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Shelter from the Storm
Riding out Katrina with New Orleans EMS
By Valarie Ziminsky, EMT-P
As I write this article, I am finally safely ensconced with my family back at home. However, I’m worried about those I left behind, personnel from New Orleans EMS and New Orleans Fire Department, and the two firefighters from New Orleans Police Department who befriended us at the Hampton Inn on Tuesday evening before evacuation—especially in light of having no way to contact them at this time. I don’t even know all your names, and some of you only by your first names, but when you read this article sometime in the future, please know that I was thinking of all of you, worrying for you, praying for each and every one of you.
On Saturday morning, I was sitting in the ballroom at the Convention Center eagerly awaiting the closing keynote speaker, Steve Berry. The conference had been good (although the weather was hot and sticky … why in the world did they pick New Orleans at the end of August????), and the classes I had chosen to attend had provided a lot of information and clarification on questions that I needed and wanted answered. Just prior to introducing Steve Berry, a gentleman took the stage to state that the conference would not be ending early in spite of the reports of a hurricane approaching. That all classes would continue as scheduled.
Hurricane? What hurricane? I don’t watch much TV at home, so certainly did not do so while at the conference. I put it out of my mind as Steve Berry was introduced, and I went on to listen intently to his presentation.
I had signed up to ride with New Orleans EMS at noon on Saturday, so after Steve Berry’s presentation and a last-minute perusal of the exhibit, I went out to meet them. There was a bit of confusion over scheduling, but I managed to run into Ken Bouvier, a supervisor with New Orleans EMS and NAEMT president, who, with the flick of a switch on his radio, straightened it all out for me. Just a few moments later, Medic 62-13 stopped in to pick me up. I would be the “third rider” with paramedic Jeanne Dunn and her partner, a new employee. Jeanne called him “the Freshman.” We first stopped in at the Moss Street Facility to sign a waiver and immediately thereafter were dispatched to our first call. In the next four hours we would have four calls: a bloody nose that refused care, chest pain, a DOA from which we were cancelled and an injury from a bicycle accident.
What took conversational precedence however, was the upcoming hurricane. This one didn’t appear to be weakening in strength, but rather, gaining. On public radio they were requiring mandatory evacuations of some areas and voluntary of others. Uh-oh. I called my friend Robert Polen, who was riding with NOFD Sta. 29. He confirmed that all the chiefs had attended a meeting at Sta. 29 that morning. He had heard some talk of the hurricane, but more in the context of where they were going to move the apparatus and a few other preparations. Neither of us really detected a sense of urgency.
Regardless, I called our airlines to reschedule our flight (which was originally on Monday, Aug. 29, at 12:40 p.m.), only to be advised that all flights were sold out. Oh, jeez. So I called our hotel, Hotel Villa Convento, who assured us that as long as it was safe, we could stay there, but we would need to bring in our own food (it’s more of a guest house, with no restaurant). Jeanne determined that it was better to be safe than sorry, so around 3 p.m. during a break between calls, we stopped at a Winn Dixie and picked up a few groceries: water, Gatorade, ice tea, canned tuna and chicken, Vienna sausages, bread, peanut butter and strawberry jam, apples, grapes and a can opener. After my ride-along ended at 4 p.m., they dropped me off back at the hotel.
I walked in the door and immediately sensed something was up. April from our hotel advised us she had just made reservations for us at the Parc St. Charles, a hotel located at Poydras and St. Charles. Because the warnings regarding the hurricane were intensifying, the management had thought it would be a better move for their guests. We did not, however, have to go until Sunday morning, and if no cab was available, one of the staff would take us themselves. So the groceries were carried up to the room and bags were packed. More phone calls were made to find flights or a rental car, but to no avail. We were going to be stranded.
So what does one do on a Saturday night before a hurricane in New Orleans? Well, if you have a reservation at Nola’s, you go anyway. It was surreal to sit there. No one appeared nervous or worried. Those around us laughed and talked as if nothing out of the ordinary was going on. We chatted with our waitress, who told us her boyfriend (one of the managers) had their car packed and ready to go, and they would be leaving in the morning. But tonight, it was business as usual.
On our way back to our hotel after dinner, we stopped in at Lafitte’s Blacksmith House. Conversation centered around the impending hurricane, with advice to have plenty of food and water on hand, as well as batteries and flashlights. When I asked how they planned to secure Lafitte’s, the manager shrugged, smiled ruefully, and said (in the now all-too-well-known Louisiana drawl), “It’s stood here for 300 years, it’ll be all right.” Regardless of the manager’s laissez-faire attitude, the bar closed at 2 a.m.—very early for them. Out of curiosity, we strolled up Bourbon Street, where most places were closed or closing, and workers were boarding up the establishments. Having been to New Orleans twice before, it was an eerie sight to see Bourbon Street rather deserted and quiet.
