Navy ship nearby underused
Craft with food, water, doctors needed orders
By Stephen J. Hedges
Tribune national correspondent
Published September 4, 2005
ON THE USS BATAAN -- While federal and state emergency planners scramble to get more military relief to Gulf Coast communities stricken by Hurricane Katrina, a massive naval goodwill station has been cruising offshore, underused and waiting for a larger role in the effort.
The USS Bataan, a 844-foot ship designed to dispatch Marines in amphibious assaults, has helicopters, doctors, hospital beds, food and water. It also can make its own water, up to 100,000 gallons a day. And it just happened to be in the Gulf of Mexico when Katrina came roaring ashore.
The Bataan rode out the storm and then followed it toward shore, awaiting relief orders. Helicopter pilots flying from its deck were some of the first to begin plucking stranded New Orleans residents.
But now the Bataan 's hospital facilities, including six operating rooms and beds for 600 patients, are empty. A good share of its 1,200 sailors could also go ashore to help with the relief effort, but they haven't been asked. The Bataan has been in the stricken region the longest of any military unit, but federal authorities have yet to fully utilize the ship.
Captain ready, waiting
"Could we do more?" said Capt. Nora Tyson, commander of the Bataan . "Sure. I've got sailors who could be on the beach plucking through garbage or distributing water and food and stuff. But I can't force myself on people.
"We're doing everything we can to contribute right now, and we're ready. If someone says you need to take on people, we're ready. If they say hospitals on the beach can't handle it ... if they need to send the overflow out here, we're ready. We've got lots of room."
Navy helicopters from the Bataan and Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida have joined the growing aerial armada of choppers that are lifting hurricane survivors from flooded surroundings and delivering food and water.
More will arrive throughout the weekend when the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman and four other Navy ships, including three amphibious assault ships--really mini-aircraft carriers for helicopter use--arrive in the gulf from Norfolk, Va. The USS Comfort, a hospital ship from Baltimore , also is steaming there.
The Bataan, though, was already in the gulf when Katrina crossed Florida and picked up new, devastating energy from the warm gulf waters. The ship, sailing near the Texas coastline, had just finished an exercise in Panama and was scheduled to return to its home port in Norfolk on Friday after six weeks at sea.
Instead, the ship rode out the hurricane in 12 to 14 foot seas and then fell in behind the storm as it neared the gulf coast. A day after Katrina struck, Navy helicopters arrived from Corpus Christi , Texas , and began survey flights over New Orleans .
The initial belief, Tyson said, was that the city had been spared.
"On Monday it was like, `Wow, it missed us, it took a turn east,' and everything eased up," Tyson aid. "It was `Let's open up Bourbon Street , have a beer, let's go party, and understandably so. And then all of a sudden, literally and figuratively, the dam broke, and here we are."
When the city's levees broke Tuesday, Tyson's pilots were rescuing stranded residents. Communications became muddled as the rescue and humanitarian supply efforts were bogged down by rising water and sketchy information. Tyson, who would get debriefings from returning pilots, had perhaps one of the best vantage points to see what was unfolding.
`Like a bad dream'
"It was like a bad dream that you knew you had to wake up from," she said.
A 135-foot landing craft stored within the Bataan, the LCU-1656, was dispatched to steam up the 90 miles of Mississippi River to New Orleans . It took a crew of 16, including a doctor, and its deck was stacked with food and water. The craft carries enough food and fuel to remain self-sufficient for 10 days.
Moving up through the storm's flotsam, the crew couldn't believe the scene.
"We saw a lot of dead animals, dead horses, floating cows, dead alligators," said Rodney Blackshear, LCU-1656's navigator. "And a lot of dogs that had been pets. But no people."
Near Boothville , La. , the storm surge had lifted a construction crane and put it on top of a house. Near Venice , the crew members considered going ashore to examine the damage, but dogs drove them back.
"I didn't want any of my guys in there," said Bill Fish, who commands LCUs and who went on the river trip.
"Everything was decimated. It was the storm surge."
Then the Bataan was ordered to move to the waters off Biloxi , Miss. , and LCU-1656 was ordered to return. The landing craft was 40 miles from New Orleans , but it wouldn't be able to deliver its cargo.
"It was a disappointment," Fish said. "I figured we would be a big help in New Orleans . We've got electricity, and the police could have charged up their radios. We've got water, toilets. We've got food."
Now sailing within 25 miles of Gulfport , Miss. , the Bataan has become a floating warehouse. Supplies from Texas and Florida are ferried out to the ship, and the helicopters distribute them where Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel say they are needed.
The Bataan has also taken on a substantial medical staff. Helicopters ferried 84 doctors, nurses and technicians 60 miles out to the ship from the Pensacola Naval Air Station on Friday, and on Saturday afternoon 24 of the medical personnel were flown to the New Orleans Convention Center where they expected to augment the staff of an Air Force medical clinic on the center's bus parking lot. The medical staff had come from Jacksonville , Fla. , Naval Hospital , and they covered a wide swath of medical specialties from surgeons and pediatricians to heart specialists, a psychiatrist and even a physical therapist.
"It's really a cross section of a major hospital," said Capt. Kevin Gallagher, a Navy nurse who was part of the group. "We haven't been told what to expect, but we're going to find out once we get out there."
Moving in, ready to go
On Friday evening the Bataan was edging closer to the Mississippi shoreline; until then, it had stayed well out into the gulf to avoid floating debris.
Closer to shore, it will be able to deploy the landing craft again, as well as Marine hovercraft that can ride up onto shore to deliver supplies.
LCU-1656 cruised 98 miles overnight Thursday with a failed electrical generator and broken starboard propeller to join up again with the Bataan , their mother ship. After repairs, it was to set out for the shoreline near Gulfport , Miss. , Saturday with a 15,000 water tank lashed to vessel's deck, as well as pallets of bottled water.
The role in the relief effort of the sizable medical staff on board the Bataan was not up to the Navy, but to FEMA officials directing the overall effort.
That agency has been criticized sharply for failing to respond quickly enough.
Tyson said the hurricane was an unusual event that has left some painful lessons.
"Can you do things better? Always," Tyson said. "Unfortunately, some of the lessons we have learned during this catastrophe we are learning the hard way. But I think we're working together well to make things happen."