Sheriff's response to Katrina prepared them to protect Victoria
Five years ago, four SWAT team members from the Victoria County Sheriff's Office were coming home from what they described as a war zone on American streets.
The men had spent five days stationed out of a gutted Walmart near New Orlean's 9th Ward in response to Gov. Rick Perry's call for help after Hurricane Katrina.
"We basically didn't know what we were going to run into," SWAT team leader Lt. Phillip Dennis said about being deployed two weeks after the storm that took 1,836 lives. "We didn't know if the water had gone down, didn't know what buildings were destroyed. We were kind of going in blind."
Sgt. Ryan Mikulec said he had seen on TV the situation in New Orleans but assessing the damage first-hand provided a different perspective.
"The trash, clothes, belongings and all the stuff that those people left behind when they did get out was all lying in the road," he said. "It was a really surreal experience. It seemed so much bigger once you were there and in the middle of it."
Dennis and Mikulec were accompanied by Cpl. Mark Zimmer and Deputy Mark Allen.
Sheriff T. Michael O'Connor said he took a few days to prepare to send his men in the department's only two pickups and equipped them with satellite phones to ensure reliable, daily communication.
O'Connor also sent an old squad car and two cowboys from his ranch - Ruben Hernandez and Paul Kofsky - to transport supplies in a cattle trailer through the city that was completely "unlivable."
"We went in hand with pretty much everything to be self-sufficient," O'Connor said. "It's like going camping. You have no resources and you're going to have to rely on yourself."
Once the SWAT team arrived in New Orleans, Dennis said they registered with law enforcement in the state and were paired with the New Orleans Police Department, state police and sheriff's offices based out of Wisconsin and Virginia, among other law enforcement officials from around the country.
The men were tasked with patrolling and doing safety checks in the 9th Ward, which was one of the areas hardest hit by both the storm and criminal activity.
"You heard about all kinds of things transpiring throughout the night - gunfire, shoot-outs, looting, gang members," Dennis said. "It felt like lawlessness and a time to run rampant through the streets."
The men were put up by a Baton Rouge church and traveled an hour-and-a-half to the Walmart, where other law enforcement were staying and operating.
In particular, Dennis and Mikulec recalled an 80-year-old New Orleans police officer who was sleeping in a confiscated limousine in the store's parking lot.
The SWAT members said they felt compelled to aid their fellow officers in New Orleans, many of whose uniforms and supplies were destroyed in the storm and whose families were evacuated.
"There's always the blue line," Dennis said. "You tend to trust those who wear the badge, and you hope they're of the same character and person you are."
Mikulec said the trip also benefited the SWAT team.
"We felt like it was a challenge and something that we could gain some experience from because that could have easily happened here," he said. "And I would hope they would come hundreds of miles away to assist us."
The SWAT team's experience in New Orleans would come in handy sooner than anyone thought.
O'Connor said he called the men back from Louisiana and withheld a second SWAT team he was planning to send when Hurricane Rita was threatening to hit Victoria.
Another team and the Sheriff himself responded to the Beaumont area, which O'Connor said he saw as another opportunity to learn how to protect his community.
"You can have all the training programs you want, all the manuals, policies and procedures," O'Connor said. "But until you experience it firsthand... knowledge is power. And we now have great knowledge to serve the community for their protection and well-being."