He Was In The Military For 36 Years, But Nothing Compared To Katrina
By Erin Grace/World-Herald columnist
Tom Brewer was shot six times and hit by a grenade on two separate tours in Afghanistan.
But nothing over the course of his 36-year military career matched Katrina.
“In Katrina, it was complete and total chaos,” said Brewer, a now-retired Army National Guard colonel who commanded a 30-member team in New Orleans 10 years ago. “It was a much more confusing and challenging environment than combat ever was.”
Brewer was one of the Midlanders who stepped up a decade ago after the devastating storm tore through the Gulf Coast and more devastating flooding swamped New Orleans.
They conducted rescue missions in coastal Mississippi, hauled gold, silver and cash out of the Federal Reserve in New Orleans, and lined up housing, social services and donations to help Gulf residents who were evacuated to Omaha.
I saw some of that response firsthand when World-Herald photographer Kent Sievers and I were sent to the Gulf Coast.
That’s where I met up with Lincolnite Bruce Sellon, who was heading an urban search and rescue group digging through the wreckage of coastal Mississippi.
Sellon, then deputy chief of the Lincoln Fire and Rescue Department, led the initial wave of nearly three dozen rescuers, including Lincoln and Omaha firefighters, health care workers and engineers. They arrived on Aug. 31, two days after Katrina. A later crew was sent to New Orleans.
Sellon’s team had to cover 60 miles of coastal towns, from Pascagoula to Bay St. Louis, where the eye of the Category 3 hurricane struck. They worked in places like DeIsle, Ocean Springs and Biloxi.
For eight days, these Nebraskans moved debris and combed fields, swamps and properties using dogs to look for survivors. They saw train freight cars scattered like a child’s toy set. They saw houses pushed off foundations, smashed by trees or just completely gone. They searched washed-up boats, encountering alligators and water moccasins.
The devastation was so widespread it shocked a crew used to seeing disaster. One of Nebraska’s worst tornadoes — an F4 on a scale where F5 is the worst, with a then-record 2.5-mile span — had flattened Hallam the year before. Hallam, in comparison, suddenly didn’t seem so bad.
That was only wind, Sellon told me a decade ago.
Standing in DeIsle, surrounded by devastation, Sellon said: “This is wind. And flooding. It’s almost a double disaster.
Sellon, 61, is now retired. He said he was grateful for a chance to serve.
“You know how most people sit at home and go, ‘Oh, what a disaster. I wish I could do something,’ ” he said. “It was an absolutely incredible reward to be able to respond. And actually do something.”
That’s how Mary Ann Borgeson felt in Omaha when two planeloads of Katrina evacuees landed. She remembers how disoriented they were. No one had told them where they were going until they landed.
“Most of the people, it was like, Nebraska?” she said. “They’d say, ‘Well, where are the cows?’ ”
The Douglas County commissioner was so intimately involved in helping the displaced get services that she gave her family’s old Buick to a 69-year-old New Orleans man.
“He thought it was a Cadillac,” she said.
The county’s effort wasn’t perfect. Not everyone got what they needed or got it in time.
But Borgeson said government agencies, nonprofits and volunteers worked hard to help.
The Civic Auditorium served as a temporary one-stop shop for the 167 FEMA evacuees. They got health checkups, showers, meals and cots. They also were helped with applications for government assistance and identification, which many lacked. Some arrived bringing only the clothes they wore. A few had even come without shoes.
After the Civic, evacuees then were put up in four Omaha hotels until they could find housing — most through the Omaha Housing Authority. Then-director Brad Ashford pushed his staff to free up units. Ashford also pushed his friends, including Nebraska Furniture Mart executive Bob Batt.
“He worked me over good,” Batt said. “He says, ‘I need beds, we need this, we need this.’ We marshaled our forces, got the job done.”
Batt, the grandson of Mart founder Rose Blumkin, even donated most of the furniture from his late mother’s estate to OHA for Katrina evacuees.
Borgeson said Omahans tried to help Katrina evacuees get settled if they wanted to stay. Of the 167 evacuees brought to Omaha by FEMA, 126 were living in OHA housing by Christmas that year. Borgeson’s group also helped evacuees leave Omaha.
“Lots of them just wanted to get home, even if it wasn’t home-home, but home with their families,” Borgeson said. “That was the focus. What did they need at that point in time? We worked real hard to make sure we could do it.”
The Red Cross also coordinated help for as many as 1,400 Katrina survivors who came to Omaha separately.
Meanwhile, Tom Brewer was leading a five-state National Guard crew through the flooded streets of New Orleans.
For a month, Brewer battled heat and mass disorganization to carry out missions that ranged from SWAT team backup to search and rescue.
He was a popular guy down there for two reasons: Brewer took charge and didn’t wait for the agonizingly slow military bureaucracy. And he had at his disposal nine tank-like vehicles that could drive like cars and float like boats. This was particularly handy when driving down streets that suddenly turned into deep lakes.
Brewer’s armored machines could go about anywhere and were used on covert operations, like the rescuing of millions of dollars in cash, silver and gold from the Federal Reserve. Most importantly, they were used to rescue stranded residents — some 600, by Brewer’s count.
Brewer based his team outside Harrah’s Casino and slept on a cot on Canal Street — when he could catch a few winks. Brewer worked a lot of 20-hour days.
The scope of the damage was so huge. The needs were so immense. The people were so desperate.
The missions, at times, were as murky as the brown floodwaters. And Brewer was in constant scramble mode to get basics like water and food for his own guys.
After a month in New Orleans, Brewer got back to his normal life — which meant returning to Afghanistan. In 2011, he was hit by shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade.
Brewer came home injured but in one piece. He retired last year, made an unsuccessful bid for Congress, was diagnosed with leukemia and treated. Most recently, the 57-year-old has helped veterans deal with their physical and psychological wounds at a special horse camp in Montana.
This week, however, his mind is on Katrina.
“We drove into the city of New Orleans with no guidance,” he said. “We simply drove in. And started dealing with it.”