Camp Zodiac

A $250,000 boat donation from Zodiac of North America Inc., after Hurricane Katrina hit certainly helped search-and-rescue agencies in the affected region. But Zodiac went a step further, with eight members of its Zodiac Maritime Academy volunteering to travel into harm’s way to help hundreds of people during a three-week stay in the ravaged area.

“If I had listened to them, we would have closed the office, and everyone would have come,” says J.J. Marie, president and CEO of the Stevensville, Md.-based manufacturer of inflatable recreational and professional boats. “Most of our (academy) instructors are former military, true blue, patriotic, and they felt it was their duty.”

Marie says that Zodiac responded to a call issued by the National Marine Manufacturers Association to send boats into the area, “but sending boats without people wasn’t part of the solution.”

Brian Dalgliesh, first responder manager and an academy instructor, was among the eight Zodiac employees and two volunteers who took 20 18-passenger boats and 20 engines to the New Orleans area.

“TV didn’t do it justice,” Dalgliesh says of New Orleans. “We smelled the city before we saw it. It was total devastation.” He recalls boats running aground on the tops of buses and on the roofs of houses while motoring in the middle of intersections where the rushing water had deposited homes.

Sending employees into a disaster area without authorization would have been foolhardy, so Marie got a letter requesting assistance from Louisiana’s governor.

While traveling in convoy, Zodiac employees ran across the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, which didn’t have rescue boats of its own and quickly “adopted” the Zodiac team.

During down times at “Camp Zodiac,” employees repaired the boats of other responder groups. Marie notes that the group faced dangerous conditions, including bugs, snakes and the specter of violence that colored rescue efforts. Zodiac employees often went without showers and slept on top of their trucks.

The Zodiac team also processed requests on site for search-and-rescue groups requesting boat donations, including a South Carolina U.S. Search and Rescue team and one from the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, which was on a mission for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Since Zodiac manufactures boats critical in search-and-rescue operations, Marie says it’s natural that employees would join in the effort. “It certainly gave us credibility,” Marie says, “but we’re not into this just for the business. We were the only ones who sent people, putting their lives on the line.”

For years, Marie has been urging the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies to pre-position 40-foot cartons of inflatable boats and engines for an emergency such as Katrina, noting that inflatables work well in shallows and can carry 18 people. Twenty boats and engines will fit in a 40-foot crate, Marie says.

Dalgliesh and the other Zodiac employees who responded to the disaster remain humbled by the devastation that they witnessed. And although they risked their lives to help others, “We would all do it again in a heartbeat,” Dalgliesh says. “We couldn’t just sit back and watch.”

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