Forest Service employee returns from hurricane destruction | SierraSun.com

Forest Service employee returns from hurricane destruction

David Bunker
Sierra Sun

Along with the military personnel and search and rescue teams that responded to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, an agency better known for managing evergreen forests, issuing wilderness permits and fighting forest fires lent a hand to storm victims along the Gulf.

Kathy Murphy, a Truckee resident who works at the Truckee Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service, was one of more than 5,000 Forest Service employees who was called to help in the aftermath of Katrina.

“It was rewarding to be able to do some small thing in such a huge disaster,” Murphy said after almost a month coordinating search and rescue missions and supporting doctors in Louisiana.

While the U.S. Forest Service may not leap to mind as first responders to hurricanes, the agency’s experience in responding to forest fires makes it one of the most experienced in emergency management.

“The Forest Service is really the backbone of a lot of these operations,” Murphy said.

As part of a specialized disaster team for the last 20 years, Murphy has been to several disasters, including a hurricane on the island of Kauai in 1992.

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But nothing compared to what she saw in Louisiana, she said. One day, on a helicopter ride over New Orleans, the magnitude of the destruction sunk in.

“Everything for miles and miles and miles was underwater,” she said.

As part of a 33-member team, Murphy flew to Dallas and drove to St. Gabriel, La., where a makeshift morgue for hurricane victims had been set up.

The Forest Service team acted as a support group for the doctors, dentists and pathologists who had responded from around the country.

But soon Murphy and her team moved to flooded New Orleans, coordinating search and rescue operations out of the New Orleans Saints practice field.

In a fortunate coincidence, Murphy’s team had set up camp only minutes away from where Murphy’s cousin lived. Murphy was able to visit her cousin, whose house was damaged by the storm.

Murphy’s detailed mind and gift for planning make her a perfect fit for a Forest Service team that tracks every person and piece of equipment during a disaster, said Truckee Ranger Joanne Robique.

“Kathy is a person who pays a lot of attention to detail,” Robique said.

Employees at the ranger district knew several people who had headed to the hurricane aftermath, said Robique. And many of the other employees were ready to pack up and leave for the South if they were needed.

Murphy said she was impressed by the effort put out by volunteers and federal employees when confronted with a disaster that seemed insurmountable.

“People had never seen that level of destruction and they really rose to the occasion to get the job done,” Murphy said.

After nearly a month, Murphy’s team was replaced by a new Forest Service group. Although she was glad to come back home to Truckee, a reminder of the ongoing struggles of the Gulf Coast states, and the need for emergency response teams like hers, was evident as she left.

“When we were leaving, the winds of Rita were beginning to arrive,” she said. “We were heading out as Rita was heading in.”