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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Remembering Katrina

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

One year ago today, the eyes of the nation watched as one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history lay waste to the Gulf Coast states of Louisiana and Mississippi.

Hurricane Katrina, a Category 4 storm packing winds in excess of 150 miles per hour, rolled ashore at 6:10 a.m. Aug. 29, 2005, ripping apart coastal communities and devastating the New Orleans levee system.

Countless thousands of families were, and continue to be, displaced from their homes which were either flattened by the storm winds or left to rot in the putrid floodwaters that remained for weeks after Katrina's departure.

On Sept. 2, 2005, a group of about 25 Putnam County residents, including sheriff's deputies, firefighters and local citizens led by Sheriff Mark Frisbie, left their families, jobs and homes behind and headed south to Louisiana to help in the search and rescue effort and to deliver a semitrailer load of supplies made possible by the generosity of the local community.

While in the city of New Orleans, the sheriff and his deputies patrolled the debris-littered downtown area and assisted the city's police department in taking back the streets from gun-toting residents who seemed to be fighting with all their might against the relief efforts.

At the same time, the rest of group, composed of firefighters, nurses, business owners and residents, did its best to aid in the search and rescue efforts in the flooded areas of the city.

Greencastle residents Jerry Lewis, along with Phil Humphreys and son Brian, joined the relief team with their flat-bottom swamp boats which they typically use for navigating the peaceful waters of Putnam County's Big Walnut Creek.

But this trip would find the men winding their way through the streets of New Orleans that in some spots were covered with up to 8 feet of water and were clogged with everything from cars and fallen power lines to parts of homes and even the lifeless bodies of residents who did not survive the storm.

On Monday, Sept. 5, the three men arrived with their boats in a low-lying suburb of New Orleans where only a day or two before, buses had carried away thousands of storm survivors forced out of their homes by floodwaters.

Officers from the New Orleans Police Department greeted the men and told them they had searched the area the day before and felt like there was no one left to find. Undeterred by the words of the storm-weary police officers, the men from Greencastle unloaded their boats and slid them into the water near the entrance to a neighborhood where the water was shallow. As they moved deeper into the neighborhood, the blackened floodwaters gradually became deeper until only the rooftops of the houses were visible above the water.

It was there, perched on a balcony overlooking a flooded-out apartment complex, that Jerry Lewis and Cloverdale area businessman Scott Barrier stumbled on a young New Orleans couple trapped in their second-floor apartment for nearly a week.

Visibly frightened and altogether unsure about what happened to their city, the man and woman made their way down the ladder and into the swamp boat. They carried with them a black suitcase, filled to capacity, and a steaming pot of jambalaya that had been painstakingly prepared over a kerosene camp stove.

It's a sight that Lewis can't get out of his mind even today as he goes about his life as a teacher at Area 30 in Greencastle.

"I think about that a lot," he said. "And I remember how devastated they were and I wonder how they are today."

Brian Humphreys remembers watching from the water's edge as Lewis slowly made his way back to dry land with the couple clinging to each other on the boat.

A small crowd, mostly of Putnam County residents, cheered and clapped as the boat arrived amidst piles of trash and abandoned vehicles.

"I remember that the most," he said. "And I think about how they walked away and we never saw them again."

Nearly one year after their journey to the South ended, local law enforcement officials also remember the things they saw, the words they heard people speak and the devastation that until that moment was confined to their darkest imaginations.

"We saw the best and worst of humanity, combined," Sheriff Mark Frisbie said Monday.

When the call for help went out, Frisbie thought he would take a couple of his deputies down to join the patrols for a few days and come back home.

But when word got out, the community responded with donations of money and supplies.

The group wound up taking two Dixie Chopper semitrailers full of relief supplies to the people of Louisiana and Mississippi in the weeks following the storm.

"Most officers will tell you we do this job to make a difference," Deputy Virgil Lanning told the BannerGraphic. "And that's what we did."

After returning home from Louisiana, Lanning spent a week in the infectious disease unit of St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis where doctors treated him for an unknown illness related to his time in New Orleans.

"They couldn't really narrow it down," Lanning recalled Monday.

But that hasn't spoiled his memories of witnessing officers from Florida to California put their lives on hold and devote themselves to the people and relief efforts in Louisiana.

"What really stands out in my mind is the agencies from across the country we saw there," Lanning said. "That was really good to see."

Most frustrating for the officers were the many individuals who refused to leave their homes despite the warnings against staying. Several even threatened violence against the officers.

"That was definitely the most frustrating thing -- the people who refused to leave," Lanning said.

But there were lessons to be learned from the entire experience.

"The major thing we learned is that we need to be able to take care of ourselves and each other," Frisbie said.

He said he was pleased with the camaraderie he saw develop between his officers who went on the trip.

"That training can't be replicated," Frisbie said.

Since the storm, Frisbie has joined sheriffs from Delaware and Knox counties in developing a new state task force that would respond in the event of a major disaster in Indiana. Should the state fall victim to a terrorist attack or natural disaster, the task force would scramble, or respond, within 24 hours, Frisbie said.

If there is anything negative to be taken away from the trip, Frisbie said it was the fact that he and his officers were confined to the task of patrolling the streets, rather than help in the search and rescue efforts as others who joined the group from Putnam County were able to do.

"We dealt primarily with the negative side of things," Frisbie said. "I wish we'd been able to do more in the way of rescues."

A memory that stands out in Frisbie's mind is a man who he says was stealing gold teeth from dead bodies. Frisbie helped arrest the man who he and the sheriff from Delaware County found in an alleyway near a nursing home where several residents died.

"In his left hand he had a pair of pliers and in his right hand was a bag of gold teeth," Frisbie said.

With all that happened during the week that Putnam County's task force spent in the city of New Orleans, those who attended said they would be willing to serve again if the call goes out.

"I think it's something I'm glad I did and I'm glad I saw it," Brian Humphreys said. "I don't think pictures or words can really describe it."

When asked if he ever felt fearful for his safety on the trip, Jerry Lewis responded,

"To say I was afraid -- no. I was just busy. We had whatever was on our minds at the time and that was the most important thing."



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