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Sunday, September 18, 2005

Naval Special Warfare Comes Through at Crunchtime

Press Release
Naval Special Warfare Task Group KATRINA
0905-002

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

NSW boat crews search for Stennis survivors

By JOC Scott Boyle
Naval Special Warfare Task Group Katrina Public Affairs


STENNIS SPACE CENTER, Miss. – When flooded roads prevent the use of cars or trucks, shallow-draft river boats become the best option for getting around. The men of Naval Special Warfare who use them for river training in Stennis know that the Special Operations Craft Riverine (SOC-R) does many things well. The craft, specifically designed for shallow waterways, is primarily used for the insertion and extraction of Navy SEALs in hostile territory. But in the days following Hurricane Katrina, the SOC-R has taken on a different mission, a lifesaving one.

“The first day after the storm, the guys were itching to go, and that says a lot because many of them lost their homes as well,” said Chief Petty Officer (SWCC) Stephen Babb, a Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewman (SWCC) and the officer-in-charge for a detachment from Special Boat Team 22.

The SWCCs and support staff of SBT-22 live and work in what was the direct path of Katrina’s eye.

“The first day we got underway was on Lake Pontchartrain near Eden Isles. We found people trying to fix their homes, and gave them food and water. They couldn’t thank us enough,” Babb said. “It’s our community as well. It was the first time some of my guys saw their own homes.”
Sept. 7, four of the team’s boat crews spent the afternoon searching for storm survivors along a 20-mile stretch of the West Pearl River.
Hundreds of homes, mostly fishing shanties floating on makeshift pontoons, lined the river banks. Many of these homes had limited road access under normal conditions, and were completely cut off from land after Katrina swept through the area. The fates of their owners are unknown.

Working in groups of two, the SWCCs piloted their boats from side to side, shanty to shanty, looking for any signs of life.

“Log, twelve o’clock!” hollered Petty Officer 1st Class (SWCC) Jereme Blackburn from the bow of his boat. A tree, probably 40-feet long and two-feet thick, was floating in the current directly in the boat’s path. Blackburn lay on his stomach, head hung over the edge, and directed Petty Officer 2nd Class (SWCC) Matthew Tabarez, the SOC-R’s driver, around the massive hazard. The boat slowly crept forward, dodging debris bobbing in the water. It inched to a broken dock, now separated from the home it was once attached to. The shanty, with part of its roof blown away, had floated to its current resting point on the riverbank. Tabarez inched forward until the SOC-R’s bow barely touched the dock. Blackburn and Petty Officer 3rd Class (SWCC) Andrew Cahill hopped off, and, making their way through tree branches and gaps in the dock’s wooden boards, approached the damaged building.

“U.S. Navy!” Cahill called out. “Is anyone here?”

They approached the front door, which was slightly open. Blackburn and Cahill cautiously entered the home, looking for any signs of life, calling out to anyone who might be in need of supplies or medical assistance. After a few minutes they emerged, shaking their heads from side to side. No one was home — a good thing under these circumstances. The three other SOC-Rs were doing the same thing on both sides of the river, inching into tributaries that were inaccessible by boat two weeks ago, yet were now up to 10-feet deep.

The mission continued for many hours. At the end of the day, about 25 homes were searched by the boat teams. Though none of their neighbors were found so far, they continue the search for anyone who might still be stranded and needing assistance. For the Sailors of SBT-22, this is more than a mission.
This is their community.