Relief volunteers clear red-tape hurdle

Convoy leaves Baltimore to aid hurricane victims

Katrina's Wake

September 05, 2005|By John Fritze | John Fritze,SUN STAFF

More than 100 Baltimore firefighters and police officers packed into a caravan yesterday bound for storm-torn Louisiana, cutting through a federal emergency management bureaucracy that mayors across the country have criticized as too slow.

With spouses and parents watching, urban search-and-rescue crew members heaved water, food and medical equipment into rental trucks and prepared rescue boats and generators for what is expected to be a 10-day mission to help victims of Hurricane Katrina.

"We were told to prepare for the worst," said Dave Blizzard, a 32-year-old paramedic and firefighter, who gathered with other members of the convoy before sunrise at the Baltimore fire academy. "It's a little nerve-racking."

City leaders in Chicago, Atlanta, Charleston, S.C., and elsewhere have criticized state and federal emergency management agencies in recent days for not making use of police and firefighters available for disaster relief. Baltimore City Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. said he alerted state officials Aug. 29 of his department's readiness.

"Hold off, hold off," Goodwin said he was told.

But Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration received a direct request for help from elected leaders in Louisiana and, by Saturday, had apparently cleared the red tape preventing deployment. The mayor also announced that the city has 1,000 shelter beds available for families displaced by the storm.

"We could have sat and we could have waited," O'Malley told members of the convoy shortly before it got under way. "But you have chosen to go."

Katie Leahan, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Governor's Office of Homeland Security, said her agency approved the mission after receiving a request from Louisiana for city help, though she could not say when that request was made.

"This is a time to reach out and make sure that resources get where they need to be," she said.

The 40-vehicle convoy - which includes wood-cutting equipment, tractors and fuel tankers - is expected to take 24 hours to travel to Gretna, La., about five miles south of New Orleans.

"You see on the news the devastation and the destruction - we're going down to help them," said Frank Deems, 35, a Baltimore firefighter. "There's a whole mix of different feelings that are involved. We don't know what we're facing down there."

Convoy members, who volunteered for the job, said they did not know what, exactly, they will be doing when they arrive --- only that they hope to help.

"They are just in desperate need of help," said John Blake, 34, a paramedic. "Everyone who does this does it to help people."

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