sponsors

Home
Jobs
What are PMCs ?
List of PMCs
News
Downloads
Videos
Links
About this site
Contact
Recommend this site
naval-security.net


Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /www/htdocs/v031718/pf_4/administrator/components/com_docman/classes/DOCMAN_model.class.php on line 291

Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /www/htdocs/v031718/pf_4/administrator/components/com_docman/classes/DOCMAN_model.class.php on line 291

 

News Categories

 
Blackwater: On American Soil Print

By JOANNE KIMBERLIN AND BILL SIZEMORE - July 27, 2006

NEW ORLEANS — Every day, storm victims still line up at FEMA’s disaster relief centers. Time has only fueled their frustration.

It’s been nearly a year since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, and huge swaths of New Orleans remain in rubble. Red tape, mix-ups or dead ends can easily trigger a boil-over.

The people who work for the Federal Emergency Management Agency usually catch the wrath.

“Let me put it to you this way,” says Gary Marratta, one of the agency’s security coordinators. “We used to go out in T-shirts with a big 'FEMA’ across the back. We don’t do that anymore – ever since this one guy told me, 'You know, that space between the 'E’ and the 'M’ makes a pretty good target.’”

Blackwater USA protects FEMA’s Katrina staff – a contract that has cost taxpayers $73 million through the end of June, or about $243,000 a day.

Tony Yates runs the Blackwater security crew assigned to a disaster relief center set up in the city’s downtown public library. FEMA’s workers at the library are mostly women – local teachers recruited after the storm destroyed their schools. They hunch over rows of laptops, interviewing applicants at long tables jammed between bookshelves. They’re not accustomed to the kind of rage that can come their way.

“Sometimes they see it building in the person they’re talking to,” Yates says, “but they’re too intimidated to call us over. So we keep an eye on body language.”

He also keeps an ear cocked for the code. This week, it’s “blue form.” If a worker raises her voice and asks for one, a Blackwater guard strolls over and hovers. One look at his sturdy presence – and the dull-black sheen of the 9 mm Glock on his hip – persuades most tough customers to rein it in. Two to three times a month, Yates says, someone leaves the library in handcuffs.

Mary Cornelius, the center’s director, looks up from her desk, watching as Yates makes his quiet rounds.

“I can’t tell you what it means to have them here,” Cornelius says. “A lot of people are at the end of their rope down here. We never know who’s going to walk in that door or what they have in mind.”

For battle-hardened Blackwater, New Orleans appears to be gravy work – at least at this point. It’s the tail end of a milestone mission: the private military company’s first domestic deployment – an undertaking that, at its height, employed close to 600 of the company’s contractors.

Blackwater’s men were among the first outsiders to reach the Gulf Coast after the costliest hurricane in U.S. history made landfall Aug. 29. The company’s quick response led to a windfall of work, both government and commercial.

It also has affected the way disasters within the nation’s borders will be dealt with in the future. Katrina woke Americans to the harsh fact that calamities can overwhelm even the government, and rescue can be a long time coming. Some people girding for the next one have already laid plans to hire their own deliverance from companies like Blackwater.

At first, Blackwater’s arrival set off alarms in New Orleans. The company’s work in Iraq has forged a soldier-of-fortune image, and nerves jangled when Blackwater’s commando-types surfaced on the streets of Louisiana, outfitted with body armor and assault rifles.

Concerned calls came in to Mark Smith, who works for Louisiana’s Department of Homeland Security, part of the governor’s office.

“Everyone wanted to know what those Blackwater mercenaries were doing down here,” Smith said.

Blackwater bristles at that reaction.

“This is not the occupation of Louisiana,” said Andy Veal, one of the company’s Katrina zone supervisors. “This is Americans helping fellow Americans.”

It is also a potential plug for a hole in Blackwater’s business model. Private military companies thrive on war – an icy fact that could gut the now-booming industry when or if Iraq settles down.

Katrina offered Blackwater a chance to diversify into natural disasters. After the hurricane, the company formed a new division of domestic operations. Seamus Flatley, a retired Navy fighter pilot, is the division’s deputy director.

“Look, none of us loves the idea that devastation became a business opportunity,” Flatley said. “It’s a distasteful fact, but it is what it is. Doctors, lawyers, funeral directors, even newspapers – they all make a living off of bad things happening. So do we, because somebody’s got to handle it.”

America’s Gulf Coast is a long way from the troubled lands where Blackwater usually plies its trade. But after Category 3 Katrina, the area resembled a war zone. Hundreds were dead. Communities were destroyed. Law and order collapsed with the levees. Residents were trapped by floodwaters. Rescuers were being shot at.

“The scope of this thing – how big it was – was just too much for any organization,” said Coast Guard Cmdr. Todd Campbell, who directed a large part of the rescue operations, including the dramatic rooftop airlifts that had the nation glued to the TV.

