U.S. COAST GUARD ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM
Katrine Archival & Historical Record Team (KART)
Interviewee: Captain Joe Castillo, USCG, Chief of Operations, 8th Coast Guard District
Interviewer: PACS Peter Capelotti, USCGR
Date of Interview: November 3, 2005
Place: New Orleans
CAPT Castillo's primary experience has been in operations and had served previously in D-8. Operations was re-located to Alexandria. CAPT Castillo had moved to a location north of Lake Pontchartrain, but had no connectivity and then moved to Alexandria. He saw the destruction in the immediate aftermath from the air along with D-8 commander RADM Robert F. Duncan. He operated a forward command center which ultimately re-located to New Orleans when it was possible to secure lodging. He met with LTG Russell L. Honore at the Superdome on 1 Sep. He and RADM Duncan made several flights to assess the damage. They were accompanied by a PA who filmed during the flight. RADM Duncan used a HU-25 Falcon to make the flights as he did not want to use SAR assets, namely helicopters, to make his assessments. The Falcon also allowed for better perspective on the totality of the damage in the area. The rescues by boat were not as well documented as those made by helicopter. Alexandria, as it turned out, was the best place for the Ops Center to have been. Much communication was transmitted by text paging. The level of destruction was well beyond the capabilities of any single government entity, municipal, state, or federal, to respond in kind. Much of what was going on was organizing the effort so that rescuers were supported and managed (not stepping on each other) to maximize capability. Unlike rescue at sea, some people did not wish to be picked up. CAPT Castillo was surprised at how cavalierly people perceived Katrina prior to its landfall on the Gulf Coast. The nature of the Coast Guard provides opportunities for its members to gain real leadership experience.
Having seen the devastation, "You can't get the picture off of sit-reps, you can't get the picture off of TV…it doesn't give you the same perspective as when you can look around and everywhere you look is the same picture…" "The other services are out there training for a war that will probably never happen, we (the Coast Guard) are out there saving lives…"
Q: Captain Sir, if you could you give me your name and spell your last name please?
CAPT Castillo: It’s Captain Joe Castillo; C-A-S-T-I-L-L-O.
Q: And what’s your position here in D-8?
CAPT Castillo: Chief of Operations.
Q: Can you give me sort of a paragraph of your career to this point in the Coast Guard; are you Academy, OCS, how’d you get to this point?
CAPT Castillo: A long and interesting road. I came through the Academy.
Q: What year?
CAPT Castillo: ’78.
Q: Oh, okay.
CAPT Castillo: I stayed mostly in the ops ashore field with staff tours in operations. I’m very fortunate. I’ve been able to stay in the field a long time.
Q: In order to avoid a Headquarters tour?
CAPT Castillo: I’ve avoided a Headquarters tour.
Q: A badge of honor Sir [chuckle].
CAPT Castillo: I don’t know how I have succeeded in making Captain and continued without having a Headquarters tour but I’m not arguing it and I don’t recommend it to other people. I mean there’s definitely some benefit to going there. I think people can do a lot more in a lot of circumstances if they would but it seemed to me to do it the way I’ve done it.
Q: How long have you been here in D-8?
CAPT Castillo: This is my second time in D-8. I was here as an Ensign/JG in the district office a long time ago and then I came back here in 2001 as the group commander here in New Orleans and I was that for three years, and then came over to be Chief of Operations last year.
Q: So you were here as they began this switchover from groups and MSOs to sectors?
CAPT Castillo: Yes.
Q: Were you involved in that at all?
CAPT Castillo: Some of the groundwork preparing for it. I left the year before they created Sector New Orleans. Of course we didn’t know when this stuff was going to happen as it first came out so we were doing a lot of the groundwork for it. I was there for 9/11 and moved the station to its current location of Bucktown from where it used to be with the ISC and then I had to give it up.
CAPT Castillo: Well it’s a great location and the building survived the hurricane well. They told us it could take a direct hit from a CAT 3 when we first moved in and they ended up, I guess, getting about three-and-a-half feet of water in the first deck there. It held together very nicely.
Q: Where were you when all this started? As this thing’s coming across the Gulf I guess you guys have your antennas up and were sort of trying to figure out where it’s going to land and all the rest. At what point did you decide that you had to get out of town and stand up a district somewhere else?
CAPT Castillo: Well we’d been watching it for a while. We thought it was going to go the normal path to Mobile like things have gone the last couple years for a while there and I guess probably Wednesday or Thursday we started getting concerned about whether it was really going to make that or not. Friday we were concerned enough that we stood up an augmented watch in the command center. I wanted to make sure we had a couple extra people in there.
Q: Where was the command center?
CAPT Castillo: Here.
Q: On the 13th deck?
CAPT Castillo: Thirteenth deck.
CAPT Castillo: So we put a couple extra people in there and then looked at moving the A-Team to St. Louis - mostly in case we lost power here. At that point we weren’t really thinking we were going to have to abandon the building. We were thinking more if we lost connectivity we’d have a team up there that could pick up the watch and could keep things going as need be, but then when it kept aiming straight and kept coming further and further to the west heading for New Orleans we decided we needed to get the full team out of here.
CAPT Castillo: So when that happened I had taken my wife up to Monroe. She had oral surgery and I didn’t want her driving by herself so I took her up to my uncle’s house and that was late Friday night. And I was amazed at the number people in the neighborhood that were like “Where are you going?” I said, “ There’s a hurricane coming. You need to get out of here.” Some people said, “What hurricane?” For some reason this snuck up on a lot of the people here in New Orleans and I don’t know why. So I took her up there, dropped her off, came back Saturday and boarded up the house.
