As Tropical Storm Isaac battered New Orleans last night, 10 members of a Louisiana Army National Guard battery spent seven hours rolling through the streets in Humvees.
Their mission: help the police prevent theft and vandalism.
Officials battling Isaac say they are intent on avoiding a repeat of the looting, vigilantism and killings that followed Hurricane Katrina, which hit the city seven years ago. So they enlisted troops from the Louisiana National Guard, which provided more than 5,000 soldiers and airmen, about 700 of them in the city.
Six of the guardsmen in the Humvees -- from the 1st Battalion, 141st Field Artillery Regiment -- were serving with the unit in Baghdad in 2005 as Katrina’s waters broke through levees, leaving 80 percent of New Orleans underwater and more than 1,800 people dead. For many, returning home meant facing worse conditions than they did at war, said Staff Sergeant Michael Gil.
“It’s a big thing to have your city fall apart,” said Gil, 34, who like most of his unit’s 77 members hails from the New Orleans area. “It feels good to be a part of not letting that happen again.”
The Guard was trying to keep the peace in a city that is among the most dangerous in the U.S., and one that has had a tense relationship with its police department. In July, New Orleans and U.S. Justice Department announced a consent decree to resolve allegations of police misconduct. It was the result of a federal finding that police systematically violated citizens’ constitutional rights, and followed the successful prosecutions of 14 police officers related to the killing of civilians after Katrina.
The strategy was working, with officials saying at a City Hall news briefing today that the rate of infractions -- 33 arrests for suspected looting and six arrests and citations for breaking curfew -- was low, considering how long the storm was taking to pass. The city will see even more Humvees in coming days as receding waters allow the Guard to deploy more vehicles.
The three camel-colored Humvees set off from Jackson Barracks in the Lower Ninth Ward just before 5 p.m. local time. The vehicles rolled over tree branches and other debris from Isaac, which came ashore as a hurricane.
District 8 police headquarters, in the French Quarter, was the first stop. The crew picked up two officers, who would decide the night’s trajectory and carry pistols. The guardsmen would be there to assist, packing M4 semi-automatics.
The guardsmen drove through the Quarter and residential neighborhoods scanning for vandalism or broken windows. Aside from the drumming of the rain, the night was quiet.
As the evening wore on, the streets became deserted. For blocks at time, they drove through darkened neighborhoods, where the power had been cut. As the Humvees turned into commercial areas, neon signs illuminated the streets.
Air conditioning blasted inside the Humvees as windshield wipers beat back water. Gil’s iPhone chirped with photos from his wife of floodwater creeping up to their house.
Second Lieutenant Andre Beverly, 32, snacked on cheese crackers and doubted anyone would heed the dusk-to-dawn curfew that Mayor Mitch Landrieu ordered. Specialist Joshua Ulm, 24, behind the wheel, praised the candy-filled cookies his girlfriend made.
Two boxes of military ready-to-eat meals in the back seat were untouched when the Humvees pulled back into the base just before midnight. Instead, the crew had munched on pepperoni pies at Dante Pizza and walked out to thank yous and applause from fellow diners. That was the first free dinner of the night from a local business owner grateful for their service.
“One cop told us, ’Man, y’all are celebrities!’ But we’re just doing our jobs,” said Gil. “Especially since we just returned from Iraq on Dec. 23, 2010, people here are very welcoming. They say they feel safer with us on the streets.”