Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, former Garda JP Sexton recalls his time helping to police the streets of New Orleans.
Hurricane Katrina was a horrendous storm which not only devastated the lives through which it tore, but also exposed a quagmire of public corruption and human depravity. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I would be in the thick of it, but there I found myself, mere hours after the storm had abated, enforcing law and order on the streets of Louisiana.
On 29th August 2005, I received a call from a corporate client asking if my company could provide armed security in New Orleans, to one of their clients. Hurricane Katrina had made landfall in Louisiana and within hours, 80 per cent of the city was flooded. Their client was in the cash in transit business and had had tens of millions of dollars in a building in New Orleans, in which the first five floors were completely submerged. Apparently the building was being “cased” by a group of would-be bank robbers, and it would be our job to protect the cash from being stolen.
I thought it over for a moment. As the entrance was completely underwater (which meant that all electricity throughout the building would be cut off), the only feasible option was to air lift a team of heavily armed security personnel onto the roof of the building, and protect it from the top down. They would have all their supplies on the roof, and make that their “home” for as long it took.
I assumed the “bad guys” would enter the building using diving gear. Even if they got in undetected, they would have to surface when bringing out all that cash. So I contacted a high ranking police official I trusted down there. I asked him if he could do me a favour and drop a number of my guys on to the roof of a building in downtown New Orleans to thwart a bank robbery. He said he could loan me their police helicopter, but in return he had a favour to ask of me.
He wanted me to volunteer to police the streets with his guys who were under tremendous strain. There were gangs of armed looters roaming the streets and his officers were working long shifts. I told him I could do it, but that I would need a day to gather sufficient supplies of weapons and ammunition. On September 1st, I boarded a flight from Washington DC to Baton Rouge, where a police van would pick up volunteers and bring them into New Orleans.
The drive to New Orleans was not long, but the sites we encountered along the way, spell bounded us. The television coverage could not properly convey the real-time devastation. It left us speechless on that inward journey. The police had shut down the bridges into New Orleans. The only vehicles to be seen speeding along the top of the city were police cruisers.
The hotel had filled the room with metal army cots and there would be more than 20 of us sharing the same room and toilet facilities, by the time we had fully ramped up. Sleep consisted of three hours maximum in a 24-hour period and we always kept our semi-automatic pistols under our pillows, in case the place would be over-run during the night.
The following day I reported to police headquarters. I was informed that we were to be deputised with full police powers and that we would join in to supplement the current police as needed. I was immediately assigned to a SWAT unit. My partner was a young cop, Tommy, with several years of service. We were to patrol the Canal Street area of New Orleans and also conduct high-threat level money escorts around the area. We were armed to the teeth.
My first shift there was 21 hours long. Tommy was thrilled at the prospect of working such a short day. The time passed quickly, as it did when we laid our heads down for a couple of hours at shift-end.
When you have worked in countries torn apart by civil war, or worked in war zones where death and destruction are a daily occurrence, you become so acutely aware of your surroundings, that you don’t have to give it a second thought. It is a matter of survival. I found myself in this frame of mind when patrolling the streets at night for looters. Martial law had been imposed and unfortunately society in some areas had deteriorated so badly, that normal “peace time” policing policies could not be relied on to keep us alive.
There was little to no room for community style policing as there were too many “bad guys” who intentionally added to the mayhem, so they would be free to thieve and murder as they saw fit. Utility men working on overhead electricity lines became targets for criminals to “pick-off”. Not all of the bodies being recovered had died from drowning. Many corpses were turning up with bullet holes in their skulls.
By the second week, more volunteer reinforcements had arrived. Our numbers had grown and our duties had increased. I joined other colleagues on a dock which had become home to a relief ship, originally destined for Haiti. The ship was stocked with food and all kinds of aid, but when they learned of the disaster in the Gulf, they rerouted for New Orleans. Eight of us worked during the day, protecting the perimeter of the dock yard. It was feared that criminals would attack the ship and loot all the food, once word got out as to what was on board.
By a stroke of good luck, the old warehouse alongside which the aid ship was docked contained tons of rubber bricks. With them we built chest-high “machine gunner” type bunkers around the corners of the warehouse. We took turns at the various posts, spending an hour, before rotating. There was one exception – the “rotisserie”.
There was no shelter from the searing sun at the rear of the dock, so it was decided that the shift on the rotisserie post would be 45 minutes instead of an hour. It got pretty hot standing directly in the sun wearing work clothes and a bullet-proof vest, with several weapons attached to your body and in your hands. Most guys could not wait for their 45 minutes to end. I was the exception.
Being a sun worshipper all of my life, I pretended I was on a beach. I opened the top buttons on my shirt over my protective vest, sat in my chair which had a 180 degree view of the river, rolled up my sleeves and roasted like a leg of lamb. I enjoyed it so much in fact, that when the next guy would come after 45 minutes to relieve me, I would wave him on and stay for an hour and a half.
About half way through the second week, our shifts were shortened, which meant we only worked nine or 10 hours. Also around that time, one of my colleagues heard a rumour that a neighbourhood bar had opened, and that they had cold drinks. After we finished our tour, we decided to hoof it around the area on foot, in search of the elusive cold beer. We wandered around for about an hour in the still hot sun, until we accidentally tripped across a bar, open for business with a lot of people inside.
We were in full civilian combat attire and fully armed. We had semi-auto pistols in tactical thigh holsters, pump-action shotguns, and my colleague even had a light weight, titanium frame 38 revolver in a front chest pocket of his bullet-proof vest.
We made our way into a corner, where we would have our backs to a wall and be able to see the front door. A guy sitting on a stool to the side of me asked me if I worked for the government. I advised him that I did not, that I owned my own security firm and we came down to help out the local police, some of whom had lost everything, even their police cars and stations.
He called to the barman, “don’t be taking no money from these boys. They left their homes to come down and help us when all the federal government could do was sit around on their asses and talk about help”. The whole bar hushed to hear what was being said, and broke into applause.
After we had dampened the Louisiana dust from our throats with three or four beers, we received a message from one of our colleagues. In our search for refreshment, it slipped our minds that everybody else would have returned back to base at the end of the shift and that we were noticeably missing. He told us to stay put, and he would arrive shortly with the chief of police.
Our colleague arrived shortly after. “It’s good to see that you two are alright. Now, I need to take your guns.”
“We’re being disarmed?” One of us was as shocked as the other.
“The chief says this is a safe place and that the customers here are all pro-police. He doesn’t want you to be drinking and carrying all of these weapons.”
It was just like a scene from an old western film when the sheriff tells the cowboys to turn in their guns, so they don’t try shooting up the town after they have been drinking.
It took him two trips to the car to load up the weapons. When he returned, I had one last question.
“I don’t fancy having to walk back through the streets unarmed, even if it is a friendly area.”
“We already thought that through,” he said. “When you are ready, radio us and we’ll come and collect you.”
“The chief is going to be our taxi as well, how cool is that?”
“I didn’t say the chief would pick you up,” he said, “besides, I don’t think you two should push your luck too far.”
“Sound advice,” I agreed. “You are a scholar and a gentleman – and so is the chief!”
JP Sexton is a former Detective Garda and a native of Donegal. He quit the force in 1995 to work for the United Nations in the former Yugoslavia. He has lived in Northern Virginia since 2000, where he runs his security firm, Sexton Executive Security, Inc. He is the author of a recently finished memoir The Big Yank – Memoir of a Boy Growing Up Irish. This is an abridged version of JP Sexton’s article which appeared in the Irish Times on September 2nd 2015.
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