Captain Clasen was on the levee just before the eye of the storm hit

A Hurricane Katrina Story

Captain Charles Clasen, despite primitive conditions after Katrina hit and working with only a small boat VHF radio, antenna, and a car battery, was able to jumpstart pilot communication on the river. The havoc that followed was a first for modern-day New Orleans as many ships had been grounded or destroyed.

Crescent River Pilot Captain Charles Clasen was on the levee just before the eye of the storm hit. With the river shut down Captain Clasen, a trained first responder and seasoned state pilot, acted immediately. With the help of tugboats, helicopters, and other pilots; he helped those in distress and traffic slowly started moving. Says Clasen, “Katrina was a good test, but we weathered it well. Something to remember, you know.”

In his own words, Charles Clasen

By Captain Charles Clasen

Water was washing over the levee with driftwood floating about. I walked on the levee just before the eye of Katrina swept through New Orleans. The next day, we heard reports on the radio about a few ships aground that had broken loose from their moorings and were pushed against the bank.

As first responders, state pilots are given special permission to transit evacuated areas and assist in restarting crucial operations. As the only American citizen on foreign-flagged vessels, state pilots are compelled to prevent peril to the community and to the environment as well as to get commerce moving after a disaster.

Communications were primitive. Because one of the younger pilots, Captain Christian Groff, climbed to the top of an oak tree and ran an antenna down, we had a small-boat VHF radio. Along with that device, we had a car battery hooked up with alligator clips which allowed us to communicate with tugboats and other state pilot groups.

Slowly, we started moving ships. The first ship I went to had a Danish Captain, and his ship was up along the bank against the rocks.

He said, “Who are you?”.

I said, “I’m your pilot.”

He sized me up slowly and asked, “What do you intend to do?”

I replied, “I am going to get you off the rocks and get you to a safe anchorage.”

Again he looked at me skeptically and said, “You are?” to which I assured him, “Yes, I am!”

We started doing what we had to do. At one time we probably had 30 state pilots at the house sleeping on the floor or wherever we could. We hustled an old army generator; it took two days to get it running. Once it was running, we ran the operation that way for about 10 days.

We went up to the top of the levee and cleared off the driftwood, got an old can of spray paint and made a big circle with an H in it for the helicopter.
The helicopter would come down and land, and it would take state pilots down the river to drop them off on ships or at Pilottown. Several barges washed into the bank nearby. I got a chainsaw and cut the willow trees down, and we spray painted PILOT BOARDING on the side of the barge. Traffic slowly starting coming back, the port was being serviced, ships started coming in the river, navigation lights were out; Katrina was a good test but we weathered it well. It’s something to remember.

Pilots, November 2018CRPPA