For rescuers, Katrina remembered as "dark event"

Ten years ago, Florida’s state emergency officials had a close eye on Hurricane Katrina.

The tropical storm became a hurricane as it briefly scraped South Florida on August 25, 2005. Two people died.

As it worked its way north, emergency teams were positioned for the worst.  Florida was still reeling from a historic hurricane season the year before. Now, another hurricane threatened more destruction, with warnings that Florida’s Panhandle was the Katrina’s next target. 

The storm turned.

In 2004, hundreds of rescue workers from dozens of states helped Florida’s disaster response to hurricanes. Now, it was Florida’s turn to assist.

As Florida’s rescue workers hit the ground in Biloxi, Mississippi, they knew this hurricane was different.

“You start to realize just how devastating the storm was, and the storm surge was, to see individuals with boats tethered to the top of trees," recalled Wade Mosely, now a battalion chief with Hillsborough County Fire Rescue.

They tried to use plot maps to make sense of the town, before realizing they’d arrived at buildings where “not even the foundation was there anymore."

Days later, the magnitude of the devastation set in: 1,833 people lost their lives; 238 of the victims were from Mississippi.

Florida Task Force 3, made up of personnel from Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Hillsborough County Fire Rescue, had staged in the Panhandle. In the hours after Katrina forged its destructive path, the team drove toward Biloxi, where a 20- to 30-foot-high storm surge had ripped through the town. They arrived as dawn broke.

“You've heard of the thousand-yard stare, That's how they looked at us because they'd made it through the night before we got there," remembered Ron Rogers, who helped coordinate Florida’s emergency task forces.

"We've seen death and destruction throughout our careers. But when you go into a setting like that and everywhere you go there's death and destruction, it kind of makes you step back,” Rogers said.

The Mississippi silt that settled in the wake of the storm proved to be a formidable element for residents and rescue workers. The clay-like mud blocked doors and trapped residents, acting as a suction as people tried to trudge through it.

"The first rescue, we hit the ground. The water surge had created a lot of silt in the house. The gentleman was disabled, trapped in the back of his house," recalled Mosely.

Mosely remembers the man, who was in his 50s or 60s, screaming for help. When they found him, he was leaned up against his bed; the silt covered him up to his chest. He had been fighting the mud, dehydrated and exhausted.

"We had to extricate him from it. We had to basically dig him out of the silt and then get him across, out of the debris to get him out of his residence," Mosely remembered.

For 17 days, their physical and mental limits were maxed out as they climbed into attics and pulled up debris, hoping to find survivors.  Their official instructions were to take care of themselves first: to make sure they were eating, drinking water, and grabbing a few hours of rest when they could. But the reality of the situation was far more complicated.

"We were working around the clock, and we were eating minimal, because we were feeding the kids and feeding the people in the neighborhoods when we know we weren't supposed to,” Mosely said. “But how do you walk by a child who is hungry?”

As they returned home, heavy emotions took over.

"We're all tough people, we don't ever think about this, but there was a huge mental health issue that went along with this as well," said Mike Guincho, now a deputy chief with Hillsborough County. In hindsight, he wishes there had been a better-coordinated effort to offer counseling and support groups for rescue workers returning home. “It was a dark event.”