“Every aircraft we had was committed,” Campbell said. “And it wasn’t enough. I couldn’t find anyone who could give us more.”

Campbell didn’t know it, but a Blackwater crew was already beating its way toward Louisiana in a just-purchased Super Puma helicopter.

Bill Mathews, Blackwater’s executive vice president, explained why the company headed in before anyone called for help:

“We ran to the fire because it was burning.”

Campbell says Blackwater asked just one thing: that the Coast Guard cover the cost of the Puma’s fuel. But what really impressed him was the crew’s attitude.

“Just the way they walked in,” Campbell said, “with confidence in their faces. They weren’t rattled one bit by what was going on. They just listened to what we wanted and went out and did it.”

Precisely what that was depends on who’s doing the recalling.

According to Gary Jackson, Blackwater’s president: “We were lifting people off of housetops, off of small boats, to med-evacs – people that were sick and hurt.”

According to Campbell: “They offered to do rescues, but there were legal concerns. What if someone got hurt? So we asked them not to engage in pulling people out. They debriefed me at the end of every day, and no one ever mentioned doing any rescues. If they were out there doing them, it was solely on their own.”

Campbell has no doubts about the rest of Blackwater’s help. For two weeks after the storm, the Puma conducted survey flights and ferried 12 tons of water, food and supplies to rescuers and stranded inhabitants.

“What they did was critical,” Campbell said. “I’ve never been in a position like that before, where I had to reach out to civilians for help. I couldn’t have asked for a better, more professional response.”

In the midst of all that humanitarian work, the phones started ringing at company headquarters in Moyock, N.C.

“The word got out,” Jackson said. “'Blackwater’s in New Orleans.’ People started calling us from the hotels: 'Can you do this? Can you do that?’ We set up a 24-hour-a-day operational center, and we started taking these commercial contracts.”

The first customer was a communications company that hired Blackwater to fetch 100 of its employees who were stuck in flooded homes. Because a state of emergency had been declared, Blackwater could bypass Louisiana licensing requirements. Boats, waders and other gear were loaded on a company cargo plane. A convoy of SUVs rolled out of Moyock.

Within 18 hours, Jackson said, Blackwater had 135 men on the ground. They were outfitted for battle, complete with helmets, flak vests, pistols, batons and M-4 carbines, capable of firing 900 rounds per minute.

“Yes, we looked a little heavy-handed coming in,” Jackson said, “but it was because of the intel that we received.”

Exaggerated or not, Jackson said, reports coming out of New Orleans indicated the place was in anarchy, with armed looters roaming the city and outlaws preying on the populace.

“We did a risk assessment and decided we’re going to send guys in there for real,” he said.

Jackson said Blackwater re-established order in the city’s most famous area: “We got guys into the French Quarter … and we basically secured it.”

His claim rubs some the wrong way.

“There may be some braggadocio involved there,” said Lt. Lawrence McCleary of the Louisiana State Police. “If they were securing a hotel or something down there, that’s one thing, but locals secured the French Quarter.”

Maj. Ed Bush of the Louisiana National Guard said: “Every group wants to kind of thump their chest a little bit, but just think about it. We live here. Seems kind of naive to think Blackwater beat us to the French Quarter.

“But you know what? I’m not interested in getting into a pissing match over it – not with someone who came down here and really helped. It’s safe to say they were among the first to arrive.”

Whatever the sequence of events, in those first days after the storm, Blackwater’s client list exploded.

Blackwater says it has not fired a single shot since arriving in Louisiana. The company’s contractors heard plenty of gunfire, though. None, they say, was aimed at them.

“We’d be on one street going to a house for extraction and on the next street over we’d hear 'bang-bang-bang,’” Veal said. “Then the Blackhawks would swarm in. It was kind of surreal, that all that was happening in this country. Americans were floating by dead in the street and there was no time to do anything about it. We had to focus on the living. It was like something you’d see in the Third World.”

Veal says Blackwater rescued plenty of nonpaying folks along with the paying ones.

“Once you came across someone, you just couldn’t leave them there,” he said.

Clients were signing up quickly. Blackwater won’t name them or reveal what it charged. It will only say that the jobs called for a laundry list of duties.

Blackwater contractors stood guard over fuel shipments, generators, transmitters, railroad cars, stores, hotels, banks, museums, landmarks, industrial sites, power plants and a temporary morgue set up in Baton Rouge. They escorted CEOs, insurance adjusters, technicians and repair crews. They watched over high-dollar homes and conducted “asset retrieval.” They plucked priceless paintings off walls and fetched precious gems from abandoned bedrooms.

“It was hot and miserable,” Veal said. “We were all sleeping in tents. The bugs just ate you alive.”

One week after the storm, Blackwater landed a contract with the Federal Protective Service, the agency that provides security at federal buildings and watches over FEMA when its workers deploy. The rate, according to a copy of the contract obtained from the Department of Homeland Security: $950 per day for every man the company supplied.

