Pulling away the splintered trees blocking impassable country roads in rural Mississippi, Mike Whalen and a team of 30 Nevadans found grateful survivors anxious for news.
"We became the first responders in some cases because we were sawing our way into peoples' homes who had not seen anybody since the storm," said Whalen, the team's incident commander. "This is the deep South so a lot of them were self reliant. But one man told me that this is what broke the camel's back. They were needing help and needing it bad."
The Great Basin Incident Management Team returned from the Hurricane Katrina disaster relief effort Thursday evening. But it could be a short sabbatical for the weary team, composed of members from the Bureau of Land Management, Nevada Division of Forestry, Reno and Sparks fire departments. Whalen said there is a good chance they'll be called on again after Hurricane Rita barreled through the Gulf Coast.
"Something like this brought out the best and worst in a lot of people. In 100 people, 10 percent would have sacrificed everything to help neighbors, another 10 percent would've sacrificed their neighbors to help themselves."
After more than 20 years in emergency management with this team, Whalen said Katrina was the most meaningful assignment because of his interaction with the survivors. He had been at the World Trade Center after Sept. 11, but the scale of the destruction and number of people affected in Mississippi was staggering.
They worked in nine counties from the north side of Biloxi and Gulfport to Hattiesburg. Then they went from Leaf River on the east to the Pearl River area on the west.
"It's really hard to put in to words," said Whalen, of Winnemucca. "The news media focused on New Orleans and all the damage from the flooding, but we were in the area where the eye wall of the hurricane went. We were dealing with wind damage, tornados, 300 million board feet of Southern long leaf pine on the ground. We interacted with a lot of locals. The majority of the people working with us had lost everything."
The team's mission was to reopen and restore access to 500 miles of forest service road. But it was also a first responder to rural survivors who had not seen any other relief workers.
"We were the only official presence they had seen," he said. "FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) seemed to have washed their hands of those people"
For two weeks the team's base was 30 minutes north of Gulfport, Miss. There they had electricity and undamaged buildings to work from. But they also had high humidity and rattlesnakes. It all made Whalen, 55, glad that he lives in the desert and thankful for what he has at home. He works for the BLM as a fire management specialist.
Whalen met a forest service worker, near retirement, who lost his home and was living in a shelter. A woman gave him and his wife a trailer to live in, because she could live with family. Every day he came to work and worked 14-hour shifts while "all of his retirement plans were smashed and washed out to sea with the tidal surge.
"I hope if something like that ever happened to me, I could be as strong as he was."
Surrounded by history, Whalen saw what truly mattered to the survivors. One man showed him the graveyard where his ancestors were buried as far back as the Civil War. That man wouldn't move. He would do whatever he could to preserve his land.
"Those people were not flashy. They were quiet and steady. They were going to get on with their lives. Mississippi's forgotten victims."
Whalen said next time his team will have the insight learned from this assignment.
State Forester/Firewarden Pete Anderson said there is a good shot this team will be sent out again.
"With the fire season winding down, it's an opportunity for all these folks trained in emergency assistance to respond to these hurricanes," he said.
n Contact reporter Becky Bosshart at email@example.com or 881-1212.