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Farragut GOP host sheriff

About 40 Concord-Farragut Republican Club members braved storm warnings Thursday, March 9, to meet candidates and hear Knox County Sheriff Tim Hutchison describe his office’s 2005 efforts to aid Louisianans displaced by the one-two punch of winds and flooding from Hurricane Katrina.

Hutchison said a National Sheriffs Association colleague, Sheriff Harry Lee of stricken Jefferson Parish, La., asked him to bring a Knox County Sheriff’s helicopter to help rescue some of the storm victims stranded on rooftops in New Orleans. The sheriff said his office maintains six reconditioned former Army helicopters for just such missions, but he noted that New Orleans law enforcement had none of its own to aid in disaster relief efforts.

The Republican sheriff, who faces write-in opposition in an August general election from former Knoxville Mayor Randy Tyree, a Democrat, said his office uses its six helicopters in various ways. Knox County is well prepared for an emergency, he added.

Club president Cynthia McMillan was pleased by the turnout.

“People in an election year make special efforts to get out and meet candidates in our local races, and they should,” McMillan said. “We need to shake their hands and get to know them on a personal basis.”

McMillan introduced Hutchi-son, who showed dramatic photos of Katrina-related damage and said that strong winds, remnants of that storm, slowed their travel to Mobile, Ala., and Slidell, La. Only 30 helicopters were operating there when they arrived, he said, but within a week, about 1,000 helicopters from various agencies competed for air space, all using visual flight rules.

Smoke from uncontrolled fires, many set by looters, made helicopter operations more hazardous, he added.

“People everywhere were on their roofs, waving frantically at us to pick them up,” Hutchison said. The sheriff said he slept nights on a hangar floor in humid, 90-degree weather, and he sympathized with refugees stranded on bridges, rooftops and 13,000 others sheltered in the super-heated Louisiana Superdome.

“We were too busy trying to rescue people those first few days to shoot pictures,” Hutchison said. “By the fifth day, we were flying protective missions to help police who were dealing with looting, arson and other crimes.”

Despite heavy criticism of the Federal Emergency Management Administration and other agencies, Hutchison said, delayed relief efforts “were the storm’s fault, not federal government’s fault.

“To have taken care of that many people immediately, they would have needed hundreds of helicopters sitting there” just as the storm ended, Hutchison said. He noted that New Orleans Police had issued evacuation orders before the storm struck, but many residents who had weathered previous storms generally ignored them.

Hutchison’s greatest criticism of post-Katrina relief efforts was that some relief workers waited until FEMA’s entire distribution system was set up before they began handing out food and water. The needs were immediate and obvious, he said.

One club member asked if Hutchison supported some police efforts to confiscate guns from New Orleans property owners who used them to protect homes and businesses.

“I don’t ever have a problem with a good, law-abiding citizen having a weapon,” Hutchison replied.

Several political candidates for Knox County judgeships and court clerk politicked among their fellow Republicans during the 90-minute meeting at the Gondolier Italian Restaurant.


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