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For those of us who fly helicopters in the Gulf of Mexico supporting the oil and gas business, Katrina looked like a minor storm that might enter the Gulf and leave most of the oil fields alone. We would probably evacuate the crews, get a break in the work week and a chance to relax for a day or two, then back to work after the storm moved northeast. Boy, were the forecasters wrong about Katrina!

The eye of Katrina passed very near Venice, La., after raking two major corridors of offshore oil and gas platforms and drilling rigs. My company had a heliport in Venice, some 70 miles due south of New Orleans. It's not usable anymore. Katrina broke the Mississippi Levee 20 miles north of Venice and inundated everything south of it with waters 15 feet deep after an initial storm surge of some 30 feet.

Mark Twain was right. The river has a mind of its own.

Katrina affected pilots and aircraft in my company, too. Our Venice heliport now holds about 10 feet of water, with one Sikorsky helicopter that had engine trouble and was left behind now floating upside down and ruined.

Less than 24 hours after the storm lifted off New Orleans, we had company helicopters flying FEMA and law enforcement people scouring the nearby towns, looking for parks and open areas to set up staging areas for people coming to help recovery efforts.

Two days after the storm passed inland I flew toward Venice with a Dutch crew from Amsterdam to a huge drilling rig that had broken loose and been pushed by the storm for some 35 miles before beaching itself near the Mississippi. Along the flight path the landscape displayed vivid evidence of the ferocious winds and surging water. Katrina's damage was wide. Fifty miles southwest of New Orleans, cypress trees were bent to the ground like a giant hand had swept them all down and pointed them toward the southeast.

Ten miles south of Venice, two 80,000 barrel storage tanks leaked oil for miles in twin rainbow sheens, each a half-mile wide.

We landed on the drilling rig very carefully as it was tilted about seven degrees to one side, then shut the helicopter down and waited for four hours while the repair crew started their inspection and made plans to free the rig from the floor of the Gulf, a process that will take two weeks or more. They have to be careful; the electrical system was water logged from high crashing waves. The inspector in charge showed us evidence of water damage 40 feet from the surface. Much of their work will be trial and error to put the large drilling rig back into service.

But the oil and gas won't flow automatically once power is restored. A production foreman told me major pipelines are broken and must be repaired along with electrical grids before any product can flow from platforms in some areas. That will take one to two months. The crews will repair their platforms and then wait on the pipelines.

To speed up the repairs, a call went out for barges and boats and welders and divers up the east coast to come down to the Gulf and help. Most pipelines in the Gulf can carry oil or gas from four companies at once, but nothing will move onshore until the pipeline breaks and electrical interruptions are repaired.

I drove from Lafayette through Alexandria, Shreveport, Marshall, Longview, Tyler, Dallas and Denton on my way home Saturday night and saw "evacuee welcome" neon signs in all those towns, with phone numbers for anyone to call if help was needed. Every rest area along I-20 was crowded with evacuees sleeping on the grass or waiting to board their bus for one of the cities along the highway.

In Lafayette, where 6,000 evacuees are staying in the Cajundome, I saw many of the displaced standing along the highway asking for handouts and money as cars went by.

Until I reached Dallas at 1 a.m. Sunday, a continual stream of military trucks, utility bucket and ladder trucks and a dozen police cars in a caravan headed toward New Orleans, their light bars flashing. Some say the response was slow, but I-20 eastbound was filled with such people heading to help.

It's difficult to say if Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama will ever be the same, so thorough is the devastation and flooding. The people in the region suffered through Betsy, Camille and now Katrina. But my money is on the good people who live there. Better times will come.

Roger Gallagher, of Norman, is a frequent Transcript contributor.

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