This column was published in the mid-October 2005 Issue of The Business Journal.
Having ridden out one hurricane many years ago while serving in the U.S. Coast Guard during the second World War, I watched in amazement as the Coast Guard rescued people from rooftops and elsewhere after Katrina and Rita.
These disasters were far and away above anything I had ever seen in or out of the service. My mind strayed back to September 1944 when I was stationed at Northport, Long Island. We knew it was coming. We knew approximately when it would hit our base and the little towns of Northport, Oyster Bay, Kings Park and other villages along the south shore.
We were ready for it.
It hit about 3 p.m. Sheets of rain were blown horizontally. The wind screeched and howled so loud you could hardly hear the spoken word. We were ordered into the basement of the surf station. Looking out the windows we could see trees two feet in diameter lifted out of the ground and falling over on the cars in the base parking lot. Our wind meter broke at 120 mph. As the winds died down, we were ordered to spread out and check the damage to the base. There was very little damage to the structures except for some missing shingles and the carpenters mates began patching and fixing even as the winds died down.
Then it was time to go to the aid of the people in the town of Northport. We had been in radio contact with the authorities, and they asked us to come into town immediately. There was some looting, but people needed medical assistance, and we were the closest. Northport was partially bordered by woods. The road from our base into town was very much like a logging road – dusty in dry weather, muddy in wet. All of our boats headed for town via Long Island Sound.
The rest of us piled into troop carriers and started off with a large bulldozer leading the way. As the dozer muscled the large trees off the road, the trucks followed. In normal times, the trip to Northport took about 20 minutes. We were on the road for four hours. The dozer pushed trees and debris aside and gently nudged overturned cars and large debris off the road as we literally inched our way into town.
We carefully drove down Main Street. A midsized motor boat was slammed half way. through a house’s front window into the living room. A small sailboat was impaled atop a telephone pole. Boats in the harbor that were tied to the dock were newly stacked on dry land like cord wood. The dock was splintered wood scattered everywhere.
The people stood around surveying the damage, stunned at the force of nature. They welcomed us gladly as we fanned out across the town on foot looking for anyone who needed help.
There was plenty of damage. There were many people who needed our assistance. We worked without rest for about 36 to 48 hours. Our cooks brought food and water for us and the townsfolk. Our medics tended those who were hurt. In many cases the people helped each other in any way they could.
We are seeing the same thing on the Gulf Coast – Americans helping those who have been devastated by Katrina and Rita.
But our task was not over. As we helped the citizens of Northport, some of our patrol boats were assigned to Long Island Sound. After a strong storm, or a hurricane, the sound, having been churned up by wind and wave, would bring to the surface sunken debris from other times, including people who had drowned but were never recovered. It was our responsibility to pick up these corpses and bring them ashore in body bags to be identified by the local authorities.
During World War II, Coast Guard crews manned liberty ships (troop ships). They were assigned to assault vessels and landing craft. They patrolled the docks of major ports here and abroad; and still do. But, the Coast Guard of today is far different than the Coast Guard I knew. Still, the motto is still the same – “Semper Paratus” – always prepared.
The other motto was spoken in English: “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.”