Orleans.
NEW ORLEANS — The call came in Sept. 1.
One week later, the Colorado National Guard 3650th Maintenance Company, based out of Longmont, left town with 30 military vehicles to make a four-day trek across the country to come to the aid of the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast.
They were on the heels of 10 of their colleagues who had come to the region as part of the first response to assist with search and rescue.
The company is now set up as part of the Colorado Task Force response to hurricane relief in a camp on the grounds of NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility. The tents are pitched and command established.
They are on the front lines of a recovery effort in St. Bernard Parish, which was ripped to shreds by Hurricane Katrina.
As the waters have receded, the parish has been left under a layer of mud and muck mixed with toxic chemicals. Boats, tractor trailers, cars and ancient trees were strewn around the parish like toys.
Longmont’s National Guard unit is assisting with the heavy cleanup and maintenance of the monstrous vehicles needed to start undoing the deeds of Katrina and the flood in her aftermath.
“We’re not a first response,” said 1st Sgt. Randy Campbell while he took a break after setting up camp for the day. “Once there is actually a mission for us, we start rolling.”
Campbell, who lives in Brighton, said responding to damage from the hurricane is precisely why he signed up for the National Guard — to help his community.
Acting Company Commander Michael Pribil said Tuesday the company was told to prepare for a 30-day deployment.
He said he received the call for their assistance Sept. 1. Then he began the swift work to arrange the company members to help handle any maintenance issues with the unit’s wreckers and trucks and to load specialized parts to help other Guard, military and government vehicles that will propel the cleanup efforts in Louisiana.
Already the work is visible. St. Bernard Parish is closed to civilians because of the extent of the devastation.
But many main roads have been cleared of debris and heavy machinery. Boats that littered the roads after the waters were drained have been moved to the side and marked for tow.
Layers of dried mud that cracked under the oppressive heat have been scraped to the side. The brunt of the devastation remains — downed power lines and buildings damaged by winds and flood waters — but the military continues to clear away debris.
However, the toxicity of the water has made some Guard members sick and they are sternly warned to avoid contact with any remaining water.
A curfew is also in effect.
Campbell said that while the vast majority of civilians have been evacuated from New Orleans and its surrounding parishes, danger remains from stragglers who might take advantage of the unarmed.
Staff Sgt. Robert Gilliland of Denver has been in New Orleans for nearly three weeks and shuttles troops and supplies from Belle Chasse, on the outskirts of the city, to the camp.
He is familiar with the extent of the damage and the progress of the recovery efforts, and he narrates a steady stream of information much like the tour guides of the French Quarter once did.
In his time in New Orleans, he has noticed steel I-beams bent double by the hurricane winds and says churches were left amazingly intact while buildings around them were heavily damaged.
But he also said he is stunned by the cumulative efforts to bring the city back.
“They cleared the water faster than I could have imagined,” he said.