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Cover Story

November 21, 2005
Volume 83, Number 47
p. 17

A Civil Defense

PPG's Jerry Merchant's experience as a rescuer after Katrina helped guide his preparations for Rita

Marc Reisch

PPG Photo

After The Storm Merchant on a rescue mission in New Orleans.

Jerry Merchant has a number of jobs at PPG’s Lake Charles, La., chemical complex where he has worked for 24 years. In calmer moments, he is a workers’ compensation and medical supervisor. In more desperate circumstances, he is the head of one of the firm’s rescue teams.

The more desperate moments that recently required his rescue skills came twice: once with Hurricane Katrina, which smacked New Orleans at the end of August, and a second time when Hurricane Rita rolled in a month later.

The first storm hardly touched the PPG plant. But Merchant and nine other PPG volunteers went into New Orleans in boats and rescued 150 people marooned in their homes. “We are members of the Louisiana Mutual Aid Association. When the call went out for help, we answered,” Merchant explains.

With support from PPG’s plant manager, the team took two boats and met with civil defense officials in Baton Rouge. Assigned to search house to house for survivors in a flooded area of New Orleans, the crews launched their boats from Interstate Highway 10 three days after the storm came through. “We brought all our own supplies—medical equipment, stretchers, ropes, pullies, and rescue hoists. We had to be totally self-sufficient because there was nothing in New Orleans.”

What Merchant saw was devastation. “What the winds didn’t get, the floodwaters did,” he said. Many people were in relatively good shape, and they walked out neck deep in sewer-contaminated water to meet the boats. Others had to be taken out on stretchers. Several people rescued had run out of heart medication or insulin and needed medical attention.

Merchant and his crew took the evacuees to a triage center for attention about a mile away from the search area. From there, the most seriously hurt people were taken by helicopter to a hospital. Others, who were hungry and dehydrated, got food and water. “It was a busy sight,” he says. “I hope I never see such a sight again.”

After seven hours in their boats, the crews returned to the triage point and helped all night supporting operations where about 5,000 people were gathered, Merchant says. Though he and the other PPG rescuers were tired, they were prepared to stay and go into New Orleans a second day. However, they were ordered out when reports came through of shots fired at rescuers in New Orleans.

Government authorities “threatened to take our equipment if we didn’t leave,” Merchant says. Before the PPG group left for home, they helped get people on more than 100 buses to move them to safer ground.

When Hurricane Rita came through a month later, it walloped PPG’s Lake Charles plant. Merchant, however, was preoccupied with preparations for the storm in his hometown of Vinton, which is 21 miles west of PPG’s plant. Merchant is the civil defense director for the town, and Rita was heading directly for it.

“My experiences during Katrina helped me make better decisions for Rita and be better prepared.” He had seen so many people in dire straits after they rode out the storm in New Orleans that he encouraged people to evacuate the town before the storm hit, and 92% were out of the way when it did, including his own family.

“My wife and I have an agreement. When a big storm comes in, she takes the children and grandchildren and leaves town so I don’t have to worry about them.” Merchant, along with nine firefighters, 14 police officers, and some local officials, “hunkered down” in the town’s new police department and elementary school buildings to ride out the storm.

Because the town is 30 miles from the Gulf, it was unaffected by the storm surge, Merchant explains. But the winds and rain took their toll. The electrical and telephone systems were heavily damaged. Downed trees blocked roads. During the storm, as winds blew at 60 mph, Merchant and fire officials put out an electrical fire at a home in town. They had to let a fire at a second home burn when winds reached 120 mph.

Several houses in town were destroyed by wind and falling trees, Merchant says. His own home took roof damage, and a number of trees came down in his yard. “Many 150-year-old trees are gone. The total appearance of the town has changed,” he says.

For the first week, as work crews cleared roads, Merchant says Vinton officials discouraged people from coming back to town. By the eighth or ninth day, business owners were allowed back to check on damage. Two weeks after the storm, power was largely restored and people could come home again.

“Tree removal and restoration work is still going on,” Merchant says. And he and his neighbors are grateful for the large group of out-of-towners who have come to Vinton to help.



Jack Stocker, University of New Orleans
Ulrike Diebold and Larry Byers, Tulane University
Jerry Merchant, PPG
Eric Broussard, Xavier University
Cheryl Stevens, Xavier University, and Ed Stevens, University of New Orleans
Saundra Y. McGuire, Isiah M. Warner, and Luigi G. Marzilli, Louisiana State University
William L. Strayham, DuPont
N. Dale Ledford, University of Southern Mississippi
Gerald R. Ehrman, DuPont
Bruce C. Gibb, University of New Orleans
Nitsa and Zeev Rosenzweig’s group, University of New Orleans

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
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