Area Soldiers Deploy to Help
Byline: Rebecca Nolan The Register-Guard
Oregon National Guard soldiers from Eugene, Cottage Grove and Corvallis have joined the effort to rescue survivors from the fetid aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Just six months after returning from Iraq, 285 members of the Cottage Grove-based 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry Regiment arrived in New Orleans on Friday.
By Sunday they had evacuated as many as 20 people stranded by floodwaters and a lack of electricity.
Capt. Peter Aguilar, headquarters company commander and civil-military liaison for the battalion, flew over part of the city Saturday and was stunned by what he saw.
"It's destroyed," Aguilar said Sunday in a telephone interview. "It's hard to explain that to people back in Eugene. Everywhere you look, everywhere you smell, you see the destruction down here."
The soldiers are among 2,500 Oregon soldiers who are part of a larger National Guard rescue effort that includes troops from Ohio, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Illinois, Kansas and other states.
They are serving as law enforcement officers, searching for survivors, providing security for businesses and protecting search and rescue crews. The Oregon soldiers are responsible for an area in the northeastern portion of the city, near Pontchartrain Park, north of Interstate 10. Aguilar, a Eugene police sergeant in his regular life, is helping coordinate operations of different agencies.
On Sunday afternoon, the Oregon soldiers helped rescue an 84-year-old woman who had been trapped in the attic of her home for more than 10 days. Water had caused her windows and doors to swell shut, Aguilar said.
Many people still refuse to leave, he said. Soldiers know of about 25 people in their sector determined to stay put in their damaged homes.
"They're looking at their whole world right there in their house," he said. "They aren't seeing what you and I see - the amount of destruction in the city."
Soldiers have found that some who insist on staying are worried about losing access to their Social Security or welfare checks, Aguilar said. They don't know that all mail to New Orleans has been suspended for the foreseeable future. So soldiers have tried to convince them that aid agencies will route the checks to displacement centers if the people evacuate.
"We're trying to share information with the survivors and answer their questions," he said.
But some still refuse to leave. Contrary to rumors flying around the city, authorities are not using force to evacuate those who will not leave, Aguilar said.
"Right now (staying behind) is highly discouraged, but we are not using force to evacuate any of the civilians," he said. "Ideally they would leave, for their own health as well as to prevent the need to rescue them later."
He said 60 to 70 percent of their sector remains under water. Smelly water.
"Have you ever had the sewer back up into your sink? That's getting close to the smell," Aguilar said. "It's a combination of sewage, mold and musty rottenness. It permeates from all sorts of places."
Combined with the smell of rotting food and decay, the stench can be overpowering, he said.
"There's a supermarket down the street. Two weeks with no electricity and you can imagine what the butcher shop smells like," he said.
Soldiers burn the spoiled food when they can.
They also treat the fetid floodwater like a biohazard. Soldiers cannot enter the water without a special hazardous materials suit.
Rescuers now favor boats over helicopters, because helicopters whip the water into a spray that can contaminate the rescuers and the evacuees. …