JACKSON, Miss. (AFPN) -- Though it is a city without electricity, rescue crews see plenty of lights as they fly over New Orleans each night searching for survivors in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Sporadic fires burn wildly, but through their night-vision devices, combat search and rescue crews from the Air Force Reserve focus their attention on the flickering flashlights that dot the blackened landscape "like a night sky full of stars."
"When you look down on the city at night you see hundreds, hundreds of thousands of flashlights," said Master Sgt. Greg Bisogno, a pararescueman with Air Force Reserve Command's 920th Rescue Wing, Patrick Air Force Base, Fla. "Because of our combat capability, we can see them and get to them in the blacked-out city."
Working around the clock, reservists and active-duty crews fly 8- to 12-hour missions in HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters staged out of Jackson, Miss. As the relief effort continues, the Air Force Reserve, Air National Guard and active-duty teams have saved thousands of survivors from rooftops and other isolated locations.
"On our second night, we found about 200 people trapped on a bridge," said Sergeant Bisogno. "We'd land and load 10 to 12 people, as many as we could hold, drop them off and then return for more."
Most of the hurricane survivors are flown to collection points on safe ground. In Jefferson Parrish, the helicopter teams drop off the rescued on some high ground in a highway cloverleaf. There, the people receive medical attention, food and water, and transportation out of the city.
"It's unimaginable unless you're here to see it," said the pararescueman. "No amount of words can describe how overwhelming the devastation is."
In the daylight, survivors hoisted aboard get their first look around their city from the helicopter.
"They would see how the bad the devastation was and how it goes on for miles and miles." Sergeant Bisogno said. "They would start crying. Crying because of their city, their homes, family, friends were lost. Crying because of what they went through. Crying to be glad they were alive."
Picking up civilians requires the pararescuemen to take more time, be more reassuring than is normal when recovering downed pilots. Military pilots and aircrew are trained to ride a hoist. Pararescuemen give them the horse collar and they can put it on. They know about helicopter rotor wash, said the sergeant who is a combat veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"With these folks, we talk to them and hook them up," he said. "They're scared and can't hear so we put their hands where we want them to hang on."
To get to the people in their flooded houses is not easy. Sergeant Bisogno has chopped his way through several roofs. The pararescue jumpers have tools as primitive as axes and as sophisticated as battery-powered saws-alls and circular saws. Because the bottom floors are full of water, and most homes don't have outside stairwells, the PJs go through the roofs to get inside and get the people out.
"The people we picked up off the roofs had been up there for 2-4, even 5 days, surrounded by water," said the sergeant. "They had it rough and were very grateful. They'd say, "God bless you" and want to touch you and shake your hand."