‘Devastation goes on for miles’ | VailDaily.com

‘Devastation goes on for miles’

David L'Heureux

Special to the Daily Greater Eagle Fire district captain Robert Baron will return from New Orleans Monday after two weeks assisting with post-Hurricane recovery efforts.

NEW ORLEANS – “Unimaginable” is how local firefighters have described the devastation in New Orleans.Eagle fire captains Robert Baron and Bill Kennedy have been in New Orleans for the last two weeks helping with the Hurricane Katrina relief effort. Four more firefighters from Eagle and Gypsum are on the way.Baron is a full-time employee of the Greater Eagle Fire District, and Kennedy is a volunteer.They left for New Orleans on Sept. 8, in a four-truck caravan made up of crews and equipment from Eagle, Basalt and Palisade. The trip took about 40 hours in a Ford F-9000 tanker, Chief Jon Asper said.The crew, led by Kennedy, has assisted other agencies in New Orleans in putting out fires. Their primary responsibility is providing water to the firemen on the ground.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency contacts fire departments throughout the state whenever additional emergency assistance is needed anywhere in the country. “We got an assignment for these guys and we accepted,” Asper said. The federal agency will pay for the firefighters’ work. Absolute devastationKennedy’s and Baron’s deployment began at a firehouse on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Since then, they have been moved to a station on the corner of Peters Street and Decatur Avenue, also in the French Quarter.When the two arrived in New Orleans, they were shocked for some obvious and, not so obvious, reasons.”There is damage everywhere – it’s the magnitude that you can’t comprehend,” said Kennedy, a director of land development for Vail Resorts. “The helicopter shots on TV don’t do it justice. The destruction and devastation goes on for miles. There are thousands of homes that will be uninhabitable.”Baron said he was surprised by the disorganized nature of the disaster response, an ongoing problem in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s relief effort.”FEMA was obviously not prepared for anything this size,” Baron said. “There was a lot of indecision and changing of what we were doing. At first, they didn’t know who we were or what we could do for them. They don’t really have tankers like (ours) down here.”Firefighters and police in New Orleans eventually realized the kind of support Kennedy’s crew could supply, he said. “We basically have 20,000 gallons of water on wheels,” Kennedy said. “There are huge faults with the hydrant systems here. They have water, but there is very little pressure. We are just making sure that firemen don’t run out of water.”In addition to supporting firefighters, Kennedy, Baron and their crew are also helping decontaminate trucks leaving the devastated areas. As flood waters recede, a thick-oily-brown sludge is visible on everything that had been underwater.

“There are years of work ahead down here,” Baron said. “Parts (of the city) are completely uninhabitable because of hazardous materials resulting from sludge and sewer water. That stuff will go into ground and make it a huge health risk for years.”Navigating the area is also treacherous, because so many structures have been moved around, Kennedy said. Entire houses have been picked up and moved into the street.

Some local residents are serving as guides, but there aren’t enough of them to go around, and new problems constantly arise. “(The guide) takes you go down a street with your entire convoy, and sometimes you run into downed-power lines or debris blocking the whole roadway,” said Kennedy. “Then you have to back up and go around another way. It’s frustrating for us and them.”Baron said security was minimal when they arrived, but more and more shows up every day. Additional security is welcome, he said, but it has created some unforeseen obstacles.”We never got our identification cards because we were down here so early,” he said. “There have been times when we have gone to soup kitchens for food and been told we couldn’t enter without proper IDs.”Things are getting better every day though, but the sheer devastation means full recovery is a long time coming, Baron said. “After a while the destruction starts to look normal,” he said. Replacing a fire department

The Greater Eagle Fire department is sending reinforcements for Baron and Kennedy this week. Fire Marshall Thomas O. Wagonlander just arrived in Baton Rouge as part of the Camp Colorado Management Team. Wagonlander’s team will provide relief crews with water, food and other supplies to continue their missions. Also heading to Louisiana is volunteer firefighter Greg Treece, an employee of Colorado Mountain News Media, the Vail Daily’s parent company. Treece is headed to Plaquemines Parish in New Orleans with two firefighters from the Gypsum Fire Protection District, Ethan Vroman and Lt, Wade Droegemeier.”There were five fire departments in their parish,” said Gypsum Chief Dave Vroman. “Four of those were destroyed.”Treece, Droegemeier and Vroman join a crew of firefighters from all over the state of Colorado to relieve an Illinois fire crew. The downvalley crew will serve as the parish’s fire department for at least the next two weeks.”This is what we train for, this is what we do,” Vroman said. “Obviously folks need help down there.”Kennedy and Baron said they have crossed paths with firefighters from almost every state in the country, as well as a National Guard Unit from Puerto Rico.

“From an emergency services side, they are pretty well staffed down here,” Kennedy said.Baron said the time in New Orleans has given him perspective on life and its hardships.”I wouldn’t say I am glad I helped down here, but saving property and lives is a good thing,” said Baron. “I have done a lot of soul searching here and have a better understanding of what Mother Nature can do. It makes you realize how good you have it at home. Problems there are minuscule compared to what’s going on here.”Vail, Colorado