Four recognized for Katrina rescue efforts

Published: May 31, 2006 | 4282nd good news item since 2003

Guardsmen relayed calls and text messages to locate survivors and connect relatives

Frantic was the word Gene Barattini, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Louisiana National Guard, described the days after the New Orleans levees broke following Hurricane Katrina in August.

Even as he sat in Bossier City, more than 350 miles away from the disaster, he knew he needed to do something as cries for help came in from cell phones, text messages and sometimes relatives from several states away.

“Calls were coming from all over the country,” said Barattini, who works as a liaison between the Guard and the Caddo-Bossier Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. “The best we can figure is that operators were telling people the closest big city was Shreveport and Bossier City.”

With the help of other Bossier City-based Louisiana National Guardsmen stationed at their Military Drive Armory in Alexandria, as well as those deployed to south Louisiana for the storm rescue efforts, Barattini was able to turn those cries of help into information that led to the rescue of more than 400 people trapped on roofs of flooded homes and buildings in New Orleans.

Tuesday, the Caddo-Bossier OHSEP acknowledged the effort of Barattini and three other Louisiana National Guard members for their unique role in those rescues.

Bossier City Mayor Lo Walker presented the awards, placing the Louisiana Cross of Merit around the necks of Capt. Jason Kendall, Sgt. 1st Class Russell Johnston and Sgt. 1st Class Neal Purcell and placing a Louisiana Legion of Merit award around Barattini’s neck.

“It’s an amazing display of cooperation, coordination and doing things beyond what the book says to do,” Walkers said.

One of the first calls Barattini took was from a Bossier City resident who was receiving text messages from her relative stuck on the roof of a building in St. Bernard Parish with 200 other people and they were surrounded by 20 feet of water.

“I asked her to send us copies of the test messages and we might get something like ‘200 trapped, 20 feet water,’ I could tell by the urgency in her voice and by piecing together the information we had to do something quickly,” Barattini said, adding that there were few phone lines south of Interstate 10 that were working. “New Orleans numbers were down and the Baton Rouge numbers were jammed.”

He called who he could. Kendall, Johnston and Purcell were the key contacts who helped push those messages and cries for help through to people who could deploy and rescue those trapped.

“There was some luck involved,” said Kendall, who at the time was in Alexandria involved in a mission of transportation of supplies, not rescue.

But Kendall coincidently used to work in a position that allowed him access to some high-level phone numbers in the Baton Rouge Emergency Operations Center and, more importantly, those people were working on that day.

“We had a direct line to the right people. It was pretty amazing,” he said.

News of the rescue for the 200 people came within the hour after Barattini got his message through.

According to the Emergency Operations Center log at the Caddo-Bossier OHSEP, on several occasions family members hearing positive news called back and credited the unique 350-mile “safety line” for saving their loved ones.

Barattini added he never thought he’d be working a disaster rescue through cell phones and text messages.

“It was the incredible teamwork. These guys were the hub of information that led to people getting rescued.”

Published in Hurricane Katrina
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