NEW ORLEANS -- The New Jersey police officers pounding sludge-smeared pavement and searching water-logged homes each day had doubts about New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's plans for repopulating the city long before Hurricane Rita put an end to them.
"The scope and scale of this is unlike anything I've ever seen," said detective David Pereda of the Clifton, N.J., police department. Coming from Mr. Pereda, that's no embellishment: He is part of a 153-man law enforcement task force, all first responders to the World Trade Center attacks.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sent for the officers to help with New Orleans rescue, recovery, and cleanup just after hurricane waters overflowed the city and overwhelmed local law enforcement. Their experience and grit are well-known; members of the New Jersey unit were busy at Ground Zero with search and rescue when President Bush visited the rubble just days after the attack. Eyewitnesses to the country's worst man-made disaster in memory, the New Jersey cops find themselves four years later the daily patrolmen in its worst natural disaster.
"At least at the World Trade Center the destruction was confined to a couple of city blocks. But this is just everywhere you go, all over the city," said New Jersey State Trooper Michael White, waiting his turn for decontamination and wiping sweat from his forehead after searching 390 homes during an eight-hour shift. Mr. Pereda agrees. "The French Quarter is in pretty good shape, but everything else in the city is so bad. . . . I think they're going to have to knock it down and start all over again," he said.
The same week New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin announced a plan to reopen the city to some 180,000 residents in the Algiers, French Quarter, and Garden District sections of New Orleans, New Jersey law enforcement found-in a 10-square-mile area-five people dead in their homes, and still had hundreds of homes to search.
Mr. Nagin had to reverse that decision less than 48 hours later as Tropical Storm Rita turned into a hurricane and headed for the Gulf Coast. But already Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen, director of operations for FEMA's Katrina response, called Mr. Nagin's timetable for repopulating New Orleans "extremely problematic," citing a weakened levee system, a lack of water for drinking or bathing, and heavily polluted flood waters. Mr. Allen said too many homes and too many streets are still submerged in water and need to be drained and searched.
It's these streets that New Jersey police officers-taken from the state's department and seven separate counties-spend their days combing as one small part of a city-wide, house-to-house sweep. The New Orleans district assigned to the New Jersey unit alone contains some 10,000 homes. Similar contingents from dozens of states across the country have been fanning out all over New Orleans to aid local law enforcement with the tedious and time-consuming task of house-to-house searches for the living and the dead.
Like many of the New Jersey officers, Mr. White says his experience on search and recovery crews at the World Trade Center motivated him to volunteer for a two-week assignment in New Orleans after Katrina: "A lot of people from all over the country came to our rescue after 9/11, and we wanted to be able to do the same."
New Jersey state police Sergeant Mike Zimmerman drives through the abandoned but drained streets just inside New Orleans city limits, pointing out waterlines on the sides of homes. Homes that sit several feet off the ground escaped flooding, but many smaller houses near ground level filled with several feet of water in the days after Katrina's landfall. On one battered apartment building, the waterline reaches far above the structure's first floor.
Many streets are filled with signs of residents' hasty departures. Ruined cars and trucks sit abandoned in turn lanes and medians, where likely panicked drivers ditched them in an effort to escape the city on foot. Abandoned motor boats dot a nearby levee, where some residents tried to float to higher ground. Two blocks away a row of homes is burned to the ground, presumably from gas leaks or electrical problems, a common occurrence across the city, according to Mr. Zimmerman.
Mr. Zimmerman points out blocks of houses that New Jersey officers have already searched and explains FEMA-instituted search procedures: A squad of four men approaches each home and knocks on the door to check whether the house is locked and secure. If it does appear secure, officers do not enter. If the home has a broken window or an opened door, officers enter to check for survivors, dead bodies, or signs of looting.
Once officers have searched a home, they use orange spray paint to mark the house with a code that indicates the date, which team searched the home, and what they found. Codes like "2 L" mean two living people are inside, while "1 D" means one dead. If officers find a dead body they immediately radio FEMA and wait for a retrieval team to arrive. This is a familiar routine for the New Jersey crews; similar markings were used to mark off commercial and residential windows surrounding Ground Zero in New York.
