10 Years After Katrina

Lessons Learned

It’s the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. As a Critical Care Paramedic stationed at the Louis Armstrong Airport, I learned first hand how difficult the task of patient movement can be.

Ten years ago today, I had the privilege of being among the many responders sent by FEMA and NDMS down to New Orleans ahead of Hurricane Katrina. We had done this before, and with my wedding anniversary coming up, I felt confident at the time I would be back shortly to head out fishing and camping with my wife. You undoubtably know the story that unfolded, and I soon found myself driving through the silent, water-filled streets of New Orleans tasked with setting up a medical center in the Super Dome only hours after the storm had passed through.

I’ve been to a lot of places, and practiced medicine on five continents in some of the most austere places on earth. There has been only one time in my life where my brain was incapable of processing the reality of where I was and what was happening, and this was it. The damage from the storm, sailboats lifted up onto the roadway, cars turned over sitting on top of small buildings, and the million-mile stare the residents who stayed had. There was an awkward silence, no hum of power, no voices, no talking.

It wasn’t more than a couple hours after our arrival at the Super Dome that the levy broke. We heard rumors on the ground about flooding, terrorism, and rapidly realized that that situation had gone from bad to worse. With more than a foot of water around our car, our team quickly split up with half of us tasked to the airport to setup a casualty collection point.

We arrived at the airport, again in silence, at some early hour of the morning. With tractor-trailer rigs filled with our portable field hospitals, we set up in the main terminal. As the plan disseminated to the responders on the ground, we quickly began triaging the patients arriving via ambulance, on foot, and soon via many helicopters. Within only a few hours, we were out of triage tags. We borrowed airline baggage tags from the counters as make shift triage tags, and within 24 hours we had hundreds to thousands of patients awaiting triage.

As daylight emerged, I counted over 50 ambulances at the patient transfer – the passenger drop off ramp of the airport. EMTs, Medics, Nurses all sleep-deprived and delivering 3 to 4 patients at a time. A Wildland Fire team working with Air Force established an LZ and brilliantly coordinated dozens of helicopters, some CH-60 Chinooks, delivering entire Intensive Care Units from evacuated hospitals with minimal patient history other than the medication bags from powerless infusion pumps, while others were hoisted from roof-tops after being exposed to water and heat for days, without access to their daily medications. As I rapidly triaged the critical patients coming from these helicopters, I stopped and looked around counting 17 helicopters unloading patients at the same time as hovering helicopters waited instructions over the runway.

I spent 10 days at the airport, the first 7 of which were as intense as the first. Supported by over 200 medical professionals, fire fighters, soldiers, we all physically lifted NATO stretchers every time we wanted to move a patient anywhere. For critical patients, this meant running as a litter team, coordinating an elevator ride up to the main terminal, with 6 exhausted responders struggling to maintain grip-strength with patients often exceeding 300 pounds.

I’m proud to have been a part of it all, and humbled by the acts of kindness and understanding by the people of New Orleans. Our team witnessed a few horrendous acts by individuals who took advantage of the situation to prey upon others, but for every one of those, we were overwhelmed by the hospitality and resilience of Katrina’s casualties, even in the worst hours of their lives.

There are unending lessons learned for our country, and our ability to respond to a disaster even at a fraction of this scale. The challenge of moving non-ambulatory patients before the storm, and definitely during the response was my most important lesson however, it’s why I was part of the development of the Rex R-1 system. Though it’s simple, the ability to multiply the efficiency of movement and remove the effort required would allow for a much more effective response while decreasing the risk to both patient and responders.

Likely, some of you reading this blog were there. We together share a unique bond based on both the experience, and understanding of what our country looks like in her best and worst hour. I know that despite all the challenges and politics involved, I hold that experience close in both the practice of medicine as a Paramedic and the development of solutions to better our ability to save lives.