Sunday morning dawned bright but windy. Larry, one of the hotel staff, gave us a ride to the Parc St. Charles, and we were comfortably settled on the 11th floor by 11 a.m. With nothing else to do, we went out walking around, taking more photos of the preparations, and then had lunch at the Hilton. We saw three to four National Guard trucks rolling in and just assumed that more were on their way. The wind was steadily picking up, so we headed back to the hotel. By now, we were constantly watching the news and realizing this could get very nasty. We were going to be stuck here—and we had extra hands and skills that could be of service.
I called up Jeanne, the medic I had rode with the day before, and told her we would like to volunteer. She advised she would pass the message on to her supervisor, and hopefully he would call us back. Forty-five minutes passed, and, being somewhat impatient, I decided to get in touch with management myself. I emailed A.J. Heightman, JEMS editor-in-chief, who in turn sent me the pager number for Ken Bouvier. Ken returned my page within moments, and I presented our offer to him. He assured me that we could be used and someone would call. Within an hour Bill Niemeck, called and the arrangements were made. In the interim, A.J. had asked if I would mind writing a first hand account, I agreed and he made some phone calls to others to make arrangements.
Around 9:30 p.m. New Orleans Training Officer Bill Niemeck and his partner, Barrett Bernard, arrived in a New Orleans Medic Unit to pick us up. First things first, and that was dinner for the medics. A quick trip to a Chinese restaurant on Canal St. was disappointing because they had just closed. They offered us a soda and insisted they would be open Monday morning (we later found out they did open on Monday but closed when the restaurant began to flood). We went on over to the Moss Street location for a few moments and then on to LSU Dental School, where a number of the medics were going to be staying when the winds rose above 50 mph.
When we arrived, the first thing I noticed was that Robert and I were sorely under-packed. Every person there had several bags and a wide variety of supplies and clothing. We had brought a blanket and pillow, the food and drinks I had purchased, my contact lens supplies, toothbrushes and toothpaste. We didn’t bring additional changes of clothes (technically we didn’t have any work-appropriate clothing other than what we were wearing—long pants, uniform shirts, boots). Mentally, I shrugged, because I anticipated we would be out and about tomorrow and then back to the hotel room to wash out clothes in the tub.
The evening was spent chatting and meeting folks while other medic units slowly made their way to LSU Dental School. Once they arrived, crews loaded the paramedic bags, monitors, suction units and oxygen cylinders onto the stretchers and brought them inside the building. The Medic Units were then driven to a nearby overpass to keep them above water. We had been placed in a large classroom on the 6th floor, so all equipment came up the elevator.
All evening the winds had been increasing. When the winds became steady at 50 mph with 85 mph gusts, it was determined to be too dangerous to be on the road. At 11:23 p.m., an announcement was made by Fireboard via radio: “All EMS and fire services have been suspended.”
The wait had begun. By midnight, nearly everyone had bedded down in the classroom or the hallway, whether on the floor or a stretcher. I found it odd that 39 people were quiet and trying to sleep. I assumed that everyone anticipated a busy day on Monday after the storm passed.
Something woke me up, and I realized it had been the hall lights flickering on and off. I glanced at my watch—4:15 a.m.—and guessed that the hurricane must have arrived. I went back to sleep because no one else appeared to be up.
It was 6:00 a.m. This time, the absence of sound and light woke me up. It’s amazing how we’re so accustomed to background or white noise. No air conditioner, no lights. The power was out for good, and so it began. A brief meeting was held around 8:30 a.m. to have roll call for accountability purposes, and some general announcements were made in reference to leaving later in the day when the storm was over (which didn’t happen!).
However, at 11 a.m., another meeting was called. It seems that NOEMS Supervisor Darryl Richardson had received instructions from “management” to ask for eight volunteer medics to go out into the storm within the next hour or so. Stunned disbelief held us all captive for only a few seconds, and then the room exploded in anger with everyone talking at once: “Who’s telling you this?” “That’s suicide.” “They promised our safety would be first and foremost.” “How in the world can they ask that of us?” The feelings of disbelief, anger and distress were palpable in the room. I would swear the temperature literally rose by several degrees.
