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TPWD to the rescue

Game wardens aid Katrina victims in New Orleans.

By Tom Harvey

On August 30, a team of 53 Texas Parks and Wildlife Department game wardens from all parts of the state crossed the Louisiana state line with 52 vehicles and 50 boats, marking the first time Texas game wardens have been deployed for disaster relief out of state. A week later, a second wave of 50 game wardens headed to New Orleans.

The department team performed search-and-rescue operations largely in low-income neighborhoods, apartment complexes and hospitals in east New Orleans. They would pilot boats down streets that had become canals, plucking people from roofs and second story windows.

On Sept. 1, the team rescued 1,500 patients from Charity Hospital, which was struggling with inadequate electricity and water service.

“You’d take a person on a backboard with IVs in them and airboat them six blocks to another hospital and carry them upstairs to a Med-Evac helicopter,” said Game Warden Marvin Wills Jr. of Gatesville. “There was a lot of fear in their eyes but also a lot of hope, knowing they were getting out of the hellhole they were in.”

Tony Norton of Athens also worked frontline rescues in the first wave of Texas game wardens that went to Louisiana.

“The most difficult part was being away from my family and them worrying about me all the time,” Norton said. “As far as the working conditions, being held back from what you were supposed to do because of possible sniper fire, that was the most frustrating thing.”

Like Wills, Norton said the team atmosphere of the Texas group sustained him.

“The guys stuck together and knew their jobs,” Norton said, “We felt like we accomplished something. We did what we came there to do. That was the most rewarding part.”

One story stands out in Norton’s mind, representing a common theme for many rescue workers.

“There was one family that came out the first day we were evacuating Tulane Hospital,” Norton said. “They didn’t want to be separated, and we tried our best to keep them together. We were told to take them to the convention center because there were supposed to be buses to take them out of there. I have no idea what happened to them, but I can still see their faces in my mind.”

Wills and other game wardens in the first wave worked more than 120 hours each in a single week. They left their base at 5:30 a.m. and returned exhausted around midnight.

“On the news, you heard about how confrontational people were, but I didn’t see any of that with the people I was evacuating — everybody was glad to see us and glad to be taken to safety,” Wills said.

“Little kids would come out of second story windows with fear on their faces and we’d give ’em a thumbs up and tell them it would be all right.”

Wills has worn the badge of a Texas game warden for 25 years. “I was stationed on the Texas coast for several years, and I went through a couple of hurricanes, Allen for one, but it was nothing like this,” he said. “There is no comparison of the situation in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina with any situation I’ve ever seen, and probably with anything I’ll ever see again in my career.”

Not only did the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department contribute to the rescue effort, it also gave some New Orleans residents a place to stay. More than 500 evacuees were given free accommodations in 27 Texas state parks.

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