Q: Do you live nearby?
CAPT Castillo: I live in Kenner.
Q: Okay. So how did you come through the storm?
CAPT Castillo: How did my house fare?
CAPT Castillo: We got water. We got to do the flooded house thing so everything four foot down got taken out, which is interesting. I’ve never seen my house from that perspective before; that open floor plan approach. And right now I’m trying to get all the pieces to put it all back together because I’m transferring next summer. This is kind of interesting. There are some real timing issues particularly when you don’t have the insurance company telling you how much money you’re going to get but you’ve got to be paying people to do the work, so you don’t know if this is a reasonable price or just where that goes.
Q: Have you found your insurance adjuster yet?
CAPT Castillo: Yes, they came the beginning of the first week of October and said some good things. But I called him the other day and he said that the Insurance Commissioner of Louisiana had said that they had to get the 9th Ward done first, which I can understand. Those people really got clobbered hard. And fortunately I sold the house in Virginia a couple of months ago and made a little bit of money on it and so I’ve got enough of a buffer I can go ahead and pay people and get the work done. I’m just interested to see if I have any money left over from that when it’s all done.
Q: My house was destroyed in a flood ten years ago so I’ve been there and done all that.
CAPT Castillo: Oh no, I’m sorry.
Q: My next-door neighbors were killed in that flood so it was bad, but I’ve been there through the whole . . . seen everything lost.
CAPT Castillo: Where was that at?
Q: In Pennsylvania. We had three different storm fronts that met over our valley one day and dropped fourteen inches of rain in two hours.
CAPT Castillo: Wow!
Q: And we were in the bottom of the bowl [chuckle].
CAPT Castillo: If you can imagine Mexico, Wilma dropped 64 inches of water.
Q: Yes, people don’t realize.
CAPT Castillo: I don’t know how that could happen.
Q: Because all of a sudden the police cars who responded, their cruisers started to float down the street, and until you see the power of water it doesn’t register.
CAPT Castillo: Well a cubic meter is a ton.
CAPT Castillo: And once you realize that and you think about that moving then you kind of start to get an appreciation for it. But yes, people don’t understand much about water.
Q: Yes, and if your house isn’t reinforced . . . I mean we just had un-reinforced cinderblock and cement and when there’s four feet of water on the side of your house it’s pushing with such tremendous force that it just snaps.
CAPT Castillo: Oh yes.
Q: It will scoop out all your shrubs that you’ve nicely planted on the side and it carries the soil away and then it’s pushing even more against the side of the house, and then, “Boom”, it collapses. So you evacuated your charges and what was life like for you the rest of that first weekend?
CAPT Castillo: Well I was going to ride it out just north of the lake, so I could get right back in when it was done; and then there was no connectivity where I was so, I left and ended up back in Alexandria and met up with the Admiral as he was coming back from Houston.
And so we got on a plane about five o’clock and did the first overflight. We’re fortunate that it (the hurricane) sped up towards the end. We didn’t think we were going to have any daylight whatsoever to be able to start the operations.
Q: Which would have been about 5:00 on Monday?
CAPT Castillo: On Monday the 29th.
Q: Yes. So what did you see?
CAPT Castillo: For two hours in a jet, nothing but destruction. We got airborne. We went down to Fourchon, crossed Grand Isle, out to the LOOP (Louisiana Offshore Oil Port), cut back up to the Southwest Pass, up through the Venice area and Port Sulphur, up to Belle Chase; to the western part of the city and cut across the city, which was totally flooded. We went through Slidell and out along the Mississippi coast, and saw for two hours or so nothing but flooding and matchsticks of houses.
Q: Did the LOOP sustain any damage?
CAPT Castillo: The LOOP . . . I think the words we used were, “Grossly intact.” We couldn’t see any real issues with it. Obviously there was something that had gone wrong and we found out later about some things that had broken, but when we went out over all the oil rigs there were no oil spills. There was no sheening and we didn’t see helipads ripped off and cranes at awkward angles and that kind of thing so we thought at that point they’d probably done okay. Grand Isle was beat up pretty good and then as you came up the river everything was underwater until you got within about ten miles of Bellchase.
Q: Who else was on that flight?
CAPT Castillo: Me, Admiral Duncan and Petty Officer Reed was the Public Affairs guy who was covering things and doing photography.
Q: What were you saying to each other?
CAPT Castillo: We were looking for landmarks trying to make certain that we understood the places that we were seeing because you couldn’t see roads, you couldn’t see buildings that you were used to seeing, and that kind of thing. There were an awful lot of just long, long periods of silence. The whole northern half of the city seemed to be underwater, you know, fires in different places; Westling [phonetic], you know the boulevard, the marina there. You know the yacht club was on fire. We went through Slidell. It looked like it was either underwater or else broken up by tornados or heavy winds and stuff. And when we got along the Mississippi coast; Pass Christian, you know the bridge was just gone; just pilings. The houses; all you saw were foundations and matchsticks. I remember writing in my notes, “Matchsticks”. And then we got to Waveland and I couldn’t use that term because these were smaller. I had to come up with something else and wrote, “Dust.” I mean I just couldn’t imagine what the people were going to feel like when they came back.