When talk of the whole group refusing was brought forth, Darryl, “Goose” (supervisor Lynn Ramagos) and Jacob Oberman said they would go if no one else went or if there weren’t enough volunteers. It was pointed out that it would be suicide for them as well, and that this request was “absolutely absurd!” The meeting ended with Darryl saying that if someone wanted to volunteer, they should come see him. Luckily enough, and somewhat strangely as well, this request for volunteer medics to go out in the storm was not followed through on, and no more was heard about it.
Throughout the day, we waited—some chatting, playing games, sleeping, watching out the windows and a brave few actually venturing out into the storm. The winds were blowing in such a direction that one could go out the back door on the main floor, around the corner, and stand at the side of the building that was protected by an overhang. It was windy in this spot, but not enough to cause any physical harm. It was strange to stand there in the wind and mist of the rain and watch the water level rising continuously throughout the day in the parking lot. We watched debris blow by and then white caps form on the water and turn into small waves. While protected by the building and the overhang, I was in awe as I watched the power and fury of nature. I took some photos, but they would never capture the sting of the wind and rain, the pure sound of wildly blowing wind.
The building was so solid that when back inside it was easy to forget we were waiting out a hurricane, but looking out the windows was another story. The storm continued to gain intensity as it moved. While watching out the window, I noticed water overflowing the dam-type barrier that had been constructed to keep it from flowing down the driveway that led to the basement. I nicknamed it the “LSU Waterfall.”
But it wasn’t 20 minutes later when a section of the walls that formed the sides of the driveway gave way in two places, and water began rushing in. The basement was going to flood, and having been down there earlier in the day, I knew that a lot of expensive equipment still in boxes lined the halls.
As I stood by Jacob, watching this scene out the window, someone yelled down the hall that the first floor was taking on water. I grabbed my camera and ran down the stairs. By the time I hit the first floor, there was already three to four inches of water. It was flowing in through the glass doors, and not only flooding the first floor, but obviously flowing down the stairs and elevator shafts, helping to fill the basement. It was loud and furious, reminiscent of scenes in the movie Titanic. I snapped a quick photo and ran back upstairs. Within about 30 minutes, the entire basement had flooded, and water on the first floor was about 18 inches deep. It was shortly after 2 p.m. when the storm seemed to abate. The rain stopped, and while the winds continued to blow, they began to noticeably decrease.
We started to talk about getting out of the building and quickly realized we were going to need rescuing ourselves. Not only were we concerned about rescue, but there was a more urgent need for a way to leave the building. Earlier in the day, one of the police officers had fallen down the stairs and fractured his tib-fib, as well as his ankle. It became necessary to give him pain relief, and he was monitored constantly by two New Orleans paramedics. We needed to get him out of the building and on to more definitive care. It was also a concern that he was an IDDM and had sleep apnea that necessitated a CPAP device, which we didn’t have available.
To further complicate the task of rescue for not only him but for the rest of us, the city’s communications system had failed earlier in the day, and we were unable to contact other EMS or fire service personnel. Then, in a strange twist of fate, one of the newest members of NOEMS, EMT Matt Alewine, recognizing the critical need for communication with the outside world, came forward to offer his assistance. Within a few moments he had established radio communications with the New Orleans airport tower through a seldom-used, but available, radio frequency. Jacob had the tower contact key individuals he needed to communicate with and advise them how to adjust their radios. Soon he had a bare-bones communications network in service.
As the afternoon waned, so did our hopes for rescue from LSU, as plan after plan seemed to fall through or get lost in the shuffle of everything else transpiring throughout the city. It was still necessary to find a way for the police officer to be evacuated, so a team was sent to the roof to investigate if it would accommodate a helicopter landing, or if there was space to accept a stokes basket dropped to retrieve him.
To add further stress to the afternoon, we could no longer flush the toilets. This led to the start of sanitation issues, which worsened as the toilets and urinals became full and some started to overflow. Minimal water was available to drink or wash our hands, and concerns began to be raised regarding contamination of the water.
Then we heard a woman’s scream, followed by a loud bark and a gun firing. Of course, as paramedics, several of us ran toward the commotion, which luckily turned out to be a non-life-threatening situation. It turns out that one of the dogs that had been secured on a lower floor became frightened, chewed itself free of its leash and began to run up the stairwell. A female police officer who was moving from one floor to another in the dark heard the noise, became scared and fired off a round.
Fortunately, she missed the dog, and no one else was in the stairwell at the time. But everyone was shaken up. The officer was hustled off by coworkers, and several paramedics found the dog, coaxed him out of hiding and secured him. His owner was found, and he gratefully whisked the dog away to secure him elsewhere in the building. Then a check was made to ensure everyone had a flashlight or access to one, and everyone was advised to make a lot of discernable noise when entering the stairwells.
