Helping to rebuild the Gulf Coast

Back row, from left: Redstar, Lesquel Fields Sr., and Colleen Murray. Front, from left: Tammy Culp and Denise Stark. All represent different agencies that went to New Orleans to supervise recovery efforts.

A Malibu resident and a city staff member offer their services to help residents of the Gulf Coast in the rebuilding effort after Hurricane Katrina.

By Vive DeCou / Special to The Malibu Times

The controversial response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast has quieted and the rebuilding effort is well underway. Professionals from all over the country have traveled to the area to lend their expertise and help people get their lives back together. Two such professionals are a Malibu resident and a city official who returned recently with their stories of time spent in the Gulf.

Malibu resident Redstar, a safety coordinator for a company called Tetratech, went to New Orleans for two weeks to help supervise the clean up effort. Vic Peterson, Malibu’s environmental and community development director, went to Mississippi as part of a mutual aid program to assist in damage assessment.

Redstar, who arrived one day after Hurricane Rita swept through following Katrina, led a team of 30 field operators from Tetratech who were, in turn, in charge of 15 to 20 people each. (Tetratech and others were recruited by the Federal Emergency Management Agency prior to emergencies and given no-bid contracts to work to restore damaged areas. These professionals are sent into the field after disasters to supervise teams in field operations. The teams are put together by other companies with no-bid contracts to supply large labor forces.) Together they swept the devastated areas of New Orleans to recover animal and human remains and hazardous materials. They were part of the first wave of people to go into some areas of New Orleans.

He describes a scene in which there was nothing left of normalcy.

“It was a war zone, I wasn’t ready for what I was going to see,” Redstar said. “Pretty bad stuff everywhere, corrosives in backyards, boats in backyards … brick houses were the only ones left standing.”

He said that even the earth was toxic: “You could smell it, there was almost a heat coming out of the contaminated clay and mud.”

The water from the storm remained in the city for weeks at six feet high, filled with toxins and rotting materials, including animal and human remains. This corrosive soup ate all living things and no plant life survived below the water line. It altered every surface in the city.

“The water ate all the paint off cars and anything that was plastic or vinyl turned all white and brittle,” Redstar said.

He said that the environment was not only a health threat but immediate dangers were still prevalent while he was there. Fires were still erupting in some parts of the city and packs of dogs roamed the streets. His and other teams would carry mace and clubs because the hungry dogs would get aggressive.

It was also part of Redstar’s job to disseminate information to residents coming back into the area about the dangers they faced. It was tough to take for the people who came home when they were finally let back into the area. Redstar said it was just too much for some.

“Some people came home and just turned around and left because there was nothing to come back to,” he said.

Redstar said it was quite a learning experience, and he was impressed with the people and organizations he encountered while in the field. He said he met many people in FEMA camps where everybody lived and ate together. His team had representatives from 49 states and he said that through working with them he learned a great deal about how to do his job better. But he said he was most impressed with the spirit of the people of New Orleans.

“I never saw such a bunch of people with such devastation in their lives being so hospitable and so kind,” he said. “From the poorest neighborhood to the richest, the kindest and most generous people I have ever met.”

Peterson went to Mississippi on behalf of the city of Malibu through a mutual aid program. A mutual aid program is designed to help cities or regions in need while acquiring good will for your city in case of future emergency. Peterson said Katie Lichtig, Malibu city manager, explained the importance of participating in mutual aid programs in case Malibu is hit with a major disaster like a large earthquake. So when a request for registered and certified safety assessment personnel came in from the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, Peterson joined 12 other Californian inspectors and went to the Gulf Coast. They were assigned to Hancock County, Mississippi, where the extremely devastated towns of Waveland and Bay St. Louis are located. Upon arriving, they formed a group of 25 inspectors who would be the first to survey the county from the coast up to 20 miles inland. Peterson said that things didn’t quite go as planned.

“We were somewhat astonished to find out when we got there that the building officials resigned and left the area,” he said. “We ended up reporting to a secretary for the building department in Hancock County.”

The setback forced him and other assessors to become self-directed with little help as to where they were to work. They faced a daunting task and worked seven days a week, at least 12 hours a day. Peterson, who arrived just after Katrina hit the area, said the damage on the coast amounted to total devastation and there was serious damage 20 miles inland. When his 16-day tour was over, Peterson and his group had inspected and tagged more than 5,000 structures.

He said the damage was so severe that he believes reconstruction will be a long process. Not only was the structural damage immense, but also he cited health problems that may arise from molds growing in flooded areas as an issue that may become serious.

While he was in Mississippi he worked in an area where people were still in dire need of assistance. Power had not yet been fully restored and people were living in tents waiting for trailers from FEMA. He saw many different reactions to the devastation.

“I saw emotions ranging from depression to unbelievable spirit in regards to starting over,” Peterson said.

No matter where he worked in Hancock County, Peterson said he was held up by residents who wanted to tell him their stories.

“We realized that one of the most important things we could do for them was to listen.”