We couldn’t land in Mobile because the winds were still too strong so we cut back up through, and 60 miles inland there was still no power until we got back in, so it was quite a flight heading back just trying to take in what we had seen and understand it. We heard rescues starting already as we were flying over the city. You could see some helicopters that were hovering below us; you know they were starting to do that kind of thing.
Q: How long have you known Admiral Duncan?
CAPT Castillo: Since he got here. I hadn’t met him before he got here. I’ve been here for two years and so I’ve known him for two; one year as the Group Commander and one year as Chief of Ops.
And so we ended up with most of the staff going to St. Louis obviously because we couldn’t use the building here and stuff. But he needed to be exercising command from forward rather than back in St. Louis just to be at meetings and evaluations that needed to be done. So I became his Forward Chief of Staff for the duration of that evolution.
Q: So you stayed in Alexandria?
CAPT Castillo: We operated out of Alexandria until we were able to secure some lodging down here and came down here to the city and put a forward command element down here.
Q: Do you remember what he said during that flight or the things that you talked about?
CAPT Castillo: I wouldn’t say it was disbelief because if you could see it obviously you had to believe it, but it was just hard to comprehend that much devastation and what it was going to take to . . . we had no idea at that point how many people had really stayed in the city and how many people were going to be rescueable. We knew that rescues were going on. We knew that there had been a lot of discussion about people who had not left the city. We knew there were a lot of people that were in the Superdome. I don’t think we had any idea how many people were on houses that chose to try to ride it out in different parts of the city.
Communications were tough. I would say . . . I mean you couldn’t guarantee that you could get a hold of any person that you wanted to talk to at the time you wanted to talk to them but you could, over the matter of a half an hour or better, you could get some message across whether it was text-paging or something of that nature. But it was real difficult to just get somebody on the phone and have a normal kind of a conversation to understand things.
So we did a lot of flying around and meeting up with General Honoree and getting up to Baton Rouge to see the leadership up there.
Q: When did you first meet with him?
CAPT Castillo: I think it was on the 1st if I remember right. I think it was the 1st. It would be . . . well we met him on the day before so it would have been Tuesday I think is when we saw him.
Q: That Monday night you must have been two or three of the only people in the country who really understood the magnitude of what the rest of the country wouldn’t find out for a while, or several days anyway, before it really started to take hold of everybody’s imagination. Did that change the nature of the response on the part of the Coast Guard that you had had an admiral and an operations captain see this firsthand so quickly and on such a wide area, and knowing that you were going to have to throw a ton of stuff at this?
CAPT Castillo: Definitely. You can’t get the picture off of SITREPs. You couldn’t get the picture off TV. I mean TV was showing it and we didn’t have much time to watch TV, but whenever we went past it there was destruction on it. But you glance over the top of the TV set and you’ve got your living room wall or you’ve got whatever. It really doesn’t give you the same perspective as when you can look around and everywhere you look you see the same picture. So that was something that I don’t think that people really understood until they got in that situation. Frank Paskewich who’s the Sector Commander and Bob Mueller was the deputy; both of them had done hurricane stuff before and both of them were pretty familiar with the area. Bob Mueller was Mobile’s Deputy for a while, Frank’s been here forever, and so they understood real quickly what needed to be done in that regard. Jim Bjostad has gone through a number of hurricanes in Mobile since he’s been there. Some of them call him “Hurricane Jim”. He’s had enough of them.
But yes, having the boss actually be able to see that and when he gets on the phone with Admiral Crea or the Commandant, or he’s talking with General Honoree or he’s talking with everybody else, he can say, “Look, I have flown over it. I have seen it.” Because we probably did . . . we did an assessment that day. The next day we did another assessment and looked further out. We got all the way over to the Mobile area and I think we did another flight the third day. So we were able to see the water receding and understand it from a tactical viewpoint, not just getting reports from other people. So I think that’s one of the things that ought to be understood by anybody who’s going to lead one of these responses in the future is, you do have to get on the ground and see it yourself. You can’t just rely on the reports that you’re getting and really have an appreciation for it.
Q: Was the decision to take a PA, how was that made? Were they filming?
CAPT Castillo: Well he was trying to film.
CAPT Castillo: It was a pretty bumpy flight and the weather and him didn’t mix real well in that regard, but he got some good footage down. And I think it was probably Lieutenant Wyman saying, “Hey, do you have room on the flight? Let me stick somebody on here.”
Q: This was a 65?
CAPT Castillo: No, it was a Falcon.
Q: Oh, it was a Falcon flight?
CAPT Castillo: You know the Admiral said early on, “I’m not going to use a SAR asset to do an over-flight assessment. If you did that we’re taking away from somebody being able to be rescued.” I know that the sector commander who needed to get a lower level view needed to spend some time in a helicopter where he could see things a little further down and they interrupted their first flight ten minutes into it to get out of the 60 because that was a much better SAR asset than the 65, and then take another flight and do it. But the Admiral said early on, “Put me in a jet and I want to be up where I can see the broad picture and where I’m not slowing down any rescue efforts at all.”
Q: I’ve heard that he made a comment at some point early in the operation that when he realized the magnitude of it that he wanted to make the sky orange or darken the sky?
CAPT Castillo: Yes, darken the sky with helos.
CAPT Castillo: Yes, that became a pretty common saying. That was our goal. We wanted people to not be able to see the sun because there were so many helicopters out there pulling them out. And we found out real early just how many people were out there and then we just had to reevaluate our numbers constantly because they would take four people off a roof and as they’re pulling away six more people would climb onto that roof. I don’t know where they came from; don’t know if they were in the house hiding there below or whether they were in a neighboring house and once they saw somebody could get up – “it worked well for this house, I’ll go back to this house”.
