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Texarkana pilot witnesses alligators in New Orleans

Texarkana Gazette | September 5 2005

Don R uggles may forever have a vision of an alligator trying to get into the attic of a flooded New Orleans home.

It was recorded on videotape while Ruggles was piloting one of his helicopters in the rescue efforts of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Ruggles is the owner of Helicopters Southwest of Texarkana, Ark., and has been hired by FEMA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the EPA and law enforcement agencies. He is flying rescue missions and documenting the damage and problem areas for the federal agencies.

"To see the horrible destruction of homes, highways, bridges, industry and the horror of people trying to be rescued is to literally be sick in the heart, mind and soul," said Ruggles.He had returned Friday afternoon to Texarkana for maintenance work on his second Bell Jet Ranger helicopter. He will send one of his pilots, Todd Adams, back to New Orleans in the relief effort. Adams is a Miller County Game & Fish Wildlife officer and served as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot in Bosnia for the Army.

After the maintenance work is completed, Ruggles will have two helicopters flying for the federal agencies. Helicopter pilots for LifeNet ambulance service are also helping fly missions over New Orleans. Adams will continue to fly missions to find people on rooftops or trapped by water, then call in the latitude and longitude coordinates to the Coast Guard and Army Black Hawks. The military or Coast Guard will then rescue the stranded people. He will be joined by Ruggles who also has been flying missions.

"It's a horrible situation. We saw several alligators in the neighborhoods and one was swimming into the top of the home where likely people could be there trying to save themselves," Ruggles said. "There are rats, bats, snakes, large fish, and of course the alligators swimming around in the top of the homes and attics."

Ruggles has been stationed at the Baton Rouge airport since about 8 a.m. Tuesday. He and his crews have slept on the floor of the airport, getting about three hours of sleep Tuesday night, no sleep Wednesday and about 45 minutes of sleep Thursday night.

At times, he said helicopters were being shot at while flying rescue missions.

"We didn't have any bullet holes in our helicopters, but other pilots said they saw the people firing. We saw people carrying rifles, but we assumed it was the military or police," he said. "The shooting incidents were primarily east of the French Quarters, along the industrial canals and near the Superdome.

It is a traumatic situation for everyone, Ruggles said.

"There is looting, shooting, raping and general chaos going on in the city. Many people have not eaten nor had any water for days," he said.

While the priority continues to be the rescue of people, Ruggles said pets are stranded and dying.

"The saddest thing for me is seeing the pets left on the roofs, just running around in circles. I saw cats and a beautiful Labrador and German Shepherd on roofs. I also saw pets floating in the water," he said.

He said the developing problem with diseases will increase as human bodies decay along with the decaying carcasses of animals.

"In spite of scores of helicopters, airplanes, boats, law enforcement agencies, and other rescue and relief efforts, I fear that we will find numerous people dead," he said. "It is so very sad. I doubt if there will be as many die from this as there were in New York on 9-11, but the horrible effect on families will be worse since it will affect two or three million people and 90,000 square miles along the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts."

Despite the criticism over the emergency response, Ruggles praised the efforts of the law enforcement agencies and the military.

"I cannot praise them enough. The law enforcement and military personnel have put their lives on the line. They have risked their lives in high water with the possibility of alligators and snakes getting them, and now snipers," he said.

An explosion and fire started early Friday morning. Ruggles said the military and law enforcement officers were standing guard at nearby plants to prevent sabotage.

"I was talking to three soldiers who had a tour of duty in Iraq and they said they felt more comfortable on the streets of Baghdad than in New Orleans," he said.

Ruggles admitted the communications had been terrible.

"The helicopter pilots finally started communicating to themselves and doing what needed to be done. The cell phones do not work," he said. "The cell towers have been blown down and the standing towers have no electricity. We tried to depend on satellite telephones, but talking on those was difficult."

Ruggles has recorded seven hours of videotape for the federal agencies. He filmed the breaches in the concrete portions of the levees for the Corps of Engineers, and oil slicks for the EPA. He has also located stranded people and then pinpointed their location for the military and the Coast Guard.

He said the people who stayed in New Orleans probably had no resources to leave. Ruggles suspects the people trapped were the poor, with no transportation. Several had family members with major health problems making it difficult to leave the city. Instead they gambled and stayed.

"I think it will be three or four months before all of the water is removed. They have pumps all over the place pumping water, but it's coming back into the city as fast as they try to pump it out," Ruggles said.

"I wasn't the first to say this, but it will take two or three years to see New Orleans as a decent city," he said.

"Even after seeing the condition with my own eyes, I still cannot imagine an area and people so devastated," Ruggles said. " It's unbelievable and unimaginable. I can't believe what I saw. We all should pray for the poor people and children of southern Louisiana and Mississippi," he said .

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