Diving into the hurricane-relief effort with 20 inflatable boats, crew of 5

September 16, 2005|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN STAFF

Borrowing an old expression, Rick Scriven says he is up to his "eyeballs in alligators."

Two weeks ago, he asked his bosses at Stevensville-based Zodiac of North America to send five employees and 20 boats to Louisiana to help with Hurricane Katrina rescue efforts.

"We realized that the largest water rescue in the history of our country was going on, and we wanted to help," he said. "It was just eating at my heartstrings seeing the flooding, and [rescuers] didn't have the right equipment."

But first, he needed to convince the bean counters that it was a good idea to send new boats to New Orleans.

"There is no accountant in our company or any company that would like to send half a million dollars' worth of merchandise into a disaster area," said Scriven, a Zodiac vice president who lives in Anne Arundel County. "Nobody told me no. They gritted their teeth a little and said yes."

Ideal for shallow water

Zodiac makes heavy-duty rubber inflatable boats for recreational and military use. The craft have flat bottoms, low gunwales and an outboard engine, which makes them ideal, Scriven said, for use in shallow water and in situations where people need to get on and off the boat from nontraditional landing points such as balconies, roofs and windows.

The hope was that somebody - the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the state of Louisiana, a police unit - would like the boats and decide to buy them.

And, at 1 a.m. Monday, FEMA did decide to purchase 30 boats.

Drove through the night

But Scriven was not sure this would happen when he and four other Zodiac employees loaded the boats into two trucks and drove through the night to New Orleans 10 days ago. (Zodiac's parent company also is donating $250,000 worth of equipment to rescue and recovery operations.)

When the Zodiac employees arrived in New Orleans on Sept. 5, they were "adopted" by the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, Scriven said. The men and boats were told to go to Algiers, a small town near New Orleans, where the Army was stationed.

The boats were used to patrol an area that included Bourbon Street and the Superdome and to rescue people from their flooded homes, Scriven said.

Trained Army personnel

Zodiac employees stayed to train Army personnel on how to drive and maintain the boats.

There were a few surprises. The boats' propellers kept getting mangled by submerged wrought-iron fences. The underside of one engine struck a fire hydrant.

And, as the water receded, the Army learned that it had been launching the boats over a parked car every day.

"They had made a big groove in the roof of this car and they didn't even know they were doing it," Scriven said.

Another challenge was dealing with the toxic water. People aboard the low boats wore hip waders so they wouldn't come in contract with the water as they got on and off.

Rotors kick up water

However, when an injured person on board needed to be lifted via helicopter, the rotors kicked up water and soaked everyone - including the injured person. "We hadn't thought about that," Scriven said.

First used for patrol and evacuation, the boats now are being used for body recovery. The low gunwales and soft sides make it easier to bring a body aboard gently. FEMA bought the 30 boats to pick up bodies floating in the city, Scriven said.

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