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Sunday, September 18, 2005

One Week Ago Today

One week ago today I was in Louisiana. I don't think I'd ever been, unless we passed through while driving to Texas when I was little.

I'd spent Thursday calling Red Cross chapters and looking online for places needing volunteers after spending 4 infuriating days glued to CNN, MSNBC, and FoxNews, watching the horror that was the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. By Thursday I'd realized I could continue to sit on my ass and watch TV, alternating between crying and yelling, or I could put my money where my mouth was and offer to help.

By Friday morning I stifled my fear of putting my job in jeopardy and called a partner at my firm (where I was supposed to begin work the following Tuesday) and asked if I could postpone my start date by a week or 2. He was extremely supportive, asking only for some time to make phone calls before giving me the go-ahead. The firm's main concern was setting a precedent whereby employees up and down the chain of command would begin asking for weeks off to go support their favorite causes.

But what convinced them were 2 things. The first is that I am a nurse. There are no other nurses at my firm and the argument can be made that my skills were particularly needed in the time of crisis. The second factor was situation itself. Not in most of our lifetimes has there been such devastation, such suffering, on American soil. I sat on my couch and watched as people died on highway overpasses. I was simply compelled to offer my help.

With work supporting me, I registered online through
HCRN. All Indiana volunteers who called the Red Cross were being routed through that organization. I indicated on my registration page that I was available to travel for up to 2 weeks and that I was available now, but would not be so once I began my new position. I sat and waited. All day. I heard nothing.

I realized that the Red Cross and HCRN were likely overwhelmed with volunteers. And that organizing relief efforts in such a time of chaos was likely a task that would take some time. But I grew impatient. If I couldn't find a group who needed my help within the next few days, I would begin my new job and be unable to travel at all for quite some time. I called both the Cincinnati and Chicago Red Cross chapters and asked them to put me on their lists, as well.

Saturday afternoon the call came. Could I fly out Sunday morning to assist with triage and medical care at
New Orleans airport? Of course. The rest of that day was spent making arrangements for T, trying to organize my life for the next week, and shopping for the items I was told I would need. The list rattled off to me over the phone by the RN who was supposed to 'coordinate' our trip included: the thinnest sleeping bag I could find, mosquito repellent with as much DEET as I could find, iodine tablets in case there wasn't enough drinkable water, and pants and long sleeved shirts (no scrubs so as to avoid having random people approaching us asking for drugs/treatment).

Sunday morning, following my 2 hours of sleep, my friend Tommy and I drove in circles around the Indpls Int'l Airport, following inadequate directions but finally arriving at our destination. My group was to be 25 doctors and nurses, all volunteers, all heading to La with the desire to help those in need. We introduced ourselves and indicated our areas of specialty. There were several labor and delivery folks among us, along with a couple of pediatricians, a plastic surgeon, a nurse practitioner, a nun/pharmacist, and a physician's assistant. We were also traveling with our own security, a detective from an Indiana city - provided to us by our Governor.

The CEO of the group addressed us before we boarded the plane. He told tales of almost unspeakable goings on at the airport - he wanted us to be prepared. There were 4 air marshals flying with us and 2 doctors who would be returning to Indy the same day, with a planeful of sick evacuees. We were warned to expect to care for patients who had just been airlifted to safety from rooftops and contaminated waters. We were cautioned to stay clear of a certain gate, as that was where they were piling the dead bodies. We were given notice that there would be patients who were dying and whom we would not be able to help due to lack of resources and time.

By then I was nervous, unsure if I was going to be able to handle the situation. Tommy hugged me for support and we were on our way. We walked out to the plane - no metal detectors or security guards. We dropped our backpacks and suitcases on the ground and boarded the plane. Some of us made small talk as our journey began; we'd taken off shortly after our planned 9am takeoff.

Around 10am, about 45 minutes after takeoff, one of the marshals announced "we are diverting to Nashville." Um, okay. I had no idea what was going on - had they closed airspace to NO? Was something wrong? The 2 passengers in front of me kindly pointed to the wing outside my window. There was a 'mist' coming off a strut or something - we were losing fuel.

