When you work for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), you learn to expect the unexpected. But it would have been impossible to foresee some of the crises that DEA agents would have to confront in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, in particular the scene they uncovered at a flooded assisted living facility. Fortunately, Kevin Harrison and his team were up to every challenge they found, and their heroism in this one situation alone saved the lives of 90 hurricane victims.
DEA special agents were among the first federal law enforcement officers on the ground to help with relief and cleanup efforts, and the agency played a key role in the rescue of more than 3,000 survivors. Few of the DEA’s rescue efforts were more dramatic than the one that took place at a Louisiana assisted living facility.
When Kevin Harrison’s team of DEA agents arrived, they were shocked to find 90 elderly residents who had been abandoned by all of their caretakers except one—a young lady who worked as a nurse’s aid. Realizing these victims were too weak to be transported, a team of five DEA agents and local sheriff’s deputies retreated from the facility to formulate a rescue plan.
The violence in the area caused the team to establish a protection perimeter along the supply route to the facility, and the team successfully moved food, water and medical equipment into the building. At a time when communications in the area were nearly impossible, Harrison was able to coordinate with the National Guard and get trucks to the site for the purpose of an evacuation. The team proceeded to carry 70 of the residents out, often carrying them in wheelchairs and beds down five flights of stairs. One of the residents went into cardiac arrest in the truck, but the EMT administered CPR and she was revived. During the evacuation, sporadic gunshots could be heard in the background and the team feared that the nearby levee could fail at any moment, but the team pressed forward undeterred.
These evacuees were all taken to area hospitals and shelters, but 20 of the seniors refused to leave. For the next six days, the DEA team brought supplies and meals to these residents and protected them from looters. Finally, on September 8th, Navy officials were able to evacuate the remaining 20 residents.
Kevin Harrison’s rescue team consisted of Special Agents Jack Schumacher, Dan Salter and Joe Ruggerio, S/A Pilot Ben Hafer, and DEA Task Force Agents Will Reames, Paul Marionneaux and Mike Herrmann. Additionally, one of the keys to their success was their ability to work closely and effectively with local officials and emergency responders, including Sheriff Jeffrey Wiley of Ascension Parish and Firefighter/Medic Mickey Hopkins. Praising the DEA agents for being remarkably effective partners, Sheriff Wiley even said he would “walk through fire” for any of the members of the rescue team.
In many ways, that sentiment encapsulates the attitude of the entire response team. They were singularly focused on the immediate task of helping anyone who needed assistance, with little or no regard for themselves. Even the team member that had lost his own home in the hurricane put his personal tragedy behind him and focused on helping others.
No one knows exactly what challenges lay ahead for Kevin Harrison and his colleagues. But having faced down the once unimaginable situations created by Hurricane Katrina, it seems certain that they will rise to the occasion. And the American people should feel more secure knowing that people like Kevin Harrison and his team are looking out for their interests.