Outdoor Life Online Editor

With the entire infrastructure of coastal Louisiana and Mississippi virtually shut down or destroyed following Hurricane Katrina, it came down to people with the self-reliant skills of sportsmen to save the day. Few people better possess those skills than wildlife enforcement officers who are routinely called upon to help search for and rescue people lost in the wilderness or stranded on boats.

“Before the storm even hit, I had 61 officers staged in the center of the state and ready to go,” says Lt. Col. Keith LaCaze with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF). And others were at the ready in different locations. That first morning after the storm, nearly all of the department’s approximately 250 officers would find themselves working nonstop to rescue people from flooded and destroyed homes.

“Every single one of our officers responded and we still needed more help,” LaCaze says. And help did indeed arrive from fellow wildlife officers.

The first of two Texas contingents boasting 50 officers each arrived the next day. Wildlife enforcement personnel from Missouri, Ohio, Minnesota, Michigan, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and Illinois would also arrive to help. Other agencies similarly rushed officers to Mississippi.

“We wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what we did without the other guys,” says LaCaze. “Game wardens are game wardens. It doesn’t matter where they come from. They are all the same type of people. They all have a lot of heart and they all work hard.” By the time the rescue effort had concluded, LDWF Enforcement Division agents rescued more than 20,000 people. To be sure, other agencies and citizen volunteers pitched in to help. After an initial request for help from boatowners, LDWF finally had to turn some of them away there were so many that wanted to help.

[pagebreak] In other storm-related news:

  • In addition to donations by Triton and Mercury of boats and motors for use in rescue efforts, outdoor mega-suppliers Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s also ponied up items for evacuees such as tents, boots, sleeping bags, water and other goods.

  • The nation’s hunting and conservation organizations also rushed to help. The National Wild Turkey Federation gave $50,000 to help in the four states hit by Katrina, while Ducks Unlimited has pledged to work with its partners and provide $15 million to restore wetlands damaged by the storm.

  • Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry (fhfh.org) has begun efforts to organize donations of game meat to be delivered to those displaced by the storm. Meanwhile, hunters looking to donate meat can also check out NRA’s on-line Hunters for the Hungry Clearinghouse (nrahq.org/hunters), a state-by-state listing of groups who coordinate donations of game to people in need.

  • The one-two punch of hurricanes Katrina followed by Rita has been devastating to both the region’s wildlife and fisheries. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared the gulf region a disaster area as the storms resulted in a complete shutdown of the commercial fishing industry due to flooding, damaged boats and marinas, clogged waterways and closed processing facilities. The charter and recreational fishing industry faired no better. Meanwhile, huge fish die-offs were witnessed as salt water was blown miles inland during both Katrina and Rita inundating freshwater swamps and canals.

Hunting seasons in some coastal Louisiana parishes were postponed or completely shut down due to the number of trees down across roads and in the forest and the dangers leaning trees that still may fall posed. As for the fish dieoffs, it’s still too early to get a firm estimate, but millions are expected to die as they did following Hurricane Andrew in 1992 when between 175 million and 187 million fish were killed.

  • Between sunken boats and floodedd oil refineries, damage from oil-polluted waters was extensive. NOAA reported more than 1,000 pollution incidents in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana alone. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard estimated more than 7 million gallons of petroleum may have been spilled in the gulf along the Louisiana coast.

  • Damage to gulf state refuges and parks were massive. Katrina was blamed for causing as much as $90 million in damages to federal wildlife refuges alone in Lousiana, while Rita’s destruction was placed at $41.7 million.

  • Louisiana wildlife authorities say Hurricane Rita has turned the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge from 125,000 acres of pristine marshland into “a brown, dying marsh littered with metal chemical tanks, refrigerators and shattered houses.” It is one of three federal refuges in southwest Louisiana that remains closed to hunting, much to the dismay of many irate sportsmen who typically hunt the land.