Oh shit. I put my head in my lap and began to pray. One of the doctors in front of me just chuckled and said, "white knuckle flyer, huh?" OK. Seriously. I fly occasionally. I admit I don't like turbulence, but LOSING FUEL?!? You've got to be kidding me. That was not part of my plan. He just continued to laugh and said he'd be worried too if we weren't planning to be on the ground in Tennessee in less than 10 minutes.

We landed safely and maintenance crew came to check things out. At least 1 of our air marshals apparently used to work on planes, so he went out to offer his expertise. Most people were less concerned than I was about the whole situation. Folks were already asking the flight attendants (who had donated their time to assist our flight) if there was coffee.

We took off around 11:35am, once again headed for NO. I took a small measure of comfort in the fact that the owner and CEO of the airlines (who had donated the flight for our trip) was on the plane with us; I had to imagine that everything that could have been done to fix the problem had been done if he was willing to continue on the trip with us. As soon as we took off he'd gotten on the intercom and joked that they'd put enough bubble gum in the area to stop the leak. Hilarious.

A little after noon we'd been offered more than we could eat by the kind flight attendants: drink service, coffee, bananas, muffins, pretzels, energy bars. One minor problem emerged as they realized they were running out of soap in the lavatories, meaning there wouldn't be enough for the evacuees on the return flight.

Around 12:30 I began to wonder if anyone in the Bush administration was assigned to the task of at least pondering the possibility of another hurricane hitting the same region. I decided to let someone else worry about that horrific thought.

We landed safely at 12:45. I was grateful - but already signs of my new career-to-be were creeping in. I was thinking about introducing myself to the owner of our plane and wishing I had a business card to give him.

We had to wait on the plane for quite some time while those in charge in NO figured out where we should go. While we waited, an air Marshall told us the story from the previous day of a 91 year old woman they flew to Indy from NO - they discovered on the plane that she had a .38 revolver in her purse. She was keeping it for her protection and she figured she'd need to take it with her when she returned to her home "next Wednesday."

By 3pm we had the unanticipated news from a FEMA official: they were "fresh out of victims" for us. An air Marshall who had already made a couple trips to and from the NO airport said the airport had undergone a 179.9 degree turn-around in the previous 12-24 hours.

FEMA had been sending military planes full (C1-7 and C1-30s?) of people to other locations in an effort to reduce the backlog of evacuees. The official who addressed us was grateful for our help but we were no longer needed there.

So we sat around for a few more hours while FEMA officials and other people in the know figured out where we might be best utilized. There was talk of a need in Baton Rouge, where there was a reported outbreak of dysentery. As we waited, helicopter after helicopter flew in to the airport with supplies and evacuees. I was kicking myself because my camera was stowed away in my backpack.

Around 4pm the FEMA official who'd spoken with us rounded us up some food that had been prepared for relief workers (sack lunches with sandwiches, apples, cookies). By then I was feeling embarrassed - I'd spent all day doing nothing and now FEMA was seeing to it that I was fed. I listened to our 'coordinator' tell us that this was the nature of disaster work - the ability to be flexible, fluid. But I was feeling helpless and even sort of silly.

By 4:45pm our gear had been unloaded, our plane was taking off, and there was talk of sending us to an immunization clinic to help out with vaccinations. My group began to grumble; they certainly thought they'd be doing more exciting work than prophylactic shots. The phrase 'rescue snobs' began to float through my mind. I understood that many of them had taken their own vacation time or had closed up their practices and taken time off for our trip. But my position was that we should be willing to help in any way that was needed. And that we should be thanking God that the airport was no longer a place where people were dying without necessary medical care.

By 5:30 we'd walked through the airport to a bus that was being provided to us by FEMA; our destination was still unclear but we knew we'd be getting there by bus. The airport walk was a sobering experience. People sat in chairs and on floors at the terminal gates. They were dirty, tired, and some were wet. Some had no possessions and some carried grocery and trash bags with all the possessions they had left in the world. They'd been triaged and fed and were now awaiting flights to who knows where. They'd lost all control over their lives, at least for a period of time.

The stench was indescribable. The floors were filthy and slimy. In one place the ceiling had fallen through and the area had been roped off but not yet cleaned up. Walking through that airport made me thankful that I did not have to step foot inside the Superdome. I simply cannot imagine how atrocious it must have been.


...to be continued


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