Dennis O’Connor, a spokesman for the Federal Protective Service, said the magnitude of the disaster left the agency with little choice: “We don’t have enough people to handle something like this ourselves, and the local security companies were devastated. Whoever we awarded the contract to had to be totally self-sustaining. Everything down there was wiped out.”

Blackwater had the mind-set for dealing with such hardships. The company set up its own camps, equipped with shower trailers, dining tents, post offices, barber shops, laundry facilities, armories and mechanic shops. Contractors from across the country poured into Moyock, where they were outfitted with tactical gear and sent south.

The Federal Protective Service contract gave Blackwater more impact in the hurricane zone. While contractors were not deputized – a fact that left them with no official law enforcement powers – their formidable presence was now spread across the city.

“They helped us keep the bubble afloat,” said the National Guard’s Bush. “At first, they occupied their battle space and we occupied ours, but as the weeks trickled on and the Guard guys from other states started going home, Blackwater stepped in to fill the void.”

The transition worried some locals, Bush said.

“I think it was the fact that they were civilians more than anything else,” he said. “So we walked the ground together for a while, until everyone got more comfortable. We turned over some pretty big areas to them.”

Less than a month after Katrina battered the Gulf Coast, Hurricane Rita delivered a second blow, coming ashore just to the west.

Federal Protective Service expanded its contract and Blackwater rushed toward Rita.

“At one time,” Jackson said, “we were spread across 500 miles, from Texas to Mississippi.”

The commercial work has dried up. So has the need for military-style action. The combat look has softened to tan polo shirts and sidearms. Tents have been replaced with hotel rooms. Dinner is served on china. FEMA is the main reason Blackwater is still here.

Roughly 100 contractors are all that remain. They’re split between New Orleans, Baton Rouge and a few scattered outposts. They work 12-hour shifts, often seven days a week, standing guard at FEMA sites. They’re paid around $300 a day, which means they can earn up to $9,000 a month.

Most are former law enforcement officers. They hired on after the storm, when special-ops types were no longer required and Blackwater made the shift to a long-term presence.

“Law enforcement is better suited for this kind of job,” Blackwater’s Flatley says. “They’re used to dealing with the public – with Americans. They’re trained to defuse things, not escalate them.”

There are harder-core guys, who rotate between stints in Iraq and New Orleans.

“You wouldn’t really call this a vacation,” Flatley says, “but they are able to recharge here between tours overseas.”

When it comes to hiring, the stakes are high. Everybody carries a gun, and one hothead making the wrong call could ruin the company’s image and derail a lucrative future in the disaster business. Of the 1,600 contractors Blackwater has cycled through the Gulf Coast, Flatley says, around three dozen have been sent home for various infractions – none criminal.

“It can be as small as unprofessional behavior, partying too much or even just a bad attitude,” he says. “We can’t afford to put up with any of it. At that point, my only question is, 'Do you prefer an aisle or a window seat?’”

State and local police say they know of no arrests of Blackwater contractors in their area, but that does not stop the talk. Rumors had Blackwater commandeering apartments, shooting bad guys and conspiring with the government to hide corpses.

The company says there is no truth to such stories. Tommy Potter, a former police officer from Franklin, is the company’s area manager for New Orleans. He shakes his head at the rumors.

“Look,” he says, “people swore that there were alligators walking down the streets. How does that stuff get started? Who knows?”

The Blackwater men admit that, in the early days, they bumped heads a bit with local police, who resented all the out-of-town guns. They’ll volunteer that someone slashed all four tires on a company SUV. At the library, Yates confesses he was in one real knock-down, drag-out – with a large woman who leaped on him and wouldn’t quit.

Kathleen Young runs the Chateau Le-Moyne, a French Quarter hotel. She thinks Blackwater’s mere presence stops trouble in its tracks. Young’s hotel chain hired the company the day after Katrina.

“I didn’t know that,” she says, “and I was scared to death coming back into the Quarter after the storm. Looters were everywhere. Windows were smashed out. There were no police.

“And then I got here, and there were two Blackwater guys camped out in my lobby. Nothing was touched. They stayed with me for weeks, and I never saw anyone challenge them.”

Young was so impressed, she struck a deal with Blackwater to house more of its men. At one point, contractors occupied nearly half of her 171-room hotel. The number has dwindled, but her lobby, at any given time, is still full of men carrying guns.

Young has also put Blackwater on retainer.

“If something like this ever happens again,” she says, “I want them in here before the storm.”

Blackwater isn’t content to wait around for Mother Nature to strike again. It’s busy scouring the far corners of the world for more business. 

 
< Prev   Next >
 

 

Add to: Mr. Wong Add to: Icio Add to: Del.icio.us Add to: Reddit Add to: Furl Add to: Yahoo Add to: Google Add to: Ma.Gnolia