Darkness settled in, and those who had candles lit them. In one corner of the floor, Jacob was running a “Communications Center,” trying to arrange rescue for the officer as well as the 39 of us held hostage by the rising water. He talked with others who were stranded and passed along messages and updates. He learned that boats from Wildlife, Fish and Game (WF&G) were being arranged by Ronnie Pelas, another paramedic, to come in for us.
But concerns were raised by nearly all of us about being evacuated in the dark and through the water tunnels that existed in the floors below us. We also wanted to know where we would go. Would we be stuck on a nearby, unprotected overpass all night and therefore, in all minds, out of the frying pan and into the fire? The consensus was that we would wait, but the police officer would go.
And so, at approximately 10:00 p.m., one boat from WF&G arrived at LSU Dental. With many hands providing lift assistance, the officer was carried down from the third to the first floor, through the water and out to the waiting boat. He was transported to an ambulance several blocks away. We were pleased that at least one rescue was completed but realized the magnitude of the problems EMS would face, because this one mission took ten hours to accomplish.
WF&G assured us they would be back at 7 a.m. to begin getting the rest of us out. Many were disappointed but realized evacuation would certainly be safer in the day time. Some expressed concerns that, like today, it would not happen again tomorrow. In the darkness and ever-increasing foul odors of the building, it was hard to maintain a positive attitude, but everyone was doing their best.
I awoke at 7 a.m. on Tuesday and heard no buzz of activity. I surmised before struggling to rise from the floor that the boats had not yet returned. As I looked out the window, I was surprised to see that the water had not receded as we had anticipated, but indeed had gotten deeper. I was to learn a few moments later that a nearby levy had been breached hours earlier, creating more flooding and misery.
After a quick breakfast of a sliced apple and peanut butter, I sat myself down in the “Comm Center” corner of our floor to get the status of what may or may not be happening today. Jacob informed me that WF&G was now supposed to arrive at around 10 a.m. They would first pick up all the police and their families on the third and fourth floors, then return for us. I suggested that we have a Plan B in place in the event that we were in this building another day. Suggestions included the formation of work groups to ascertain and organize remaining food and drink supplies, recon the buildings for bathrooms we might not be aware of, gather and empty trash, etc.
I left Jacob to mull over these suggestions while Bill Niemeck, myself and Goose went to find a janitor’s closet and other cleaning supplies. With apologies to the LSU Dental Clinic, we liberated antibacterial hand cleaner and 4 x 4s to soak with alcohol to decontaminate ourselves after wading through the water to get to the boats. We also removed some batteries from their clocks to keep powering some of the radios and keep communication lines open. We found trash bags, paper towels and surface cleaners and began to clean up as best as we could, under the circumstances.
As I walked past a window, something caught my eye. I looked out and saw a man and a dog swimming through the water towards the building. The man had on a life vest and flippers, and his dog, a pit bull, was on a leash and happily swimming along beside him! I assumed that it was most likely someone who had been stranded in their home and was making their way to the building. A few moments later, I was to meet the man, who turned out to be Raymond Mandola, a paramedic who had camped out at the Moss Street office, and his dog Nikko.
Ray had gotten bored and was worried about the others, so he decided to come over and join us. He told us that about 18 inches of water had flooded the offices but that the loft space above the offices was dry and comfortable. He stayed around long enough to help load the boats when they arrived and ultimately returned to the Moss Street office, where he was also taking care of two other dogs.
Around 9:30 a.m., someone came running to tell us the boats were here to take the police officers. After conferring with the police, Jacob and Darryl informed us it would be about 3 or 4 p.m. before we would be evacuated, due to the number of police officers and their families that were being extracted first. Imagine our pleasant surprise when, at noon, we were told to get ready to leave. And so began our move.
First, all paramedic bags, monitors, oxygen and suction units were moved down to the first floor landing. Unfortunately, the large stretchers would have to be left behind. Personal items followed. Some people had vinyl rain suits and donned them in preparation for wading through the water. Others opted for civilian clothes. Some planned on wading through in their uniform boots, while many of us decided to go barefoot in an effort to keep our only pair of boots dry. Robert found a wool fire blanket, which he cut up into squares so we could tie them to our feet, to at least protect them from what we might step on. We taped the vinyl rain suits tightly around our ankles and around our waists to minimize the exposure to the water.