Q: “The Coast Guard must be stopping at that house so I’ll go over there.”
CAPT Castillo: Yes, and we had 40 percent of all the helos in the country and every fixed wing air station sent some sort of asset, and as it turned out, I guess, every air station, period, sent people. We had a lot of districts and units way far away from the action who sent boats and people down.
The boat piece of the story hasn’t been as well told and I hope that you’re able to get some of the story on that because half of the people were rescued by boat.
CAPT Castillo: Of course the media zeroed in on the helicopters, which made fabulous footage and that was, you know, the early picture, and I did see some stuff on the boats later on as well but it was mostly on the helicopters.
Q: Was there a sense, or at some point did you have a sense that this was really two disasters laid on top of each other; was there much discussion of that? You had the hurricane . . . .
CAPT Castillo: Right, directly followed by a flood is how it’s described a lot of times. It was not your typical hurricane. We tried really hard to get that point across when Rita was coming in and even within the district we had some folks who were not involved in the immediate response to Katrina, that when Rita was heading into the district it was like, “Well, it’s a hurricane. We’ve done hurricanes before. We do hurricanes.” Now this is a Katrina-type of hurricane. You know there’s a new model that you’ve got to look at and we tried hard to get people to understand that this was not your normal thing.
Q: As that week progressed what were some of the pressures on you folks in Alexandria? At what point were you able to . . . did you stage out of there for the whole response or were you able to get closer to the city, or what were your priorities in terms of where you wanted to be and how you wanted to carry out operations?
CAPT Castillo: Well we needed to have the Admiral close enough so that he could see, first hand, how things were going. He needed to see what was happening at the air station. He needed to see what was happening at the sector. He needed to be in Baton Rouge for a number of meetings and briefings. He needed to be down on the Iwo Jima where General Honoree was holding component commander meetings. We were not a part of the JTF but we were working with them so he needed to be there to let them know what we were doing as well as to find out what they were doing. In Alexandria it was originally where I first heard that that’s where the sector wanted to put their COOP and I was kind of like, “This is crazy. This is too far away”, and all that kind of stuff. It was the best place you could have picked. Had they gone to Baton Rouge, which would have been the other inclination, they would have been inundated. They couldn’t have operated down the streets with the traffic. You know housing was not available. Baton Rouge lost power for a while as well. They maintained in Alexandria until Rita came through and knocked them out for about six hours of power - and you wouldn’t expect that far up that it could happen, but it did. They were in the right spot to do that.
Q: Was that a deliberate decision; Alexandria, as far as just specifically to get out of the chaos of an evacuation of Baton Rouge or why was Alexandria selected?
CAPT Castillo: I think that was something they had come up with this year. Previous years they had gone to a place on the way to Baton Rouge and Captain Paskewich told his planners, “Find me the best spot”, and gave them the parameters of what he was looking for, and they ended up recommending this to him and he was kind of skeptical of that at first. But then when they laid it out for him he said, “Okay, that makes sense.” And they ended up getting an entire convention center there, an entire hotel being converted to Coast Guard use, and they’re still there with an awful lot of folks, so it was really a great spot to do it in. But the Admiral, if he’d been in St. Louis, 700 miles away from where things were happening, he would not have been able to do what he needed to do. He wouldn’t have been able to make the meetings and connect with the people he needed to. He wouldn’t have had the picture that he needed to have. There’s always a danger when you’re at the same command post as one of your elements because Sector New Orleans was just one element and Sector Mobile had issues as well, and so that was one of the things I was trying to stress as we were there was, “We know there’s a huge issue in New Orleans. There are also some huge issues elsewhere. The fact that we’re here in Alexandria doesn’t mean we’re all going to focus on Alexandria”, but it was a whole lot easier to get information about New Orleans being in Alexandria than it was to get information about Mobile being in Alexandria. So that was one of the pressures was making sure that he was continuing to receive the whole scope of the problem because what it was, was a hurricane followed by a flood. It was also not just one city. It was a number of places that went across a pretty broad spectrum. So that was one of the issues - getting communications that were reliable to where you could talk to the person you wanted to at the time you wanted to, was a factor. People had some pretty inventive aids; text-paging. I guess somebody who had a teenager was the first one who said, “Hey, text-page; my text-page is working.”
Q: My daughter taught me how to do that [chuckle].
CAPT Castillo: It was phenomenal. I mean I communicated with my wife the whole time and when that terrible picture came on the screen of the orange helicopter lying on its side and it said, “Coast Guard helo down” underneath it, I looked at it and I said, “You know that’s a Puma. We don’t have Pumas.”
Q: It’s not one of ours.
CAPT Castillo: It’s not ours. And we were in a meeting – and I don’t remember who we were talking too - and I grabbed my phone out of my pocket and quickly text-paged “Not ours, not CG, not me” and text-paged it to my wife because I knew that that thing was going to be on all the screens and she knew I was flying a lot and was kind of concerned about it. So text-paging worked well. We also sent traffic by it. You know going back to the early days of pagers, when those first came out I was using those down in Puerto Rico to send operational tasking because nobody else was going to see it. I was able to type it in myself and so if you were concerned there was a leak someplace about where you were sending the cutter to go on a counter-drug patrol, the only person receiving this was the cutter CO. Nobody was targeting that stuff to be able to intercept it and that kind of thing. At the time it was brand new and nobody knew about it yet. So we’ve got a long history in the Coast Guard of finding that way of getting something through and this worked out pretty well for us. And then of course we got phones out of other area codes and that kind of thing.
