First hand account from a Life Flight helicoptor pilot from Houston.
Life Flight into NO
Filed under: katrina — admin @ 10:10 am
First hand account from a Life Flight helicoptor pilot from Houston. “Hello to everyone, This is a first-hand account of what is going on and went on in New Orleans. I spent two days (Friday & Saturday, 2-3 September) flying patients from New Orleans to Baton Rouge and Houston. Let me first say that the news cannot do justice to the enormity of the devastation there. For one thing, you cannot begin to look at a TV screen and know what other human senses are overwhelmed when you are standing in the midst of the most destructive natural disaster in American history. I’ll try in a few words to paint that picture for you. On Friday morning, September 2, 2005, I was assigned to depart Houston, Texas with a full flight crew bound for New Orleans. Specifically, Ochsner Foundation Hospital, which sits in Jefferson, just South of Highway 90 on the Mississippi River. Our mission was to ferry critical patients from the hospital to Baton Rouge Regional Airport where they would be put on private medical jet aircraft to various destinations in Texas. As we flew to within 30 miles of the New Orleans International Airport, I could already smell the unmistakable odor of gas. As we got closer and caught our first glimpse of a flooded area with rooftops sticking out of the water, the reality of it all hit. I had a female flight nurse that day and a male flight paramedic. Our flight nurse, Julie, started crying almost immediately. We descended to about 500 feet above the city as we drew closer to the hospital and now the smell was like nothing I have ever encountered. Combine gas, a landfill, a porta-potty, dead animal, and urine into one smell and you have only begun to describe it. We slowed to about 80 knots within a mile of Ochsner and saw a group of rescue workers in flat bottom boats poking their way through narrow alleys and between buildings hunting for more stranded people. On the North side of highway 90 we could see a group of buildings on fire. A huge industrial dumpster that might sit on a construction site was floating down the middle of Causeway Blvd. The majority of the city that we were seeing was like a flooded ghost-town. The air is so hot and thick with the smell of death. It sticks to you and coats you. My eyes burned with the smokey, acrid air. The heat is oppressive after only a few minutes and unlike everywhere else you go, there is no escaping it in an air-conditioned building.
We arrived over the hospital to find that the parking garage structure where they wanted us to land was full of cars. The roof level of the garage was supposed to be a landing zone for the helicopter, but cars were parked there from when folks had moved them there before the water rose too high. The level of desperation of the staff at this hospital became apparent when they had to break out some car windows and put them in gear to roll them out of the way and create a clear landing spot for us. They found 3 cars that were standard shift and rolled them all out of the way until we had a spot about 25 feet wide to set it down. This parking garage was 6 floors tall and had 12 flights of stairs to navigate since the elevators have no power. I shut down the helicopter and had about 30 minutes to wait for the crew to return with the first 2 patients. I felt guilty in many ways that I had just arrived in this city relatively clean and dry with a full stomach and water to drink. The staff at the Ochsner hospital had resorted to starting IV lines on each other to keep hydrated due to a lack of drinking water. They kept the drinking water that remained to ration for the patients and attempt to keep them clean. I felt like I was in another country because these medical professionals who came back up from the hospital with these patients had been working for 72 straight hours with little, or no sleep. They had filthy t-shirts on with the stain of the disgusting water from street level on them. The women’s hair looked matted and the men had 4 days of facial hair growth. Their food supply was so limited that some of the staff had begun fasting for every other day to conserve food for the patients. Those that were on a non-fasting day ate one or two crackers and a few sips of water every few hours. The patients we flew on the first sortie were both intubated and were in kidney failure. Both were young children who had been in the Pediatric ICU for 2 weeks. To breathe for these kids, the staff had been taking turns manually squeezing the bags to ventilate them for 3 days. Their generator power died after the flooding reached its peak and that took the ventilators away, as well. They had lost capability to electronically monitor these intensive care patients after their portable monitor batteries died. Every 10 minutes, or so, they had been taking manually palpated blood pressures for days. Their only communication capability was on a satellite phone that the hospital system had purchased for their own flight program a few months back. The reason their helicopters couldn’t take any patients away was that the state had commandeered them for mass evacuation duties. The theory was that the most viable people who were stranded in the city needed first priority, plus they really had no shelter, whereas the hospital patients were attended to and had shelter. Ochsner’s medical staff had called Memorial Hermann Hospital System on Tuesday as soon as they realized the magnitude of their situation. We sent two aircraft per day out to them starting on Wednesday morning. To date, we have flown over 90 patients from the Ochsner Hospital and another 12 from Tulane Medical Center. When we called the staff at Ochsner to ask them what we could