As the boats arrived, the EMS equipment and personal items had to be carried to the boats on the shoulders of the bearers. The NOEMS personnel who volunteered to do this were in the water for at least two hours. Once some equipment was moved out, a few people were led to the boats. As one boat pulled away, another one took its place. When it was my turn, I waded into waist-deep water and grabbed hold of Chris Guenard’s arm. Interestingly enough, my fear wasn’t of wading through the water, but of falling into the deep water that had once been the stairs leading to the basement. Scenes from the Poseidon Adventure were flashing through my head.
Bill Niemeck was already standing outside the door and, as I handed him my camera, he took a photo of me wading through the water. I continued around a few vehicles that had been moved right up to the front door in an unsuccessful attempt to keep them out of the floodwaters, and up to the tailgate of a truck that served as a high step. Robert was already there, and helped me into the boat. As civilian observers, we were among the last half dozen personnel evacuated.
It was a surreal sight as the boat made its way to a highway overpass. We passed by street signs that were barely above the water, cars that were underwater. It was hard to take it all in. We arrived at the overpass and offloaded the boat. Then Robert and I removed the vinyl rain suits and wiped ourselves down with a good handful of 4 x 4s soaked with alcohol. Because it was so hot and humid out, someone had mercy on me and handed me a pair of their pajama pants, which became shorts with a pair of trauma shears. After changing, I went around to others and wiped them down with alcohol as well.
We were now awaiting National Guard trucks to come pick us up and take us into the downtown area. Several NOEMS personnel began to develop an action plan we could follow once we got there. In the interim, I wandered up to trailers that were set up on the high point of a bridge. They were manned by teams from the LSU USAR team, which had already begun providing medical assistance to the best of their abilities.
After taking a few quick pictures of the trailers, I was approached by a medic who stated he needed to transport some of the more critical patients off the overpass. I directed him to Darryl Richardson, who was able to contact the right people. Within about 20 minutes, Black Hawk helicopters began landing on the overpass.
In those 20 minutes, however, I was changed from JEMS observer status and thrust into a deputized paramedic role to assist with patient care. I assisted a chest pain patient with nitro and helped others care for an unconscious female, an asthmatic, a man suspected of suffering a massive stroke and a 36-week pregnant mother who was severely dehydrated.
My first concern was access to medical command. But, what medical command? There was no one to call. People were looking for me and the others to help them to the best of our ability, so we did.
The worst cases were prioritized and as the Black Hawks came in, three patients were sent to each, accompanied by a paramedic with equipment. I still don’t know where they went. As far as I knew, based on limited radio communication, most of the city hospitals were closed due to flooding and power failures.
I was frustrated when I was unable to assist people in need. I had to turn away a man who approached me and told me he had not had his dialysis since Friday. I was also forced to render just TLC to a woman with hypertension, asking her to please be patient and sit in the shade.
As EMTs and paramedics, we’re trained to find a way to make everything work. But in this case, it was a powerless feeling. What do you do when everything is flooded, there is minimal road transportation and hospitals are closed? You could see it in the faces of nearly every single person—EMTs, medics, police officers and firefighters on the bridge: stunned disbelief. In addition to their inability to carry out their professional duties, they had also lost their homes, cars, clothing, everything they owned. Many didn’t even know the status of family members.
While the third Black Hawk was preparing to take the last of the critical patients on hand, we were all called together and told to get ready to load up and get on an approaching National Guard truck. We were also advised to do so quickly to avoid any potential conflicts with civilians waiting for evacuation from the top level of the bridge. The National Guard Deuce and a Half truck approached, turned around, backed up and dropped its tailgate like a scene from a war movie. Once again, equipment and personal items were rapidly loaded into the truck and our group of about three dozen climbed in on top of the supplies. The remaining people and supplies would make the next trip.
Being unfamiliar with New Orleans outside the tourist area, I can’t even tell you where the LSU Dental Clinic was located, what overpass we were transported to, or what roads we traveled as we left. We stayed on the highway, however, and it was a fairly silent drive. I think everyone was trying to absorb what they were witnessing—water as far as the eye could see. Homes and businesses partially or fully submerged, the smoke from fires in the distance and, sadly, the people who were stranded on the overpasses calling out to us as we passed, begging for food, water, a ride or other assistance. Regretfully, we were not in a position to help anyone. If we had stopped, the truck could have been swarmed and quite possibly hijacked. We had to keep moving.
We continued down the highway, toward the city, past flooded neighborhood after flooded neighborhood. As we neared downtown, the flooding didn’t appear to be as severe and, in some areas, was non-existent, with just wind damage evident. Strangely, a section of grass near the highway had several horses and mules in residence. Further down the road, we passed a man on horseback traveling in the opposite direction on the highway.