Q: For, it seemed about four or five days, this was a Coast Guard operation and then sort of around Wednesday, Thursday, Friday it was as if people were starting to question whether government at all levels was starting to lose control of the situation. Was that the sense from where you were sitting? It seems that . . . I’ve talked to folks higher up in the chain and Admiral Allen telling me that there was this sense between the Chief of Staff and the Commandant that government collectively was losing its grip on the situation and needed to find a way to let the public know that this was going to be brought under control. What was the sense from where you were sitting?
CAPT Castillo: How do I put this? I think we all agreed that it was way more massive a problem than any single city, any single state, should ever have or could deal with, with their own resources. I mean it was clear that this was something that required way beyond what anybody who normally resided within a close proximity to the area could bring to bear. I think our psyche as an organization; the way that the Coasties think and operate is exactly what you needed to make this response work and save the people we did and find ways to make things happen. I’ve seen in a lot of the articles that are coming out about, “Act now, get permission later”, and that kind of stuff. I think what resonates with me is we refused to be blocked. If there’s something that needs doing and it’s the right thing to do the Coasties are going to find a way to make that happen whether it’s within their scope of responsibility or not. If it needs happening they’re going to find a way to make it work. And I think that every place that we had Coasties that were LNOs, they were able to help those organizations pick up a little bit of that and kind of go in the direction they needed to be. But there were definitely some moments of concern about how all that was going to come out. I heard more than one person on our side comment about how glad they were that they weren’t the one who had to deal with it at that other level but I also was confident that any one of them, if they were the person that was responsible for that, would find a way to make it work.
Q: You’re sort of in the center seat in an operation like this. What was going through your mind? What sort of things did you need to get done that first week and then for the weeks after that?
CAPT Castillo: I think the first thing was making sure we were flowing all the resources that Frank Paskewich needed here and that Jim Bjostad needed over in Mobile Sector, and obviously more needed to be flown in here. But at the same time you can’t just throw stuff at it. When people come in and say, “Okay, I’m here to help. I need a place to stay, I need someplace to get my clothing washed, I need some food”, you haven’t helped the person, you’ve added to their burden. So a large part of it we were looking at was how the resources are going to be flowed in here; how are they going to be supported? We knew that you needed . . . you know darken in the sky with helicopters is a great thing as long as you’re not illuminating them on the ground by having crashed them together and ending up with an issue like that. So a big part of it was making sure the comms were going to flow in; that somebody was going to be able to control where planes were going and the planes could see each other and there were not too many in there. When we started doing big tasks we accepted tasking from the JTF to help us in evacuations and really we put the plan together. In fact Admiral Duncan and a JG who had been in the Coast Guard for very short time period; a commissioned aviator, put together the plan for evacuating the Convention Center. The big part of what they’re looking at is okay, you’ve got 12,000 people you’ve got to move so your first thought is put a couple hundred helicopters into it. Well no you can’t because you’ve only got so much space to land and you’ve got so much time it takes to load them. You know what’s the maximum number you can really put against that problem without making it a bigger problem by having people circling in the sky and burning up fuel without a place to land? So that was a big part of what we were looking at. How do we make sure we’ve got enough resources in there to get enough people to spell people who are getting fatigued? I mean making some of these folks take some time off; just 12 hours just to take a break and get some rest, and a couple of weeks into it getting them to take a day or two days off was a real challenge because people didn’t want to do that. They wanted to stay in the fray.
Q: Also it seemed like when the Coast Guard rescues somebody at sea they want to be rescued. They’re drowning. They want you to be in that take charge role and get them out of the water and get them to dry land. This was more of a negotiation. So yes, you had all these people that were on roofs or wherever they were, but it seemed, at least from some of the rescue swimmers and others we talked to, that one of the challenges was sending people down the wire who could talk to people, explain the situation and so forth. So even if you had all these helicopters, as you say, part of the challenge was being able to communicate to people the stress that they were in if they couldn’t see it themselves.
CAPT Castillo: There was one family that was on top of a roof and if I remember it right, my recollection anyway, there was a woman who I believe was pregnant, two small children and then the husband, and they were going to stay. They didn’t want to go. And we’re like, “You’ve got to at least get your kids out of the situation. You can make a decision for yourself if you’re willing to take the risk but don’t be endangering your kids with this.” And I was talking to the legal officer, you know, “What can we do? I mean can we take them whether they want to or not because these kids are likely to die if we don’t get them out of here.” And it ended up in typical fashion that the rescue swimmer had eventually convinced them to come up but in doing that it cost 45 minutes on the rooftop and nearly a full bag of gas. It certainly slowed down being able to get somebody else off of it.
And then there were other places we went to where they simply said, “We’re fine. Go rescue somebody that needs rescuing.” And then as you got further out from the city you got more people who were in that situation who simply weren’t going to come. They were satisfied that the worst was past them. They had survived through that. They had done this kind of stuff before. You know, “Go rescue somebody that needs rescuing. I’m not leaving my property. I’m not leaving my stuff.” I mean it’s like in St. Bernard’s Parish we’re doing a lot of that. And we saw a lot of it with our boat teams and when the boat teams starting going in. I mean the helicopters, you know pretty much people who weren’t on roofs, you know, they were inside. You didn’t know about it unless they were wanting you to know about it so they could kind of hang out. And once we started going through the streets with boats there was one of our boat crew, the guy waved a shotgun in his direction and said, “I’m not leaving my home.” It’s like, “Okay, we’re not asking you to. We’re just here to take you out if you want to leave.”
