Recalling the damage and human toll inflicted by Hurricane Katrina

Federal Workers

September 15, 2006|By Melissa Harris

Editor's note: Marking the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Workers column offers the second of three firsthand accounts from Maryland-based employees who volunteered to respond to the Gulf Coast.

John Trottman, 34, of Westminster has worked as a firefighter at Fort Meade for six years. In March 2001, the Military District of Washington, Fort Meade's command, launched an effort to train firefighters on its military bases in crisis counseling.

Trottman was selected for the program and volunteered for the first time in 2004 after hurricanes Francis and Jeanne hit Florida. Here, he tells his story.

I'm a volunteer with the National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA). They're the ones that provided me with the original training. They called me and asked if I'd be available to respond to Katrina. I checked with my [fire] chiefs, making sure my shifts were covered.

I was originally sent to the Stennis Space Center in southern Mississippi, just over the Louisiana border. Our mission was to provide crisis counseling to all of the out-of-state firefighters who were based there and had come down to help out.

But it was fairly apparent that that wasn't where we were needed. A lot of the firefighters were doing the same things they would do at home, responding to 911 calls, providing medical assistance, etc.

So I asked to relocate to Ocean Springs, Miss., and once I got there, it was clear that we needed a lot more resources from NOVA. I ended up coordinating our resources for the entire region. We grew from one team of five people to six teams of 22 people.

What we found along the Mississippi coast was utter devastation. There were a lot of places where everything was just gone.

In some places, you'd see concrete pylons where a house used to be, but no evidence of a house at all. Or you'd see some evidence of sheets or drapes up in the trees, but the structures were gone.

It was definitely different than Florida in 2004. A lot of buildings in Florida had storm damage, but the buildings were still standing.

People saw a lot of horrible things. They were just so devastated. People witnessed a lot of horrible deaths.

One person showed me a tree where a family of four had climbed up trying to escape the water. The father had tied the whole family to the tree so they wouldn't drown or fall. But then the water rose so high, and the ropes made it impossible for them to get out. Their bodies were in the tree for about a week before they were able to get them down.

You know, having to deal with smells was the big thing. So much death.

One couple had five or six tractor trailers of frozen chicken wash up in their yard. Frozen chicken doesn't do very well in the heat, and a week after the hurricane, the chickens started exploding.

When you're counseling someone, you try to key into what sticks out for them - something they saw or heard or smelled. For a lot of people, it was just the smells - smells like that rotting chicken.

You know, after this, I have a much better appreciation for what I have. You see the devastation that these people have to live with, and it makes most of what I have to go through seem trivial. And I was only down there for a little more than a week, starting Sept. 25.

You know you couldn't keep a crisis counselor down there for much longer than that. They hear so many stories that it's easy to become overwhelmed.

The writer welcomes your comments and feedback. She can be reached at melissa. harris@baltsun.com or 410-715-2885. Recent back issues can be read at baltimoresun. com/federal.

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