On a mission of mercy

Lance Newkirk readies his gear thise week, on the eve of his relief tour to the Gulf States. - JESSE BEALS/Staff Photo
Lance Newkirk readies his gear thise week, on the eve of his relief tour to the Gulf States.
— image credit: JESSE BEALS/Staff Photo

City employees follow the fire chief as volunteers to assist in Katrina recovery.

Lance Newkirk is checking and rechecking his luggage, making sure he’s well-prepared for what awaits him on the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast.

“It’ll be a challenge,” the city’s assistant director of public works said. “We’ve had some storm events here, some flooding and high water, but nothing like what’s happened down there.

“I expect long days and I expect to learn a lot that will help us here in the event of a disaster.”

The first lesson Newkirk will learn is to drop all expectations, said Bainbridge Fire Chief Jim Walkowski, who returned Monday after two weeks coordinating relief efforts in Louisiana.

“They call it ‘FEMA flexibility’ down there,” Walkowski said. “You’ve got to be flexible because the rules will change, the guidelines will change, you’ll be thrown curve balls left and right and turned in all different directions.

“You’ve got to be prepared for a lot of stuff you never thought you’d experience.”

For Walkowski, that included displaced alligators chowing on cattle, poisonous snakes in the streets, bomb threats, caskets stuck in trees, communities “wiped clean off the earth,” armed guards, angry, desperate locals and devastation that seemed both “surreal” and “insane.”

Newkirk and Walkowski are two of the more than 30 island public employees to volunteer for a county-sponsored relief program in the Gulf Coast.

The city will continue to pay its employees’ wages during their two-week stints, while other government agencies will cover most travel, lodging, meals and other expenses.

“We’re proud 32 people from all departments across the city almost immediately stepped up,” said City Administrator Mary Jo Briggs, who also signed on for a stint to be completed in January. “It’s not an easy duty. They’ll be working seven days a week, 12-hour days. It’s just intense.”

The estimated $100,000 the city will pay in wages for its hurricane helpers is a wise investment, Briggs said.

“They’ll be getting hands-on experience,” she said. “And there’s nothing more valuable if we’re ever in a disaster situation.”

Sending help also means the gesture may be returned should an expected 9-point earthquake rock Puget Sound.

“We need to help because at another time it could be us in need,” Briggs said. “It’s important to be a strong piece of that fabric of support.”

Newkirk said he was “shocked” into committing himself to the relief effort.

“Like many Americans, I saw the devastation and was, quite frankly, shocked by the magnitude,” he said. “I jumped at the opportunity to help.”

Newkirk believes his 30 years of experience with heavy machinery operations, water utility infrastructure and public works management will help Gulf residents “scrape back together the basic services we often take for granted.”

Many of those services – including power, water and roads – were completely wiped away, requiring a “square one” approach.

“Maybe it’s my First World arrogance, but that level of devastation seems like a Third World phenomenon,” Walkowski said. “Watching all the security and comfort we have as Americans taken away so quickly by a natural act is shocking.”

While TV and newspaper images astound many, Walkowski said the reality is “about 20 times” worse.

“Boy, have I got 10,000 stories,” he said. “The insanity and calamity was absolutely incredible. I saw telephone poles ripped out for 14 miles. We found houses in the middle of fields that we had no idea who owned them or where they came from. Hungry gators in the streets, eating cattle. Caskets pulled up from graves and dropped in fields and in trees.

“It was pretty much a sensory overload.”

Long shifts

The fire chief was initially assigned the task of processing aid requests for the state of Louisiana in Baton Rouge.

He worked the night shift, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., but was also expected to attend daytime meetings, sometimes with U.S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen, who led the federal government’s Katrina relief effort.

“I had to help brief Admiral Allen an hour and a half before his meetings with President Bush,” Walkowski said. “That doesn’t happen every day on Bainbridge Island.”

Walkowski was reassigned to the Cameron Parish in southwest Louisiana as Hurricane Rita began churning toward the coast.

“I had to change gears fast, moving from recovery mode for Katrina to evacuation and preparation mode for Rita,” he said. “And when Rita hit landfall, it pretty much wiped Cameron off the map. Homes were blown apart. We found pipes and bolts sticking out of foundations, but no debris. The houses were just gone.”

The fact that all of Cameron’s residents survived Rita is a great source of pride for Walkowski.

“With the amount of damage done and that no one died — not one person — is something I look at as an amazing accomplishment,” he said.

Walkowski worked to bring cots, water, ice, fuel and food to Cameron despite a general “political mess” that had strewn roadblocks at nearly every turn.

He said some local elected officials challenged state evacuation orders in an effort to keep constituents at home despite the immediate risks.

“They wanted their taxpayers to stay there for the votes,” Walkowski said, adding that he heard stories of local police commandeering relief supplies destined for other communities.

“Some relief trucks were hijacked at gunpoint, sometimes by police,” he said.

The war in Iraq also added to difficulties, he said, as many guardsmen who would have been available had been drawn away.

The combination of hurricane and war also stretched many supplies thin, including instant “Meals Ready to Eat,” which “ran out after the third day because of the huge demand and because of the war,” Walkowski said.

Desperation and anger led to tense situations.

“We got bomb threats from people who were disgruntled with the state and FEMA,” he said. “So we had very high security, with guards and M-16s at every entrance” of the response camps.

Serving as a liaison between government agencies taught Walkowski “the good and the bad” about what kind of help Bainbridge Island can expect when disaster strikes.

“The expectation that we’ll get help in three or four days is not realistic anymore,” he said. “We need to plan to be on our own for five or six days, or maybe more, when we get hit with a big earthquake and lose the bridge and ferry service.”

While in Louisiana, Walkowski said he took “pages and pages” of notes on ways the island can improve its disaster response capabilities. He plans to craft new preparation proposals for the city in the coming months.

“Being down there was like being thrown in a blender,” he said. “But it was the best work experience of my life. There is absolutely no education or training that would help me get as ready as being thrown right in the middle of all that.”

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