Q: Yes, it’s kind of an in-between situation. You’re there to rescue people but a lot of people don’t want to be rescued. How much of that is done ahead of time operationally between say Coast Guard, coastal SAR and Air Force inland SAR? Is there a point at which they’re supposed to do the inland piece and the Coast Guard stays on the coast? I mean how much of that stuff is even talked about ahead of time in a situation like this?
CAPT Castillo: Well we didn’t talk about it all when it happened. I mean people needed rescuing. I mean that’s what Coasties do. There was no way that we were going to stop and say, “Well this is urban search and rescue, that belongs under FEMA or that belongs under the Air Force.” It’s just not going to happen. So people need rescuing and we were there. And then as DOD came in on Wednesday and Thursday they started developing these grid plans and getting many more planes in and that kind of stuff, you know that probably was a decent way to do it. Initially we are going to go to where the people are that need saving. We’re not going to spend a lot of time to make sure we’ve gone through a grid when we can see people over there that need help. You’ve got to do them first and then it’s your secondary effort where you’re going through in a bit more methodical approach. The DOD is great at that. They’ve got the machine that grinds through that. Our people have the agility and the flexibility to do that first piece of it, which I think is what made this first piece of it so successful and then what came after that helped to add to that success. But I don’t think you could have done it from the DOD approach to begin with, although DOD did some tremendous things. I heard of one person who called the air station and said, “Hey, I’ve got a couple of helicopters. Can you use a hand”, and they said, “Well do you have to get permission from somebody?”, and I think it was a major who said, “Permission hell, I’ve got the keys!” [Chuckle] And they flew over and got tasked and started doing stuff. I mean to this day I don’t think that we have good clarity on every asset that we ended up giving tasking to, especially in the air piece of things. But we weren’t about trying to get that tracked down. We were about getting the mission done.
Q: Whoever showed up, send them into the field.
CAPT Castillo: Yes.
Q: Is there any . . . I mean you’ve got a nice view from up there, especially from a city that’s under the potential of being flooded. Is there any thought given to keeping somebody here with 20 gallons of water and a pair of binoculars?
CAPT Castillo: No, I want everybody out of here. When I heard that . . . you know when we stay here for hurricanes, we’ve done it a number of times and a lot of times it’s the right thing to do, but if we’ve got . . . one of the things I was asking in the beginning was like, “Tell me the tripwire.” You know we get the senior staff together and we talk about, “What do we need to do with this hurricane that’s coming”, and I’m saying, “Before you get too wrapped up in it tell me what the tripwire is at which point you’re all going to agree that nobody should be in the building. I don’t want to wait until we’re arguing the merits of that particular case.” It’s kind of like if you’re going to talk about awards and what the right level is for kinds of things, you don’t do it with a person’s award in front of you. You do it in general terms first so that you have a line that you can draw when you’re not emotionally invested in one person. I didn’t want to be emotionally invested in the storm and be like, “Well, it went up a little bit more but I think we’re still okay.” I mean I want to say flat out, “If it’s a CAT 4 coming up the river or better we’re not staying, period. If it’s less than a CAT 4 we’ll talk about and we’ll work some things through.”
Q: And there’s a definite sense that a CAT 4 is much different than a CAT 3, is much different than a CAT 1 and so forth?
CAPT Castillo: Yes. And a CAT 3 . . . I think if it was a fast moving CAT 3 coming through we might have left a team here, I’m not certain. But my argument, when the Admiral asked me, I said, “Yes, a CAT 4 or better coming up the river, to my mind there’s no question, get the people out of here.” And then my concern was get them out now so they can actually get out and not be sitting on the interstate when the thing hits because everybody else has waited until the end to try to get out. And that’s always a tough call for us because we want to leave people as we long as we can. We’ve got a mission to the public that we’re trying to serve. We don’t want to be the first people out of the city but at the same time I don’t want our people to be stuck; unable to leave, once we decide that they need to leave. So we had to do a lot of working around with that. And as it ended up we sent the second team off to Alexandria, I believe it was Sunday morning and then the other team got in the car, or a variety of cars, and started working their way to Alexandria and took some pretty long circuitous paths to get there because of the situation we had at that point. But we’d flown the other team off while we still had time to fly them.
Q: Who would have requested the Spencer or another cutter to come up the river and dock here; would that be the Admiral or is that the Sector Commander?
CAPT Castillo: Well we had said right away we had needed to get a major cutter up here for communications and the 270s' got a wonderful communications suite. We’d already asked for the TMMAC vans from LANT Area; the communications vans. Frankly I think they just need to be stationed down here during the hurricane season and if they want to take them back up off-season, fine, but during the season it needs to be here. So who was it that first said Spencer, I don’t know, but there was concurrence. You know everybody was thinking along those lines that we needed that asset up here pretty quick. But then of course it’s also a reassuring presence to see that red stripe there.
Q: Yes. Is that in the thinking that we need to put it in a specific visible place so people see that ?
CAPT Castillo: We wanted it visible for that reason and then as we looked to get people out of Chalmette it worked out well. It was an on-scene commander for that operation as well. I mean it doesn’t have the presence of the Iwo Jima when she finally showed up here, you know that massive thing dwarfing it, but I think early on seeing that the Coast Guard’s back here in the city. They see the helicopters flying over. They see the cutter on the news downtown. I think they get a good feeling that things are going to be okay.