Approximately 20 minutes later, we pulled up in front of the New Orleans Convention Center, which I had left a few days earlier. We unloaded all the equipment and personal items onto the sidewalk. Because we were unsure of where we were to go inside the convention center, we waited on the sidewalk for EMS Deputy Director Mark Reis and Director Jullette Saussy to meet us.
It’s important to note that, on Tuesday afternoon, the Convention Center was not the war zone that it would become overnight and into the next day. When Mark and Dr. Saussy arrived, they told us they didn’t feel comfortable with us being there and wanted to find us alternate shelter.
A few minutes later, it was communicated to us that the aquarium was offering us shelter. Although there was no electricity, there were two showers and toilets still working. Now began the process of getting to the aquarium. It wasn’t too far away, and we could walk, but not with all the equipment. Someone acquired the services of another National Guard truck, and it would be arriving shortly.
Robert and I had left our luggage and my laptop in the hotel room on Sunday night. Being that we were only a few blocks away, we decided to take the opportunity to retrieve these items and meet up with everyone at the aquarium. We started out walking but soon enough both of us became uncomfortable with the idea of walking along the streets unprotected. It wasn’t that anyone was following us, or even looking at us wrong. In fact, beyond the Convention Center, the streets were nearly deserted. Perhaps it was just too “eerie” in a city that had just a couple days before been so alive. Robert hailed down a small, passing truck. The man agreed to give us a lift but we would have to ride in back. No problem. A couple minutes later we were at the hotel.
It seems our hotel fared well enough. No windows were broken out, and they had power and water from the sixth floor down (generators were on site). They even had one of the elevators working, which was certainly a blessing with our room on the 11th floor!!! Prior to leaving on Sunday, we had filled the bathtub and bathroom sink with water. Alas, the tub water had leaked out, but there was still enough in the sink for each of us to wet a washcloth and at least wash off our face and hands.
We grabbed our suitcases and my laptop and headed back out to rejoin our group. Unfortunately, this time we had to walk the entire way, and I felt even more uncomfortable now that I was carrying something someone may want—my laptop! We rolled our luggage down Poydras St. to the Riverfront through broken glass from the windows above us, around tree limbs, roof shingles, signs and other unknown debris. Robert was amazed to see the cranes on top of a building under construction still intact, although now pointing in a different direction. Slabs of concrete were hanging off this building by pieces of rebar. We prayed they would continue to hang and hurried past the building.
On our arrival at the aquarium, we quickly became aware of a great deal of confusion and frustration. It seems that another public service group had become aware of the availability of the aquarium and had shown up as well. As it turns out, no one stayed. We were a group of 40, expecting more medics from the Superdome at any time, and the other group was in excess of 50. The aquarium could only hold 40. The luggage and equipment was once again moved from inside the aquarium to outside. People were feeling frustrated and somewhat abandoned, and most certainly were tired and hungry.
There was a Hampton Inn just down from the Convention Center, and while we had been waiting for instructions at the Convention Center, two or three people had gone to check it out. The police were on the third and fourth floors but offered us the second-floor ballroom. The bathrooms had with flushing toilets and clean running water, and there was a pool! But, for whatever reason, the decision had been made to go to the aquarium instead.
It was going to get dark soon, and now we were back to square one. Those same two or three people made their way back to the Hampton Inn and reconfirmed it was still available. Lo and behold, they even returned to the aquarium with an SUV (it belonged to Kenny Knowles, who I think had just come in from the West Bank). Once again, luggage and equipment were loaded up and in several runs transported to the Hampton Inn and carried up to the second floor.
This was what we needed. Over the next few hours, thanks in part to the pool and the running water, as well as feeling fairly secure (the police department was going to take care of building security on shifts), people were able to relax just a little. A box of MREs was brought to us and was quickly gone. Medics began to arrive from the Superdome and hugs were being exchanged all around. It was the perfect setup for rest and relaxation before trying to pull everything together on Wednesday. Regrettably, it wasn’t going to last.
Around 10 p.m., I had been talking with one of the police officers when someone came by and informed him that the levy was breached again and this area was going to flood, so pack up and get ready to leave. On hearing this news, I went to find Jacob in order to relay it. Having not heard anything himself, we went in search of someone who might know something. No one had heard anything; maybe it was just a rumor.
Without further information we returned to the second floor. Only a few minutes later, an officer came upstairs and announced that everyone had 15 minutes to pack one bag because we needed to evacuate the hotel due to the levy and the expected flooding, and then turned around and left. For a brief moment, everyone was stunned into silence. Because we had originally been told to stay with the police, people frantically began packing their bags. Darryl went to confirm the announcement and returned saying that it was true. We would have to leave the paramedic bags and monitors behind. There would be no room to pack them.
