As task force leader of the New Mexico Department of Public Safety Urban Search and Rescue Team, Tom Romero has trained for crawling through collapsed buildings and searching for victims of terrorist attacks.
But nothing prepared him for what he saw in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hammered its way through.
“The scale of it was totally overwhelming,” Romero said while standing outside a convoy of vehicles that delivered him and his team Friday from New Orleans to Albuquerque.
“A kind of madness took over that you can’t really explain. People in houses were shooting at rescuers, would-be rescuers. I never thought I’d see those things in America. It’s shocking.”
The 70-member task force – including doctors, nurses, engineers, firefighters, dog handlers and coordinators – was called to duty in New Orleans by the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Aug. 29, the day Katrina made landfall.
The task force evacuated 266 people from flooded areas, according to a news release. It delivered food and water to 183 people who refused to get out of New Orleans. It provided medical care to 140 people. It found 36 dead people.
On Friday it came home to a crowd of cheering family and friends.
Among the people greeting the returning team stood Victoria Aragon.
She pressed her 4-month-old daughter against her chest and, watching the search team’s buses pull in, began to cry.
Her brother, Edward Torres III, was home.
“I’ve been very worried,” she said. “It’s very good to see him back, back safe. But I’m glad he was out there to be able to help everybody in need. He was out there doing a good thing.”
As a member of the search-and-rescue team, Torres rescued an older man who had been living in his attic for nine days. It was one of many encounters that tested his mental toughness.
“You could see the sadness in their (evacuees) eyes, because they lost everything,” said Torres, who is a firefighter with the Albuquerque Fire Department. “Everything except a few garbage bags full of clothes and money and a few snacks. That’s all they’d have.
“The mental aspect,” he said, “is the hard part to get over.”
The New Mexico team is one of 28 around the country supported by the federal government, according to the state Public Safety Department.
The team’s convoy to New Orleans consisted of two semi-trailers, two moving vans, two buses and three command vehicles, said Peter Olson, a department spokesman.
This is the second time the team has been called out, Olson said. The team’s first assignment was to the Pentagon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.