Hurricane Katrina: Responders Face The Aftermath
Vol. 20 No. 6
Disaster is a different and relative term. Broadly applied it means anything that stresses a system beyond its maximum capacity. Applied to Katrina, it means a mess beyond comprehension that no amount of drill, no amount of plan, and no amount of advanced effort could have prevented much of what happened to the area. It is what happened after the hurricane landed where the advanced drilling, the advanced planning, and the advanced effort did not seem to materialize as it was suppose to. The lingering question, even as this goes to print, is "why?" Currently, there is an awful lot of finger-pointing going on from the bottom to the top and from the top on down and the FEMA chief has resigned. The politicians are blaming each other and the public is left wondering "what happened?" We may never know the real truth even with the congressional investigation.
Although the handling of the Katrina aftermath may have looked like a total disaster in and of itself, there were many excellent efforts that were made by many of the players. The United States Coast Guard and our friend Andrew Economedes service with the Texas Task Force One, an Urban Search and Rescue, team did some excellent search and rescuing of stranded individuals in the affected areas. Our IFW friend Joe Leonard coordinated emergency relief for evacuees at the Astrodome in Houston.
FEMA did have disaster strike teams poised and ready to enter prior to the storm hitting land, with one of my colleagues from my institution on one of the initial strike teams. The FEMA strike teams, composed of disaster relief and medical aid teams, moved into the area shortly after Katrina hit land and deployed to various areas to offer what initial aid was needed. No one could have anticipated what that really meant in sheer numbers because the evacuation of the New Orleans area had been so incomplete for whatever reason. Those who had been unable (or unwilling, initially) to leave the area, crowded into the New Orleans Superdome on the advice of local authorities that had named it as a disaster 'refuge' for those seeking shelter. This may have been a major error on the part of local authorities, but hindsight is 20/20 and in the short term probably was the only viable structure able to withstand the force of that Cat. 5 monster.
On Monday afternoon, FEMA-DMAT teams moved into the area, with some setting up shop in the Coliseum, directly next door to the Superdome. The move in was not without difficulty as many of the roads were un-passable and the trek took many teams more than 12 hours plus coming out of Houston. On Tuesday morning, after being deployed to the Coliseum, the levies broke and the water started to rise forcing the teams to break down the setup and redeploy out to the freeway, above the Superdome.
At this time, people were continuing to pour into the Superdome wading through deep water to get there. Radio stations continued to urge the citizens to seek shelter there even though the dome itself was virtually stranded. The situation continued to get worse at the dome. More and more people were arriving, the DMAT teams were treating as they could out on the adjoining freeway, but there were not enough provisions, food or water, (WATER especially) for the throngs that had flocked there. Yet, they continued to come....by the hundreds.
On Wednesday and Thursday, it is said that they choppered out over 800 people not including the few ground ambulances that could make it in, and not including the emergency removals from the flooded hospitals. Still the people kept coming. The DMAT teams report they treated everything from bronchitis and acute renal failure to gunshots and emergency childbirth (including one reported emergency c-section). Despite all of the hard work that the emergency teams were doing, the frustration within the dome was escalating and the crowd's mood began to deteriorate. With more persons arriving at the dome, some had apparently arrived with weapons either looted from local stores or that had been brought along. Being unable to secure a ticket out of the dome as many had on the air ambulances, some in the crowd became angry and started to shoot at the helicopters. Fearing for the safety of the DMAT crews (the worry was that the crews would be taken and held hostage for release and evacuation demands), they were ordered to abandon all efforts and evacuate the Superdome.
Yes, they had to abandon their patients in the interests of scene safety. The civilian and ancillary military crews got out in the choppers remaining and the DMAT crews left by ground leaving only the National Guard to hold the line until all crews could be evacuated. The DMAT crews left everything behind and got out with only the clothing on their backs and were escorted out by federal marshals. According to reports, the Guard then opened up the doors to the dome and told people to leave if the wanted and then they, themselves, left until adequate reinforcements could be brought in. Reports also indicate that two of the Guardsman had been wounded in the evacuation confusion and the related shots that had been fired in and around the Superdome.
DMAT crews were taken to Baton Rouge for temporary shelter and subsequently the National Guard received adequate manpower. Local officials were finally able to supply evacuation busses to start removing the masses from the major problem the dome had become. Field hospitals were set-up in Baton Rouge and the New Orleans airport to treat some of the worst of the sick and injured. While this may seem as "too little too late" in the face of all the chaos, one must remember, that the entire local ability to respond was, for the most part, entirely destroyed if not by the storm, by the subsequent flooding that occurred. So, the local government expected the State to step in and the State expected immediate help from the Federal Government. Well, nothing moves that fast on the federal level and it is a credit to FEMA that the DMAT and Strike teams were in the area and on the scene so quickly at all. Kudos to all of them for being there when called upon! Kudos also to the USCG for their continued great work in search and rescue and the long hours these guys and gals put in when called on.
So, why the huge mess? Why was this particular incident such a "disaster of disasters?" It would be difficult, even from this comfy spot in the desert, to try and pick apart this incident and tell you the who's, the what's, and the where's and to try and tell you who is to blame for the whole catastrophe. I cannot, nor will I attempt to do that. I can tell you this. It is inexcusably shameful, that politician after politician will go on national television and stand there telling the public what a great job each of them are doing when people are still trapped, people are still dying, and the "alarm has not been struck"! That cannot and will not be forgiven and should not be forgotten come Election Day.
Much of this story was related to me by my esteemed colleague, Cheryl Limer. Cheryl is a member of NV1DMAT that deployed with CA-6. It was one of the first deployed into the New Orleans Superdome and Coliseum. She related most of this story to me in interview and I thank her for her time and her service during this catastrophic event. Cheryl makes one final comment on the whole Katrina event and it helped pull the moment somewhat more real for me. Cheryl states, "This kind of event makes you feel a far cry lower on the evolutionary scale". I have to share some of that sentiment, as this kind of awesome power should always be shown a decent amount of respect. o
William R. Kerney, MA-EMTP-A, is a professor of emergency medical services at the Community College of Southern Nevada.