Q: I’ve heard it a couple of ways was that it’s much more reassuring than a grey hull because when you see a grey hull you know you’re at war [chuckle].
CAPT Castillo: Yes.
Q: When the Coast Guard’s there you’re sort of reassured, when the Navy’s there you’re sort of jittery.
CAPT Castillo: Yes, I think it’s not as imposing or as impressive perhaps, but I agree, much more reassuring.
Q: Was there anything about this that surprised you; that surprised the plans that you might have done differently had you been through this before?
CAPT Castillo: I think it definitely changed our perspective on Rita coming through and perhaps as we talked to some of the affected areas where we thought Rita was going to go, trying to get across and looking at it like, “You think you’ve been through hurricanes before. Yes you have but you haven’t been through this. I mean trust me on this, this is different. What you’re telling me about, ‘We’re going to do this, we’re going to do that, and everybody’s going to be okay’, you know you’re not doing enough. You need to take another step beyond in recognizing this.” I was surprised at how slow some people were to realize that. I just got a bad feeling from this one. It was just too big. It wasn’t right. And I was surprised at how cavalier a lot of people were treating this storm as it first came into the Gulf because some of us were getting a bad feeling about it from the very beginning. And so trying to convince those people that, “Hey, you need to take this thing seriously and you need to get people out of here.” And like I said, my neighborhood was . . . I was really surprised. And they generally, you know once I tell them, “You need to get out of here”, they’d say, “Well the Coast Guard’s saying we need to go”, but this time some of them didn’t even know that it was coming. I think there are a lot of people who never believed it really could happen, you know the overtopping of the levees or the levee breach or flood in the city, that kind of thing. It certainly didn’t flood the way that we expected it to. I mean we expected downtown to be underwater and it wasn’t. I was surprised to find out that the reason my house flooded really wasn’t the hurricane but it was because the Parish President of Jefferson Parish turned off the pumps when he got everybody out of town. I understand they’re making t-shirts that say, “Katrina flooded New Orleans, Broussard flooded Kenner.” [Chuckle]
Q: Is that an elected position Sir [laughter]?
CAPT Castillo: Yes.
Q: Tough luck.
CAPT Castillo: But I think he’s got some election issues coming up for himself I think and he made the absolute right call in getting the people out of there and that was the right thing to do.
Q: He just needed an auto-pilot.
CAPT Castillo: What he wanted to do was not leave the pumps running because they might burn up. Well okay. I think I would have taken the risk and put them on half power or something.
CAPT Castillo: If one burns up, okay, but at least we maybe would have kept the place from flooding.
Q: What’s the most memorable thing you remember out of this experience?
CAPT Castillo: I guess it was the people that I would see that came in off a mission with a 2,000-yard stare. I mean they were way beyond a thousand yard stare and they would just collapse wherever they could and you were wondering if you ought to be calling for the doc. And then they’d hear a boat or plane was heading out again and they jumped up on their feet and they were running back out to it to go back out there and do it again. And I knew that these people lost their own homes. They didn’t know really where their family was. They knew their family had gotten on the road to head out but they hadn’t necessarily heard back from their family that they were okay. And so our people, putting aside their personal issues to go and just go so far beyond what you’d assume the limits of human endurance are, this was just phenomenal.
Our standardization in training of procedures is just a fantastic thing that the Coast Guard has done because you would see boat crews and air crews get together. They never met each other before three minutes past when they first stepped into the asset and with all the procedures and everything they could function as a fully functioning team. But it’s the people. It’s all about the people.
Q: In your experience as an officer, how does the Coast Guard develop leadership skills?
CAPT Castillo: I think we give people opportunities. I served with the Army for a while in Haiti. I’ve lived on a base that had all the branches represented so I’ve seen some of the other services but I’ve never really spent time in any great degree. But I see that our people in a more junior level are given more responsibility. Now that’s not to denigrate what the others do. I mean if somebody’s a platoon commander taking people into combat it’s pretty hard to get more responsibility than that, but that doesn’t happen all that often, whereas our folks are getting some pretty significant responsibilities pretty early on and I think we generally do a pretty good job of letting people learn instead of stepping in to say, “Well you really need to do it this way.” We allow people to make mistakes. I hear a lot about, in some of the written stuff, about the “Zero Defect Mentality” and, “We don’t tolerate mistakes”, and that kind of stuff. I haven’t seen that in my career. My boss has tolerated a heck of a lot of mistakes from me and I’ve accepted a few mistakes from my folks [chuckle]. You sit down with them and you work through why this happened and what you can learn from it so it doesn’t get repeated. But I think that’s one of the strengths that I’ve seen. What I’ve seen and heard from the other services, it seems like they hand your head to you a whole lot faster whereas our folks are given that opportunity to go do it themselves and to have it not succeed the way you would like, to learn from it and keep on doing something else.
Q: And you’ve just been back here for a couple of days now?
CAPT Castillo: Yes, I’ve been down in New Orleans . . . we got back in; it’s probably over a month now. We worked out of Alexandria for a couple of weeks and then we were able to get some space at Naval Station Algiers. So I’m living in an RV over there with . . . I got my wife down here after a couple of weeks, so her and me, the two cats, the dog and a parrot in an RV. It’s kind of fun. But we got space over there so we had a forward command element down in here in New Orleans for better than a month now and we just came back to occupy the building along with everybody else in the last couple of days.
