Tonganoxie firefighters put to work in Louisiana
There's a Hurricane Katrina image that Tonganoxie Fire Chief Dave Bennett would like to forget.
"He said last night that their group was pretty well bummed out," Bennett's wife, Dawn, said Monday. "They had gone to a house and a little couple was sitting on the porch with their bags packed and both of them were dead."
Bennett and Joe Peel, another Tonganoxie firefighter, have been in the New Orleans area since a week ago Sunday. The two were sent by Federal Emergency Management Agency to apply their medical and emergency skills to help victims of the hurricane. Bennett and Peel, who are working in Jefferson Parish, signed on for a month's stay.
Leanne Peel's husband has been calling home daily. Even so, she said, it seems like he's been gone a long time.
"We're only a weekend through this and it feels like a month," Peel said. "But we're doing fine."
Bennett and a fire chief from California were put in charge of a group of 50 men. So, much of Bennett's time is spent at the group's command center.
However, Peel, and other firefighters in their unit, go from house to house, looking for survivors.
"They're seeing a lot of what we're seeing on TV," Leanne said, noting the destruction and the obvious deaths.
She said the firefighters were told to mark the location of bodies and to leave the retrieval of them to biohazard teams.
And when residents are found living in their homes, the firefighters encourage them to leave. However, they will not force them, and should they refuse to leave, the firefighters provide what medical care, food and water that they can.
The transportation into the neighborhoods depends on how much floodwater remains.
"Yesterday he was talking about how some of the guys might be on boats, some might be on army trucks and some on foot," Peel said Monday.
And while out, they're cautious.
When the firefighters leave their center, they're accompanied by U.S. marshals, Bennett said.
"They never go out without an armed person," Bennett said.
Bennett noted the controversy surrounding the length of time it took FEMA to respond to Hurricane Katrina. In fact, Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, was reported saying, "We have been abandoned by our own country."
Because of the outward bitterness toward FEMA, the firefighters were told to wear different shirts than planned.
"The U.S. marshals ordered them to take their FEMA shirts off because that was just not welcome," Bennett said. She noted her husband and Peel are wearing the only other shirts they have with them -- Tonganoxie fire department T-shirts.
The men have spent several days and nights filling in for weary firefighters at a Jefferson Parish fire station.
With their husbands out of town, Peel and Bennett said they're trying to keep life as routine as possible for their children.
And, they've received offers of assistance, particularly from firefighters. Peel said a Tonganoxie firefighter mowed her yard. Bennett said her daughter's boyfriend, Corey Doughty, mowed her lawn.
And, though her husband will be gone for three more weeks, Bennett said she plans to start painting the outside of her house -- a project she and her husband had planned for this month.
"I'm hoping while he's gone to get my house painted," Bennett said. "We've been desperately needing to do it."
When asked who would paint with her, she laughed and said, "Me and whoever I can get to help me."