Wil Milam, 39, is a rescue swimmer for the U.S. Coast Guard in Kodiak, Alaska, which means he spends most of his time jumping out of helicopters to help fishermen who break bones and pilots who crash their private planes. "We're pretty much the area ambulance service," he says. Before he was dispatched to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Milam had never been called out of Alaska for a mission and had never done urban search-and-rescue work. But like thousands of other personnel, he was brought to Louisiana to do what the Coast Guard does best: improvise wildly.
Milam made his first rescue late one night near a warehouse outside New Orleans. After dropping him into the black miasma below, his helicopter did something he had never seen in his entire 13-year career: it flew away--so that he could hear the cries for help. He looked around through his night-vision goggles and saw what looked like caskets--in fallen trees, on porches. Yes, they were caskets, dislodged from a nearby cemetery. That night Milam found a man and four dogs and helped hoist them all safely into the helicopter when it returned. The man's pig, however, Milam left behind. "No way I'm taking a pig. The pig will be O.K.," he says. And so it went for 11 days, with Milam experiencing such firsts as flying over a semitrailer sitting on the roof of a house, seeing alligators undulating in the water below and finding himself surrounded by four men with shotguns in a dark, empty hospital. (They were security guards, as it turned out, and just as frightened as he was.) "I'm like, man, they didn't teach me this in swimmer school."
In Katrina's aftermath, the Coast Guard rescued or evacuated more than 33,500 people, six times as many as it saved in all of 2004. The Coast Guard was saving lives before any other federal agency--despite the fact that almost half the local Coast Guard personnel lost their own homes in the hurricane. In decimated St. Bernard Parish east of New Orleans, Sheriff Jack Stephens says the Coast Guard was the only federal agency to provide any significant assistance for a full week after the storm. Coast Guard personnel helped his deputies commandeer boats and rescue thousands. So last week, when two representatives from the U.S. Government Accountability Office came to ask how he would fix the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), he had his answer ready: "I would abolish it," he told them. "I'd blow up FEMA and ask the Coast Guard what it needs."
In one sense, that has already happened. After the implosion of FEMA director Michael Brown, President George W. Bush placed Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen in charge of the federal response to Katrina. Before Hurricane Rita even hit land, the Administration placed a Coast Guard rear admiral in charge of that recovery. These are essentially urban-planning jobs--not something men and women who spend much of their professional lives on water are exactly trained to do.
So how is it that an agency that is underfunded and saddled with aging equipment--and about the size of the New York City police department--makes disaster response look like just another job, not a quagmire? How did an organization that, like FEMA, had been subsumed by the soul-killing Department of Homeland Security (DHS), remain a place where people took risks? And perhaps most important, can any of these traits be bottled?