NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - First responders saved thousands of lives in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Now, nearly 10 years after the storm, one of the first Coast Guard rescue swimmers on scene shares his story.
"It triggers a lot of emotion, a lot of emotion that you didn't have time to think about during that time that you were rescuing," Petty 1st Class Jonathan Rice said. "I remember every rescue as if it happened yesterday."
Talking about it still brings Rice to tears. "I get teary-eyed, you know, thinking about it. But it's not pain, it's pride, " he said.
Rice was one of the first on scene. Like many, he had no idea just how bad it would be. "I actually was in the first helicopter that came back to the city, and when we got up in the air, channel 16 was just 'mayday, mayday, mayday.' You couldn't tell who was saying what because there were so many mayday calls coming out," Rice said.
For five days and nights immediately following the storm, he and his crew would drop down from their helicopter onto rooftop after rooftop. "You see all the people that stayed, and they're waving their shirts or flags - whatever they had to get your attention and it was from all directions. We sat there as a crew and we're like, how do we even start? How do we even start right now?" Rice said.
Rice saved 228 lives after the storm. "Typically we fly for six hours and we're required to have rest, but during Katrina that wasn't the case. We had to keep flying," Rice said. "We got help, but you really didn't feel that support until like day three. Just day and night you had to fly around and chop through roofs and wade through flood waters and rescue people and animals."
And nearly 10 years later, Rice is still a Coast Guard rescue swimmer. A better one, he says, for having gone through the experience he did. "Katrina, we call it the Super Bowl of SAR. SAR is search and rescue," Rice said. "It's the biggest rescue operation in U.S. history, and I am blessed and honored to be a part of that, and now I can share and pass that down to future rescue swimmers - you know, my lessons that I learned."
Here are some numbers to keep in mind as we approach the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina: 33,500. That's how many Gulf Coast storm victims were rescued by the Coast Guard. And: 222. That's how many Coast Guard members lost their homes to the storm. Despite dealing with their own tragedies, many stayed in New Orleans to serve and rescue.