STEVENSVILLE  Search and rescue experts are back in Maryland after spending time on the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, conducting rescues and teaching members of a U.S. Army unit how to properly use inflatable boats distributed by a firm based in Stevensville.

“We became the boat force for the 82nd Airborne. Our guys drove the boats and provided on-the-job training for the 82nd’s soldiers,” said Rick Scriven, vice president of Zodiac of North America, which bills itself as the world’s largest manufacturer and distributor of inflatable boats.

After receiving a request from the governor of Louisiana for inflatable boats that could be used by soldiers taking part in operations following Hurricane Katrina, Zodiac agreed to send five volunteers from its Zodiac Maritime Academy, a nationally accredited school on Kent Island that teaches first responders in the methods of search and rescue, Scriven said.

They departed for New Orleans the next day, Sept. 4, with a truckful of gear, and a second vehicle carrying 20 19-foot inflatable boats and 20 outboard engines. They arrived the next day in Algiers, La., and immediately got the boats ready for deployment.

“We needed to be totally self-sufficient because of the conditions,” explained Scriven. “We took cots, generators, food, clothing, and gas.”

Among the five volunteers — all of whom teach at the academy — were Todd Salus of Stevensville and Bob Beck of Queenstown. The others came from the Annapolis and Bowie areas and from out-of-state.

Scriven explained the boats are designed to be rolled up, transported in bags, and inflated at the location where they’re needed. He said the boats are the same as those in regular use by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Also participating in the operation with the Zodiac Academy was the Bear Search and Rescue Foundation, an organization named for Bear, a Golden Retriever who was involved in search and rescue work in New York following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Dogs used to search for survivors and victims of the hurricane were transported by Zodiac’s boats, Scriven said.

The Zodiac team was in the New Orleans area for about 10 days following Katrina, and during that period, the company set up a $250,000 boat donation fund and took applications from state and local authorities who needed additional Zodiac boats for post-storm operations.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like that. It was a totally different animal,” said Salus who, like others in the teams, has had extensive experience in the military. “The magnitude of the operation was enormous.”

He said working with soldiers from the 82nd Airborne and teaching them about the boats went smoothly.

“They were quick studies. They picked it up rather quickly,” he said. Besides flood damage, Salus said he was surprised at the amount of wind damage in New Orleans, something “you didn’t see on TV.”

Not long after Katrina, another Zodiac team was back on the Gulf Coast, providing assistance after Hurricane Rita hit the area. Once again, the academy instructors — who had formed the Zodiac Academy Flood Response Team — provided boats and equipment in conjunction with local emergency officials and the military.

Scriven said the team went to the Gulf coast with first-hand knowledge of hurricane rescue operations.

“We did a similar thing right here in (Tropical Storm) Isabel,” he said. “We had five or six boats in operation here, and were teaching local first-responders on the fly. We can roll on 24 hours’ notice. We’re probably more sensitized to hurricane season than most in Maryland.”

Because of its work during Isabel, Katrina, and Rita, Scriven said the company makes sure it’s ready during hurricane season by stocking boats at different levels than usual. He said that in addition to the boats it stocks for regular sale, the company keeps 10 in reserve in case an emergency arises.

“We’re changing our whole culture,” he said, recalling the dirty water rescue teams faced in Louisiana. “We have to think about tetanus and Hepatitis-A shots and be sure our people get them every year.”

The Zodiac Maritime Academy was established in 2003 to provide training for all public safety and first responder agencies, including police, fire departments, county emergency personnel, the Coast Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

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