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Federal agents from area help out in New Orleans

On the ground in New Orleans, a Buffalo contingent of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents has been pitching in on law enforcement operations as well as crucial rescue and recovery efforts.

The group left last week in a well-stocked bus for the 24-hour journey into the hurricane- and flood-ravaged Crescent City. Members have been working 16-hour double shifts assisting New Orleans police, according to William M. Cleary, Buffalo field office director for the federal agency.

"We're here basically to provide law enforcement support and rescue support to local law enforcement," Cleary told The Buffalo News by cell phone from Decatur and Iberville streets in the French Quarter.

Conditions in the city are "a little bit rough," Cleary admits, but slowly are improving.

The floodwaters are receding and giving way to more dry land; street sweepers are out cleaning up the city; and most of the widely reported looting has stopped, he said.

Still, work has been far from easy.

Agents take only brief naps in a New Orleans hotel. Soon, they will move into tents, Cleary said.

Temperatures remain in the 90s with oppressive humidity. Because of the contaminated water system, they have not been able to take showers. In many areas, the air wreaks of decomposing garbage, and flies and mosquito populations are increasing.

But Cleary said that, considering the mission, none of that seems to matter. "We not only want to save lives; we want to help the other folks down here," he said.

The agents brought rescue equipment supplies, water, meals-ready-to-eat and personal gear from Buffalo. They are part of a 725-agent Immigration and Customs Enforcement outfit from across the country that the Department of Homeland Security dispatched to the gulf in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

"We don't look at each other as being from Buffalo, Miami, Houston or El Paso. We're all part of the ICE team, and we operate like that," Cleary said.

Agents made two of their biggest rescues in recent days.

In response to an e-mail from a lieutenant colonel in Iraq, agents traced his 99-year-old mother and pulled her to safety from her house, which was flooded with 4 feet of water, Cleary said.

In a similar case, the children of an elderly couple called from Florida after not hearing from their parents and failing to locate them in shelters. Their mother also had recently suffered a stroke. Agents subsequently rescued the couple, who had been stuck in their flooded home without food or water.

"The rescues are amazing," Cleary said. "(But) it's routine in this kind of environment."

"Where, back in Buffalo, one rescue would probably receive media attention; down here, it's part of normal operation."

Cleary said that Buffalo agents have seen "pretty much the whole city" and that the level of damage can differ tremendously from street to street.

"Some homes are untouched, and some homes are destroyed," Cleary said.

"This was just not a hurricane that hit down here; the second major catastrophe was when the levees broke. . . . This was a double catastrophic event that happened in this town."

The length of their mission?

"We'll be down here as long as they need us," Cleary said.

e-mail: tpignataro@buffnews.com

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