As everyone packed their bag and moved downstairs, we were directed down to the corner to meet. The police were loading up into several vehicles on the road by the hotel. Amazingly, within 15 minutes, everyone was out on the corner. Now, what? Then, in shock and dismay, we watched the police drive off and leave us!!!! Where were we supposed to go? In a brilliant flash, a group of medics flagged down a box truck that was driving by the hotel. The driver agreed to take us where we needed to go. But where was that place? Over the next 10–15 minutes, there was a great deal of confusion about our ultimate destination. There was anger at the police for leaving us, concerns about our safety and health. What happened next has been debated by some, but several others, as well as myself, heard it quite clearly. Someone came on the radio, and more than once, advised us to walk up Convention Center Road to the HOV lanes that led to the Triple C Bridge, where we would be met and picked up. There was a great deal of panicked debate about what to do, but in the end, the box truck continued on its way without us, and each of us began straggling along to the HOV lanes.
As we walked up the lanes, panic was just below the surface. I could feel it bristling, my hands were shaking. It was within the first 10 minutes of walking that Tim was finally able to reach Jullette on the radio to inquire as to who was picking us up. Imagine our deep dismay when she said she knew nothing about these arrangements and that, unfortunately, we were on our own. There was nothing else to do but keep walking.
In spite of encouragement to stay together, the group naturally broke up into smaller groups according to walking speeds. My group, the last one, stopped for a break, and someone commented on how it was a beautiful sky—that they had never seen so many stars. Indeed, it was the small things to be thankful for. It was a warm, clear night. No rain, no wind, and the stars were watching over us. As Tim Stratton pointed out, there was no need to hurry. We had six more hours of darkness before we needed to be to the other side. We would take it in 15-minute intervals. Our primary concerns were two members of our group who were older, with health conditions, that in normal circumstances would have never found themselves in this situation.
But what was normal anymore? In fact, I had discovered that many of the medics had armed themselves before we left the hotel. These were registered but personal weapons that they had kept in their possession, but now they were on their person. As our 15 minute break ended and we were gathering our stuff to begin walking again, we were informed via radio that there were cars coming for us, but we needed to walk just a bit further up the bridge, where we could climb over the concrete barriers in order to reach the vehicles. As we looked up the bridge, we could see flashing lights and someone waving us on.
What had happened was that as the first group reached the toll plaza on the other side, they noticed a couple small fire department vehicles driving the other way. They began jumping up and down to get their attention, and the vehicles stopped. It seems a few firefighters were returning to the city under the cover of darkness to try to retrieve personal cars. But once they confirmed we were paramedics, they radioed back to have more cars come pick us all up. They were quite surprised to see us all coming over the bridge, and being that we had no idea where we were going, they offered to take us back to the compound they had set up. There were at least eight vehicles, and with gratitude and relief, we climbed in. The firefighters were still stunned and confused as to why we were on the bridge, but we had no further answers for them, other than that someone had told us to walk.
It was with a tired and hungry pleasure that we found ourselves at what was an evacuated nursing home for retired priests and nuns. As we offloaded the vehicles, thanks and hugs were given all around. Our heroes were with the fire department, and now our lot was with them. They had generators going, so the building was completely functional, with the exception of air conditioning. But even better was that although we arrived near midnight, some kind firefighters kept the “kitchen” open. It was a treat to eat hot food—burgers, sausages, and gumbo.
Most of us slept on the floor again that Tuesday night, some even outside on the center concrete patio (it was surrounded by the building). In general, I don’t think it mattered. Here in this place with a couple hundred other survivors, with the basic necessities of food and water taken care of, and the conveniences of electricity, the ability to bathe and flushing toilets available, we were as safe and secure as we were going to be.
Wednesday morning arrived with stories of the increasing anarchy in the city. There were concerns about security, so the perimeter was tightened. I had noticed the night before, and even more so in the light of day, that a good number of firefighters were also armed. The “kitchen” trailer and supplies were moved up to a concrete area next to the front door from the original location out in the parking lot. Individuals took turns on “watch duty” up on the roof of the nursing home throughout the day.
With the influx of 60 more people, supplies would become an issue. So it was decided that it would be necessary to make a supply run to nearby Wal-Mart and Walgreens stores. Not only did they return with non-perishable foods and beverages, but with diapers and formula for several babies that were in residence, personal hygiene items for both men and women, some blankets and pillows, and just as important, medications for those who needed them: insulin, hypertensive medications, antibiotics, etc.
