Oftentimes during a crisis, an iconic image or object defines that moment. During the search and rescue effort following landfall of Hurricane Katrina, several of those images and relics became a hallmark of Aug. 29, 2005, the day the massive storm ravaged the Gulf Coast. To the men and women stationed at Coast Guard Air Station New Orleans, the air station’s sign became that iconic relic. The sign, which is safely at rest awaiting its permanent home in the future National Coast Guard Museum, became a beacon of hope for so many. It was battered, bruised and leveled by Katrina, but it was never counted down and out.
The Air Staton New Orleans sign has come to represent so much more than the building itself. It epitomizes Team Coast Guard, resiliency, relentless determination and grit – all characteristics shared by the Coast Guard service members who answered the call to duty, post-storm. The story of how it came to rest in the Coast Guard’s Heritage Assest Collection has as many twists and turns as the gorgeous wrought iron surrounding the sign. The sign’s journey begins when Air Station New Orleans flight crews returned to the air station on the back end of Katrina. One aircrew dropped off EM2 Rodney Gordon, who was essentially responsible for putting the air station back together.
“I was on the last helicopter to leave and the first one to come back,” Gordon said. “If my memory serves me correctly, I’m pretty sure the air station’s public works department was first to find the sign.”
The sign, like so many other structures, had fallen victim to Katrina. Bruce Jones, a retired Coast Guard captain who was the commanding officer of the air station when Katrina made landfall, said the sign had been knocked off its base. Its home, up until Katrina, was at the entry drive to the air station. When the Air Station New Orleans crews returned to the air station immediately after Katrina to inspect the facilities, it was to determine if fuel was available and if the air station was going to be operable. The sign was not visible from the angle the crews flew in.
“The sign was not something we would have been thinking about other than we were updating the total number of lives saved because at the time we were planning an anniversary celebration for the air station,” Jones said. “We were planning on having an anniversary party for the air station that September so we were keeping the total lives saved updated on that sign, but we didn’t know the sign would become symbolic of Katrina. Of course, the anniversary party never happened.”
It was a couple of days later that someone realized the sign was no longer standing. It was then that the sign was salvaged and propped up against a building on the air station’s ramp - most likely the safety office.
From the moment the sign was resurrected, its transformation began: What was once dubbed Air Station New Orleans was affectionately nicknamed Air Group New Orleans. An unknown person covered the original words “Air Station” with a piece of plywood and wrote, in black ink or black paint, “Air Group” New Orleans. This was done to acknowledge the multitude of Coast Guard servicemembers from around the United States who answered the call to Katrina.
Additionally, in the bottom left corner of the sign, a second piece of plywood was affixed to the existing sign, painted white with the names of every Coast Guard air station that supported Katrina rescue operations. Today, due to exposure to the elements, the two remaining, legible names are Air Station Savannah and Air Station Kodiak. At one point, someone spray painted “Lives Saved” on the sign and the number was updated as crews returned to the air station.
In the years following Hurricane Katrina, this sign that unified the entire aviation community, needed rescuing of its own. Circa summer 2006, the team at Air Station New Orleans had to find a new home for the sign. Calls were made, buttons were pushed, and favors cashed in – the Air Station New Orleans sign found a new home in the The Louisiana State Museum in the heart of New Orleans. For the next 10 years, until 2017, the sign was viewed by thousands, until the Coast Guard came calling.
The Coast Guard was ready to welcome the sign into its Heritage Assest collection, but one small hurdle stood in the way. Funding fell through to transport the sign up to Washington D.C., so the sign had to find a temporary residence. Back to Air Station New Orleans it went to await funding for relocation. Finally, in 2019 a flatbed trailer arrived at the air station, and it was loaded and secured in preparation for transport to Forestville, Maryland. This is where things start to get interesting, again.
