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Texas Game Wardens, State Parks Aid Katrina Victims
AUSTIN, Texas — Within the past week, Texas game wardens in New Orleans have rescued close to 5,000 people left stranded by Hurricane Katrina's lingering floodwaters. Meanwhile, hundreds of evacuees are still camping free in dozens of Texas state parks.
On Aug. 30, a team of 53 Texas Parks and Wildlife Department game wardens from all parts of the state crossed the Louisiana line with 52 vehicles and 50 boats, marking the first time Texas game wardens have been deployed for disaster relief out of state. Texas game wardens are trained and experienced in flood rescue and water safety, with boats and equipment often used during flash floods and other natural disasters.
Every day, the department team would get orders from Baton Rouge, where Maj. Bill Robinson of Austin was TPWD's command center representative. They would leave the First Methodist Church in Gonzales about 75 miles north of New Orleans and head out on the day's mission. Maj. Robert Carlson of Rusk was creative at securing resources, and through his efforts the team got daily equipment repair and supplies. He also persuaded church members to "adopt" the TPWD team, which meant free hot meals, clean beds and a place to call home every night.
A three-mile line of TPWD vehicles, boats and trailers would then head down Interstate 10 into stricken New Orleans. Delays caused by sniper fire from looters periodically brought the convoy to frustrating standstills of up to two hours.
The TPWD team's target areas have been mostly in east New Orleans. These include low-income neighborhoods, apartment complexes and hospitals, where rescues are done by boat or airboat.
On Sept. 1, the team rescued 1,500 patients from Charity Hospital, which had inadequate electricity and water service.
"We had people in wheelchairs, we had to physically carry some people and we moved them all by boat to buses," said Maj. Butch Shoop, game warden regional director from Fort Worth, who was in charge of on the ground rescue operations. "That morning we finished up Tulane and University hospitals and then we evacuated Charity."
The next day, the TPWD team went into in east New Orleans, piloting boats down streets that had become canals. The area had become lawless, rife with looting and gunfire. Authorities shot and killed seven looters there the morning the TPWD team went in, and Shoop believes that helped make the situation more manageable.
"I had seven airboats running and I made everybody travel in twos and threes," Shoop said. "Each airboat had a driver, a gunner and a New Orleans policeman for directions."
That day they loaded up seven Army trucks full of evacuees from housing complexes.
One story stands out in Shoop's mind, "one gal who just about made me cry." He was coordinating rescue efforts at Charity Hospital when a woman in her twenties came up to him. She said her 82-year-old grandmother was trapped in "a bad area," and she begged Shoop to save her. Eventually, a boat was sent and returned bearing the elderly woman.
"They carried this lady over to me--she couldn't walk--and the gal introduced me to her grandmother and thanked me. She said 'Mr. Butch can I hug your neck?' I said 'I don't smell very good but go ahead.' She said 'I don't know you, but I love you and I love what you're doing.'"
On Monday, the emotionally and physically drained first wave of game wardens went back to Texas. They had worked more than 120 hours each in a single week.
"Guys like me are always going back to analyze what we could have done better," Shoop said. "But from the A-team I never got a bad attitude, never an 'I don't want to do this, I don't want to be here.' These were 53 of the finest game wardens in Texas. They kept me going."
"This past week, our game wardens have seen the best side of human nature, and the worst, and they've risen to the challenge," said Col. Pete Flores, TPWD law enforcement director. "It's been one of the most difficult assignments we've ever undertaken, but we are making a difference."
This week, a new team of 50 game wardens from all parts of the state is continuing the effort. On Tuesday, word came that federal authorities were assuming responsibility for the rescue operation and Texas resources could withdraw. All Texas game wardens are expected to return to Austin on Friday.
Meanwhile, by late last week about 500 evacuees were camping at as many as 27 Texas state parks, mostly in northeast and southeast Texas.
When evacuees began arriving, the state park Customer Service Center reservations phone bank in Austin had to scramble to make room for them while heading into the Labor Day holiday weekend. Many visitors with existing reservations gave them up voluntarily or were moved to other parks.
Conflicts were inevitable and difficult situations had to be smoothly handled. In one case, about 30 evacuees came to Daingerfield State Park the middle of last week, and they were told in advance they'd have to leave by the weekend, since a large visitor group had weekend reservations that could not be changed. The park staff got on the phone to notify local leaders and ask for help. The result was an outpouring of community support-local residents put evacuees up in their homes, a church collected $750 on the spot and donated it to the evacuees.
This week, the word is there are more evacuees leaving than coming, but several dozen are still staying at no cost in Texas state parks.
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