Two of the medics found a small room in the building that could easily be watched, and set up a small pharmacy. It was necessary to plan for the long haul in the best way possible. Another group of volunteers made their way back to the Hampton Inn (after commandeering a large postal service truck) to retrieve the paramedic bags, monitors, oxygen and remaining equipment and other items from the second floor and to hopefully retrieve a few personal vehicles from nearby parking garages.
During this mission, it became obvious that the Convention Center was becoming an area of chaos and violence. The supplies had been quickly loaded and it was possible to retrieve only one vehicle before it was deemed too dangerous to continue, and the group retreated back to the relative safety of the West Bank.
After everyone returned and the supplies were relatively organized, an EMS meeting was held with Mark Reis and Dr. Saussy. It was first noted that everyone was, thankfully, accounted for, alive and as well as could be expected. It was also the time to be forthright and honest and, as the events of the past 72 hours were discussed, many people conveyed that they had felt abandoned by upper management and that organization and direction had been lacking, particularly due to the loss of direct communication capabilities among the separated EMS personnel.
As a third party sitting in on the meeting, it was, and still is, my opinion that everyone did the best they could at the time. Could plans, actions and back-up communications have been better? Yes. Could upper management have been present and visible more? Perhaps. But considering the magnitude of this tragedy, and understanding that upper managers themselves were being pulled in every direction, how does any individual, or department, adequately prepare themselves and make all the right decisions in a situation such as Hurricane Katrina? It didn’t occur on 9/11, but many lessons were learned as a result of it. The same will have to be said for Katrina.
The meeting continued with discussion about the future of EMS for New Orleans. There would be a future, but in the interim, it would most certainly struggle along, as best as possible, and reorganize as time passes. Permission was granted for those that felt they needed to leave the city to search for lost loved ones and family members, and who wanted to know that they could do so without repercussion. However, it was requested that a contact number be left with Mark and that, in a few days, the individuals contact him with regard to their intent to return.
The immediate plans for those staying would include arranging shifts at the facility, which would include EMS care as well as some general chores. Those on shift would accompany the fire department when they went out on calls, primarily to take care of the firefighters.
At the time, it was too dangerous to try to move out amongst the population. Vehicles were being carjacked and snipers were shooting at the very rescuers they wanted to come to assist them. The increasing anarchy made it impossible to help those who needed help.
The meeting began to wind down (especially with the announcement that dinner was ready) and, not knowing when we all would gather together again, I took the opportunity to let everyone know how awesome each and every individual had been to us, their EMS outsiders, throughout this horrible event. They accepted Robert and I with no questions. They shared their food, drink and clothes with us. And, more importantly, they took care of us like we were one of them. Unfortunately being the emotional twit that I am, I began to cry and it was difficult to speak. But the sheer number of hugs after the meeting told me that they understood what I wanted to convey. Little did I know that in less than an hour, we would be leaving.
It was just as I finished eating dinner that I heard that Chris Guenard, a paramedic, and his mother Tamia, a dispatcher, were leaving with Luke and Kim (both paramedics; Luke is the one who managed to retrieve his truck earlier in the afternoon), and they were headed to Baton Rouge. I asked Kim if there might be more room in the truck. She confirmed that it would be tight, but they could squeeze us in. I quickly ran to find Robert and just as quickly gathered our belongings and made our way back to the truck, saying goodbye to as many people as we could find.
I had conflicting feelings about leaving. I wanted to stay and help, but the fact was I didn’t live in New Orleans. I had a family and a home in Delaware, and a job in Pennsylvania to which I needed to return. We had to take the opportunity to leave when it presented itself.
The ride to Baton Rouge was uneventful, and I am forever grateful to Luke and Kim for providing the means for Robert and I to get to Baton Rouge in order to return to our families.
Many thanks to Station 29 in Baton Rouge for feeding us when we presented ourselves on their doorstep and graciously allowing us to stay overnight at their station on Wednesday when there were no hotels available to us. Also thanks to West Grove (Pa.) Fire Company Chief John Chambers and firefighter John Simpson who, through a relay series of phone calls, made arrangements for relatives in Baton Rouge to host us on Thursday night and deliver us safely to the airport on Friday.
Last, but not least, a heartfelt thank you to New Orleans EMS: Jacob, Darryl, Jeanne, Joe, Sandra, Bernard, Tim and everyone else by whose side we walked during this tragedy and the subsequent experiences. There are many names I have forgotten, but your faces I will always remember. Thank you for your willingness to share, to help and to befriend.