Meet Larry Hall and Arlyn Danielson. Larry Hall is a retired Coast Guard captain, with 30 years of service, who spent a sizeable chunk of his career as a Coast Guard aviator. In his retirement years, he volunteers with the Coast Guard Historian's Office. Arlyn Danielson is a curator with the Coast Guard Historian’s Office. Hall and Danielson were at the Forestville, Maryland, warehouse, the primary location of the Coast Guard’s Heritage Assest Collection, on an unassuming day in March 2019 when the warehouse doorbell rang. The date, to be exact, was March 14, 2019. The time was approximately 11:20 a.m.
“This guy shows up with a huge flatbed and this sign that would barely fit through the garage bay door,” Hall said. “He said ‘I’ve got this for you, where do you want it?’ I’m thinking what now? He backed up the truck and he had nothing else to offload it.”
The success of the entire offload plan rested in Danielson’s forklift driving skills. According to Hall, there wasn’t a Plan B or C. Danielson and her forklift driving skills were Plans A, B and C. The duo had one objective: The driver was going to leave with an empty trailer, no matter what.
“Luckily Arlyn was trained on the forklift,” Hall said. “She’s really good with the forklift, but she won’t tell you that. This thing is big, it’s heavy, there’s a huge gap between the flatbed and the warehouse door. How do we safely get it off the flatbed and into the warehouse? It was well packaged to go on the truck, but how do we go from there? It took us a while to get it into the ideal position to safely get it off the flatbed.”
Over the next three hours, Hall and Danielson worked carefully to get the sign off the truck and into the warehouse. The sign arrived bolted to the flatbed, fully encased in a protective layer of plywood, and covered with a packing blanket under tightly fitted tie-downs.
“We did work very slowly and carefully. The driver took the tie-downs off, and we had to unnail and unbolt it,” Hall said. “Nothing about this evolution was fast. Having grown up in the Coast Guard, fast can be stupid. We didn’t want to screw this up, so we had to be very deliberate in every action we took. Now remember, at this point, we still didn’t know what this thing was. We knew it was a sign, but not until we peeled the layers off did we realize what it was and that it was going to be a key artifact in the museum with the meaning it has.”
Finally, after the painstaking evolution of getting this larger-than-life sign over the gaping lip between the warehouse bay and the flatbed, at around 3 p.m. on March 14, 2019, the sign made its way into the warehouse. Hall estimates it was 3:20 p.m., the same day, that he was able to peel off a singular piece of protective paneling.
“I picked the wrong side to start taking off the coverings,” Hall said. “It was the back end, but, again, how was I supposed to know? It wasn’t marked front or back. Still, I approached it slowly and carefully.”
As the clock slowly approached quitting time, and Hall’s volunteer hours were ending for the week, he set down the crowbar and headed home. The sign remained covered, for another week, until Hall returned for his next set of volunteer hours.
Finally, on March 21, 2019, one week later, Hall had the honor and privilege to remove the remainder of the panels, and it was then that he realized the enormity of what he discovered.
“We finally got the front side off, and I thought ‘Man, this thing is special,’” Hall said. “The whole Coast Guard converged on that air station. It was an all-hands response. There was resilience to that air station.”
To date, the Air Station New Orleans sign is one of the largest pieces in the Heritage Assest Collection. It stands well protected in a temperature and light controlled environment awaiting the day it can call the National Coast Guard Museum home. When that day finally comes, the Air Station New Orleans sign will welcome visitors, especially Hurricane Katrina responders, with open arms ready to tell the story of bravery, heroism and grit.
The irony of this sign is that it also exudes an air of resiliency, just like the Coast Guard crews that responded to Hurricane Katrina. It’s been through a lot. It survived Hurricane Katrina. It survived the harsh weather elements of New Orleans for two years while awaiting transport to the Louisiana State Museum, and a second two-year stint while awaiting transport to Forestville, Maryland. It survived a road trip from Louisiana to Maryland, and it survived a three-hour offloading evolution. This sign, like the Coast Guard men and women who dedicate their lives in service to others, is a true testament to Team Coast Guard.