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N.M. Team Rolls Into Destruction

By Jeff Jones
Journal Staff Writer
    NEW ORLEANS— A New Mexico search and rescue team drove for more than two hours through urban devastation and horror to begin a search for victims Friday.
    The scope of the destruction and chaos left a heavy impression on even veteran rescuers, who deal with destruction and pain each day as part of their jobs.
    "It doesn't even look like America," said Acoma Fire Department member Zachary Sprung. "It's crazy to see that much desperation."
    Friday's convoy route took New Mexico Task Force 1— along with a Journal reporter and photographer— through the western suburb of Metairie, into Westwego and Gretna to the south of New Orleans and then into the city on U.S. 90.
    They evacuated 51 residents from a nursing home and conducted a house-by-house search of a neighborhood in northern New Orleans. Amazingly, some victims chose not to leave.
    On their way through the ravaged city, there wasn't a single mile— a single block— that didn't bear deep scars from Hurricane Katrina.
    "THANK'S GOD AND THE ANGELS," read a spray-painted plywood sign in front of one of countless ruined businesses. "LOOTERS SHOT ON SITE."
    The side of a high-rise motel was torn away in many places, revealing the rooms inside like a child's dollhouse.
    The multi-lane interstate heading into the city was devoid of other vehicles in most places. Travelers, instead, were tattered evacuees, some pushing shopping carts laden with belongings and children.
    A woman on a freeway overpass near the battered Louisiana Superdome held up a small cardboard sign— "HELP US"— as the convoy rolled past.
    Another woman screamed out in a ragged voice as she pointed to others around her: "I'm tired of convoys! Get these old folks and children out of here!"
    Farther along, a little girl pulled a pink Barbie suitcase behind her as she walked down a freeway exit with her mother.
    Thick, billowing smoke from a chemical-plant fire smudged the sky in 100-degree-plus heat.
    The 70 members of New Mexico Task Force 1 had left a ravaged suburb city Friday morning to take part in the massive search-and-rescue mission into New Orleans.
    It passed the Superdome and New Orleans convention center— by now infamous as hellishly hot, dark and dirty evacuation centers— and headed northeast into a large housing district between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain.
    All of downtown New Orleans visible from the convoy route was still under water. On one side street, a family sat in the bed of a pickup that was submerged to its windows.
    The string of emergency trucks passed power lines draped at crazy angles, like strings from a broken guitar. One family of refugees played a hand of cards on the roadway as the vehicles rolled past.
    "Barely made it," said one man, still wet from fleeing his flooded home, as he walked past during a temporary stop in the convoy.
    "It's like a horrible science-fiction movie," said Robert Trujillo, a retired Albuquerque firefighter and member of the task force.
    At one point, the convoy had to roll through 22-inch-deep water on a stretch of elevated highway. As each truck chugged out of the filth, it passed several gar— a type of ancient, toothy fish— flopping in the murk.
    Just before the trucks rolled to a stop off Chef Menteur Boulevard, they passed three overturned 18-wheeler trailers strewn like toys on the opposite side of the roadway.
    "You're looking out, (and) you realize what you see— it's the top of a pickup," Rio Rancho fire investigator and task force member Ernest Pohl said.
    The magnitude "scares the hell out of you," said Pohl.