bring them, they asked for rice cakes, beef jerky, water, and clean towels. We filled two helicopters with every towel, bottle of water, and $100 worth of rice cakes, beef jerky, and other stuff when we left Friday morning. I unloaded our aircraft while the crew was gone getting the first patients and their staff hauled it all back down on the same stretchers that they used to bring the patients up. We flew home at the end of Friday with a pretty different perspective on the whole deal and a new appreciation for all we have in life. I logged 7.8 hours on Friday and could barely stand up when we landed in Houston. I went back on Saturday and found that the picture had changed already from the day before. I don’t know much about the tendencies of bodies submerged in water, but apparently after 72-96 hours after death, the bodies begin to float. Saturday, from the roof of the parking garage, I counted at least 6 people floating in the streets below. This was not as shocking as I had imagined it to be, but it was very sad nonetheless. These are people who for whatever reason didn’t leave a city under the threat of a huge hurricane. Also, the people there told me how it took several hours for the water to rise to the point where it stands now. How did someone not decide then to seek higher ground, or start walking their way out of the city? Then a sobering bit of news was told to me. A New Orleans PD officer said that many of the dead had been trying to get to the top of their buildings as the water was rising, but fell, or died trying in some cases. As you fly over these submerged homes and buildings, you notice that people have punched holes right through the ceilings of these places just to get out to the roof. On another note, the city of Baton Rouge looks like the new Ellis Island. There are cars parked along the freeways all over the place. That’s where they ran out of gas, or gas money. There were thousands of people around the airport hoping to see their loved ones get off a helicopter. I have seen this kind of human suffering before and seen entire cities wiped out, but those were places like Mitrovica, Kosovo; Skopje, Macedonia; Tebuln, Albania. It made me sick to my stomach to see dead Americans floating down the streets of New Orleans. The other difference between this tragedy and the Balkans was that those people had lived this way for generations. Burning your neighbor’s house down and killing their children was almost the norm there. The people I saw Saturday had been living in the U.S.A. and carrying on a normal life before Hurricane Katrina a week ago. The people that are working their butts off in Louisiana and Mississippi deserve our utmost respect. They are in the same conditions as the hurricane survivors. Many of the people doing the disaster relief work are not even being paid. Lots of them are from New Orleans and have no home anymore. Some of them sent their
families away before the storm and then returned to help. The military agencies conducting rescue operations over N.O. are doing some of the most dangerous work there is. When you are hovering a helicopter over an urban environment where snipers are shooting at you with people suspended 50 feet below the aircraft on a hoist cable, there is no room for error. Drifting 5 feet in one direction could kill them. As an aviator, I still watch their rescues in awe of the technology, skill, and bravery. We fly over the Astrodome every day and it is a whole new city around there now. There are thousands of people playing catch with footballs out on the grass. Thousands more walk up and down the streets around the Texas Medical Center and ride the Metrorail into downtown just to kill time. Local residents are feeling the overcrowding around the Dome as well. Many medical professionals who work in the Medical Center live in apartments and townhomes nearby and they have had people knocking on their doors in the middle of the night, or went to their car to find people sitting on the trunk. Several people I work with have volunteered already and worked shifts in the Astrodome. Their stories are pretty amazing. One of our dispatchers worked there for a 12 hour day picking up trash. He said that people would open a wrapper, take out the food and then throw the trash on the floor right next to their cot. He walked around and picked up garbage all day and would walk by the same area he had just cleaned up to find it covered in trash again. There is positive news from there also. People who are anxious to get back to work are offered assistance in finding jobs in Houston. The Texas Medical Center sits so close by and the buses and trains run right to it, so many of them are now working and starting new lives. I met a guy just yesterday at Hermann Hospital who had evacuated New Orleans with his family, but their car broke down 50 miles away and they were picked up by one of the 500 buses that made their way to Houston. He had already been working at our hospital for 5 days. His family had 3 kids and they had started school locally, as well. Hopefully this account will paint a more realistic picture of the situation than you may gather from the news. Let me throw out my insignificant opinion on the political spin we are all hearing about. Having been a part of many military deployments, ramp-up exercises, etc., it is a monumental task to move a military unit. To the casual observer it is nothing more than jumping in your vehicles and driving there, but the reality is very different. Simply moving the people there from the unit would do nothing more than create a larger population of unsheltered, hungry, and thirsty people. When a military unit deploys for a mission, the first priority is to equip and sustain the troops. There are immunizations, living wills, family care plans, legal issues such as power of attorney, and countless other things. The entire organization has to be outfitted with the proper equipment for the mission, as well as specific gear for the area of operations they will deploy to. This means special uniform items, protective equipment, and the like. Everyone in the unit must be briefed
on the mission, timeline, logistical considerations, communications plan, and movement plans (i.e.- rail, sea, air, etc.). Supplies must be drawn to include food, water, fuel, ammunition, and everything else the unit needs to sustain itself for the immediate period of the deployment. They also must establish their resupply trains. That may mean airlifted supplies, rail delivered, ground vehicle driven, or locally obtained resupply. All this takes time and even the most high-speed active duty military units take 48 hours to arrive on scene. I just get frustrated listening to these accusations that the relief took too long to get there. Basically, one third of the population of New Orleans was evacuated in 6 days with 80% of the city under 6 feet of water. Most of that was facilitated by helicopter. That, to someone who knows what all is involved in doing this kind of work, is amazing. When I was over the New Orleans Intl. Airport, there were no less than 50 helicopters there at any one time. Another 25 were in the air flying rescues, delivering supplies, and dropping loads of sandbags into the levee breaks. Another 25 were flying between New Orleans and Baton Rouge carrying loads of evacuees. If you ask any military planner to give you an estimate on how long a mission like this would take, they would never guess that it could be done in less than a week. This is just my opinion, but suffice it to say that I saw nothing less than a world-class effort on the part of all involved.“