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Search for Katrina Victims a Nasty Ordeal

September 23, 2005

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ Firefighters Jorge Remedios and Edan Jacobs arrive at the pancaked house, and there they are: The same three German shepherds that had charged them the day before. The dogs emerge again, snarling, from the wreckage.

As police distract the malnourished animals with food, other members of the group enter the house. Remedios’ suspicions are soon confirmed.

Inside is another corpse.

``Apparently, they were protecting their owner,″ Remedios says.

The week had gotten off to such a heady start for this search and rescue team from Miami-Dade Fire Rescue. On their first day out, they found someone alive _ 20 days after Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans’ protective levees and flooded this fish bowl of a city.

The euphoria of that moment was not to last. As they move deeper and deeper into the Ninth Ward, they find nothing but death.

But there is no time for despair. The rescue and recovery effort has shifted to the neighborhoods that were flooded first and hardest by the broken levees, and there are still so many houses left to search.

``We never give up hope,″ Remedios says as a stiff breeze kicks up black dust from the drying Mississippi River mud.

Adds Jacobs: ``Miracles happen.″


Remedios and Jacobs comprise Squad 1 of Florida Task Force 1, an 80-member unit brought in by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to scour the city for the living and the dead.

By the time the Florida team arrived on Saturday, most of New Orleans had been searched by police and National Guard troops. But many searches were cursory, at best. If someone didn’t shout out for help or respond to a knock, the rescuers marked the houses and moved on. Orders were not to force entry.

But nearly a month after the storm, anyone left alive in an attic or back room is likely too weak to cry out. And amid the stench of rotting garbage, stagnant water and rancid mud, even the dead do not immediately announce themselves.

The members of Task Force 1 must force their way into each house, even ones where it would seem impossible for someone to have survived.

Jacobs, 43, was in Turkey in 1999, searching for victims of the devastating earthquakes there. But there, things fell where they stood. And there was no water.

``This is a lot harder to deal with.″

In a combined 11 years with the department, Jacobs and Remedios have never worked together. But Katrina has made them like brothers.

They sleep side by side on green Army cots in a tent on the parking lot at the New Orleans Saints’ practice stadium _ the BOO, or base of operations. They eat chow together.

Now, they are walking through hell together.


This day, like the others, begins before dawn. After a breakfast of scrambled eggs, biscuits and gravy, and country-fried steak, the group is briefed, loaded into two tour buses and ferried by armed escort into the hard-hit Ninth Ward _ just northeast of the French Quarter.

They stage from the battered E.J. Morris Senior Center and are on the streets by 7.

Each team is equipped with the same tools: An ax, a sledge hammer and a Halligan bar _ a medieval-looking tool with a claw on one end and a spike-hatchet combination at the other.

This part of the ward butts up against the industrial canal, where two breaks in the levee sent water up to the roof lines of one-story homes within 10 minutes. Many of the houses here are nothing but piles of wood and slate.

As the water rushed in, furniture floated to the ceilings like food in fish bowl. As it receded, the furniture resettled. At one house, Jacobs goes to three different doors before finding one that isn’t blocked shut by debris. Even then, it takes a dozen kicks and another dozen blows with a sledgehammer to force his way in.

A moldy smell rolls out.

Inside, the crews are finding strange sights. Fish and crabs plastered 8 feet high on walls. A refrigerator up in an attic.

At one door, Remedios pulls out a child’s car seat. When they finish the building, he pulls out his cell phone.

His 6-year-old son, Cesar, is in the hospital because of an asthma attack.

``Hi, sweetheart,″ he says brightly. ``You feeling better? Did they put a needle in you? Did you cry? All right! Tough guy. You never cry.″

Remedios, 40, is keeping a daily journal on a yellow legal pad. He addresses each entry to Cesar and 9-year-old Jorge, using simple words and sentences they’ll understand.

``We did find one person and we were all very excited,″ he wrote on Sunday.

He doesn’t tell them about the other times, like Tuesday, when he and Jacobs found the bodies of three elderly people in one house. He doesn’t write about the wheelchairs they found, or the questions that haunt him, like: Why didn’t someone get these people out?


Janice Matos walks along the bulldozed streets with a colored map of the neighborhood. She is trained in hazardous materials, but today she is the mapkeeper and scribe.

``Did you guys search that one,″ she asks Jacobs as he passes an unmarked house.

``That’s leaning too much,″ he tells her.

``Are you scared?″ she asks. ``Just tell me you’re scared.″

``Yes,″ he replies.

Jacobs goes to a house across the street, leans his Halligan against the wall and uses it like a ladder to climb through the window. A few minutes pass, and Remedios calls out to him.

``You all right?″ he asks.

There is no reply.

``Edan?″ he shouts.

Still nothing.

``EDAN!″ he yells, his voice getting panicky. ``EEE-dan!!!″

Jacobs’ foot emerges from a back window. Remedios sighs.

``You didn’t answer me there, buddy,″ he chides his partner. ``I called out three or four times.″

Jacobs apologizes.

``No matter who you’re with, who you’re partnering with,″ Remedios explains, ``he’s your family.″

After five hours of searching, the group breaks for lunch. Someone has chosen a spot in the yard behind a flattened house, under the brown leaves of a half-drowned pecan tree.

The picnic area is separated from the street by a half-foot-deep puddle full of dead minnows, stranded when the canal water was pumped out. Remedios and others gather cinderblocks from the remains of nearby houses to construct a makeshift bridge.

Remedios opens his paper sack. There’s a chicken breast sandwich, a can of beef stew, and apple and some orange juice. He tears his bag and lays half of it across his lap like a place mat.

Rescue specialist Rachelle LeFur lies on a piece of tin roofing, shielding her eyes from the sun that has melted the fruit gummies into a red blob. She lives on Key Largo, and she can’t help thinking about the damage Hurricane Rita must have done there.

``It’s helpless,″ she says. ``I’m not there to do anything. But you’ve got a job to do, so you have to do your job.″

Lunch is over in 45 minutes. Despite the mess all around them, Remedios reminds everyone to put their trash in the box so they can haul it out with them.

They each put on fresh dust masks.


As the day wears on, things begin to break down. The team keeps running into houses that bear markings indicating that the New Orleans police had already been there that day.

By now, Jacobs is using his Halligan like a cane. The team climbs into the truck for the ride back to the staging area and decontamination.

At the senior center, a tanker truck is waiting for them. Two pressure washers are humming beside it.

One by one, the men and women of Task Force 1 step onto a black grate and get hosed down _ their boots, their pants, flashlights and tools. Remedios and Jacobs strip down to their shorts, stuff their clothes and helmets into red plastic bags, then pull on white polyethylene clean suits with attached gray booties.

The process takes more than two hours.

Back at the BOO, the crew get briefed and debriefed.

The Florida group hit nearly 700 houses this day. Squad 1 didn’t find any bodies, but they learn the task force found five.

There were no live rescues.

Jacobs takes an ice-cold shower and calls his family. Remedios sits down to write the day’s journal entry.

He writes about the ``huge bruise″ on his leg. He writes that the area they searched this day ``was probably the worst of all.″

He doesn’t mention the bodies.

After another briefing, the squad beds down for the night. As he lies in his cot, trying to capture sleep, Remedios says a silent prayer for the people they’ve found that day.

Then he says another for his family.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Allen G. Breed is the AP’s Southeast regional writer, based in Raleigh, N.C.

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