Giving respect, getting respect in New Orleans

Capt. Marc Blum and his Guard unit help ease the suffering

Katrina's Wake

September 11, 2005|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

CHALMETTE, La. - His face was crimson, seared by days in the elements, his hair stuck out in every direction, his legs protruded like sticks from mud-stained shorts. And he was mad - in more ways than one, it seemed.

"I rode out that damn hurricane!" said the man, who called himself Dale, to nobody in particular. His blue eyes flamed. "You gonna tell me I can't stay in my own house?!"

A few feet away at "Camp Katrina" - better known as the Port of St. Bernard, a ferry landing in St. Bernard Parish turned evacuation center for victims of Hurricane Katrina - Capt. Marc Blum, 35, of the Maryland Army National Guard stood in the shadows and took it all in. How Dale had escaped to the roof of his house as the waters rose here, just outside New Orleans. How now, a week later, he was dug in and didn't want to leave. How local authorities had forced him out and told him, no, he could not take his dogs with him.

"They'll starve without me," he cried.

Blum, commander of the 29th Military Police Co., had a quick decision to make.

He turned to a sergeant. "Get a Humvee and take this man to his house," he said. When Dale returned 20 minutes later, it was hard to tell who was happier, the man himself or the two spotted hounds straining at their leashes.

He thanked Blum, then man and hounds hopped in a waiting Navy dinghy at water's edge and puttered off in a spray of foam, around a bend in the river and out of sight.

It can be tricky being a company commander in the wake of the worst natural catastrophe in U.S. history. Last week, Blum and his 60-soldier unit, more than half of them Iraq or Afghanistan veterans, flew into New Orleans to help. They got the call to set up camp in St. Bernard Parish, perhaps the hardest-hit county in the area.

Surrounded on three sides by water, accessible by roads only from the north, it was a sitting duck for the near-total devastation it suffered. Rescuers understood that the 30 people found dead in a nursing home on Wednesday were just a grim beginning.

The 29ers' job was to help establish order and secure the place from looters. That way, local volunteers could keep processing evacuees like Dale - the few who stayed and made it through. The Guard unit will remain here at least through early October, leaving families and civilian jobs behind.

With his shaved head, hawk-like expression and disciplined gait, the diminutive Blum might have been ordered straight out of central casting. His rhetoric, too, is often standard issue. "The Guard is ready to deploy anywhere," he says. "That includes domestically when needed. It's needed now."

But he seems particularly well suited for a mission that often pits military regulations against the reach of local laws and the personal needs of everyday Louisianans. If the Guard works at the service of civilian authorities, right up to Gov. Kathleen B. Blanco, a commander sometimes has to go with his heart.

"Respect the folks you're dealing with," Blum says, "and things'll go fine."

Black and white, male and female, teens or fifty-somethings, soldiers here see that as a Blum strong suit. Sgt. Sean "Turtle" Hurdel, 35, of Pasadena, left his paratrooper unit to work with the captain, who he says is able to befriend his troops while also keeping them in line. Sgt. Anthony Martin, 24, of Roland Park, the son of a Guard chaplain, notes the absence of cliques in a diverse unit. "We squabble, but we are a family," says Staff Sgt. Brian Smith, 32, of White Marsh, a small-business owner. "He's the dad."

The unit was one of scores flown into the Gulf Coast region last week, when 30,000-plus Guardsmen from more than 40 states arrived to offer security, evacuation and search-and-rescue skills - not to mention the not-too-occasional humanitarian gesture.

During the 29ers' first week camped along the Mississippi, Blum barked into a cell phone, marched sharply from place to place, met bedraggled survivors, and always looked, somehow, as if some underling were keeping his clothes pressed. A community rose around him.

It started with five Humvees on the move. After camping out for three days at the Naval Air Station in Belle Chasse, Blum got orders for his unit. On Monday, he led a convoy through downtown New Orleans toward the Port of St. Bernard in Chalmette. Eight miles as the crow flies, the trip took nearly three hours.

Sgt. Mike Murphy, 32, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound ex-Marine, lives in Bowley's Quarters. In 2003, he helped neighbors mop up after Hurricane Isabel. As his vehicle made its way past the battered Superdome and the partially swamped French Quarter, he burst into tears. "The pictures just don't tell the story," he said.

They saw smashed cars on rooftops, stray dogs rooting through garbage, foul water lapping at the highway's edge. To Lt. Robert Booker, 35, a detective on Baltimore's robbery beat, it was like "an American city turned into a Third World country overnight. Just devastation," he said.

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