According to FEMA coordinator Thad Allen, a retrieval team consists of four workers and a chaplain. When the team arrives, "an ecumenical prayer is rendered by the chaplain," Mr. Allen said in a recent press conference. Workers then document the condition of the remains and transport the body in a refrigerated vehicle to the Disaster Portable Morgue Unit in Saint Gabriel, La.
Mr. Zimmerman says the New Jersey teams "thankfully haven't found many dead," though he says they have found scores of dead pets. The teams also found several survivors who are thankful for the supplies of food and water the officers bring with them. Some teams encountered dangers, such as snakes and pit bulls trained to protect homes. "So far, a couple of officers have been attacked and a couple of dogs have been put down," said Mr. Zimmerman.
Elsewhere in the neighborhoods, emaciated animals roam the streets. Volunteers from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) put out bowls of food and water under the shadow of National Guard troops.
At the end of a long day of searching foul streets in 92-degree heat, officers line up at an abandoned Shell station to take turns at a decontamination ritual that includes walking through a bleach solution and scrubbing down their boots. "What they've got on their shoes, we don't want in our living quarters," said Mr. Zimmerman.
Living quarters are in an air-conditioned gym in Harahan, La., a small town on the outskirts of New Orleans, where officers sleep on long rows of cots. Outside the VFW Post 3267 there, a New Jersey state flag flies next to a sign announcing: "Hall Rentals-Wedding Parties." Inside the long meeting hall there's no sign of a party. Instead New Jersey police officers sit clustered around folding tables, hunched over laptops, and poring over maps of the northwest corner of New Orleans.
One team of officers evaluates the day's work and plans for the next day's searches in the meeting hall, which was set up for a sock-hop when the task force first arrived two weeks ago. The officers have since transformed the hall into a high-tech command center with maps covering the walls marked with grids of search areas coded as residential or business zones. Grease-pencil markings indicate what dangers officers should expect to encounter in each area. A frequently updated chart tracks teams and search locations in the district.
A coat closet serves as a communications center, where technicians have set up a bank of radios, a central communications post, a wireless internet connection, and an internal server. On the other side of the hall, five officers sit behind three folding tables drafting activity reports to submit to FEMA and keeping meticulous records of expenses and officers' work hours. (The state expects to recoup some of its expenditures through FEMA funding.)
Mr. Zimmerman says his well-organized force was determined to arrive in New Orleans completely self-sufficient: "We didn't want to put any burden on the city."
The officers brought their own fleet of police cars, transporting them on car-carriers for a trip that took 36 hours, as well as their own equipment, their own doctor, and even a Catholic priest for stress counseling and nightly chapel services. Volunteers from the Asbury, N.J., Salvation Army traveled to New Orleans to fix hot meals and snacks for the officers.
In planning the trip, the sergeant says the task force worked closely with the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), a state-to-state organization set up by Congress for mutual aid following Hurricane Andrew's Florida rampage, which demonstrated that even with federal aid, states needed a way to call on each other in times of dire emergency.
In the days after Katrina, Louisiana EMAC officials posted the state's needs on the organization's national website. New Jersey responded with its available resources, and EMAC coordinators assigned the task force a district to police under the oversight of FEMA.
Mr. Zimmerman says that the task force's experience at the World Trade Center taught them the importance of "not rushing to the scene" of a disaster without a well-structured plan: "What we've been able to organize in our corner of New Orleans is becoming a model to restore law and order to the rest of the city." The task force has begun to advise New Orleans law enforcement, as well as contingents from other states, on improvements to structuring police efforts around the city.
The New Jersey officers have worked closely with local law enforcement since their arrival and say they have a high regard for the officers they've met. Mr. Pereda spent two days working with a team of 40 Louisiana state police officers just to respond to 911 calls that came in the day before and the day of Katrina's landfall. The city had been unable to respond to about 8,000 emergency calls but later generated printouts of the locations of each call. Teams of two began visiting each location on the list, searching for survivors or victims. Within two days, they found five dead, as well as others who had survived the storm.
The New Jersey task force-full-time officers who volunteered for the assignment-is prepared to stay in New Orleans for as long as six months, and Mr. Pereda believes that time frame is only the beginning for restoring the city. The rest of the recovery, he says, "will take years and years."