Q: What do you take from this, and for you personally in your own career, as you move forward?
CAPT Castillo: I think that . . . I mean I had the opportunity to leave last year. I was done at the group and I could have gone elsewhere and I chose to stay in the 8th District to come over and be Chief of Ops. So a lot of people have said, “Man, you made the wrong decision, you could have left.” For me it’s the right decision. I mean I’m not thrilled about what happened to my house and everything else but I’ve always been somebody who wanted to be where things were going on. I’ve always felt the field is more where I belong. This was the closest I could be to the field being the Chief of Operations. I would have loved to have still been at the group to help lead this stuff but I really . . . I was over there the other day and I’m looking around and so many of the people are the people I worked with when I was there. I’m just so damn proud of them. I was walking around talking to them about what they did and how they were prepared to deal with it. So I feel pretty good about having been at the group before this and some of the things that we collectively did to help make things better and prepare ourselves better for this kind of thing, and I never really anticipated that this was going to happen. And so I guess that’s one of the take aways that I put onto a slide for the Admiral to brief at the All Flags is, “Prepare like you really believe it can happen because it can.”
Q: Is that a difficult transition for an operator to get to the captain level and sort of leave that operational level of the military behind?
CAPT Castillo: For me it is. I mean I have gone to staff jobs kicking and screaming. And every staff job I’ve had except one, well I taught Operations at the Academy. I was Chief of Military Personnel for two years and I was Deputy Inspector for one year so I’ve got 27 years in. I’ve had three years that were not either in the field or in a staff job - as in an operational staff job. So that’s me in a sense. It’s not what I tell people they ought to do for a career path. It doesn’t lead to a well-rounded officer. It doesn’t allow you to be as valuable to the service as you could be. I accept all that. It’s just what my passion was and what I think my strength is, and I feel fortunate that I was in a position to be able to help use that.
Q: Is there anything that you would have; resources, personnel, policy, you would have liked to have had in this situation that you’d like to have for the next one?
CAPT Castillo: Well there are certainly some things that we’ve thought about in terms of communications resources and how we can do that better. We got these TREOs (email phones) now. I mean I’m going to have mine programmed with multiple area code numbers in it so if we lose a network I can shift to another one and maintain that.
We’re going to recommend that as we go to Minimize for something like this, that some other pieces automatically happen. You know if I get on the computer and I try to send a file and I’ve exceeded the size of my in-basket, I can’t get to my in-basket. So we’re going to work to get some of those things automatically with the punch of a button; as soon as you say, “Minimize”, you know those kinds of things come off.
Inquiries about travel claim audits fall out of the system for 30 days until you get things back. You know these nuisance things that don’t . . . .
Q: Can we get make that 120 days Sir [chuckle]?
CAPT Castillo: Yes, that would work. Here the Admiral’s dealing with this stuff and then he’s getting an e-mail about the status of a travel claim audit. He gets four e-mails in and on this one time he gets some connectivity and one of them is something as wasted as that. So we’re looking at that kind of thing.
I think it really showcased for me the strength of having people who have gained experience in career paths. We had Frank Paskewich who has spent his life in the marine safety field. He was a sector commander. His personal experience with salvage and pollution was used to great effect. He didn’t have much experience in search and rescue as a sector commander. He turns to his deputy Bob Mueller and says, “Bob, let me know what’s going on with this and . . .”
Q: You’ve got that piece of it.
CAPT Castillo: “. . . but I need you to run that part of it.” And Bob had spent all his life doing this kind of stuff. So I think there’s definitely some concerns down the way, “How do we make certain that we keep that high level of expertise because if we’re looking at our own force to have that experience level, they’ve had half their time in staff jobs and half the time in the field, then we’re looking at maybe six years of experience in the field on that versus what your 0-6 is going to bring.” So we need to be very careful that we look at that kind of background as we’re putting our units together. I know they’re focusing mostly on executive leadership skills, that’s important. But my personal and professional opinion, particularly based on what I’ve see here, is we need to have people that have grown up with specialty knowledge. You know you can’t be a complete generalist when it comes to this kind of stuff.
Q: Yes, there’s really no possibility of being a line officer in the Coast Guard I guess.
CAPT Castillo: Yes, they’re going to have to define Line a little differently perhaps.
Q: Right. Well Captain Sir, I want to thank you very much.
CAPT Castillo: Thank you.
Q: Is there anything else you wanted to add while we have you here?
CAPT Castillo: You know a lot of people talk about this being the Coast Guard’s finest hour and that kind of stuff. I continue to be stopped by people who know I’m in the Coast Guard or see me in the uniform and talk about what people did for them and just express their gratitude, and that’s a pretty damn good feeling. I remember when I first got to the Academy in the first week somebody said that one of the instructors said, “While the other services are preparing for a war they pray will never happen we’re out there saving lives”, and that resonated with me then. Boy, it really resonates now with what our folks have done. And I hope our people really understand just how significant it is what they’ve have done because this is not a once in a career event. This is not even a once in a lifetime event. This is a once in the services’ lifetime event. There maybe half a dozen similar things by the time whatever happens to the Coast Guard in 200 years from now that changes us into. . . I think we’ll be around forever. Whenever they close the books on the Coast Guard there may be half a dozen things tops in that entire four or five or six hundred year period that would go down as major events and this is going to be one of them.
END OF INTERVIEW