New Orleans, September 2005
(Please find photos in the photo album pages)
The summary should come first: I wish I could have done more.
The entire American flight originating in Dallas was full of volunteers heading into Baton Rouge, Louisiana. No one had anything else to discuss but the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina and what our work there might entail.
We circled for an hour over our destination, seemingly aimlessly, as if time was all we had in the world on this beautiful Southern afternoon. When we finally landed, we taxied past Air Force One. Dubya was in the house, hence the meandering start.
And the highest office in the land had just graciously provided me with a poignant and astute foreshadowing of what was to come.
In contrast, credentialing on the ground went smoothly. I was quickly issued the privilege to work for Louisiana, in whatever capacity I was needed. A kind local Baton Rouge family, Wanda and Mike Smith, took me , Dr. Elizabeth Ellison and Dr Toni Brayer into their home, which was the picture of comfort. This would turn out to be our refuge, where we returned to every night from devastated New Orleans. It was where we ate our only meals, where we slept however briefly, where we debriefed and discussed the days, where we cleaned the grime of the work away physically and emotionally. All in about 8 total hours in any given 24. Wanda was an angel, our angel, we kept repeating.
The breakdown in efficiency, to understate the reality, soon followed. Sure, it’s a big messy job, I thought. Lots of loose moving parts, I thought. But in time, even I could not find good cause for the level of the waste of time that ensued daily.
Elizabeth and I were sent to plan and implement a field hospital. Yahoo, we thought. Indeed. But upon being deposited at a big telephone company site, we learned that there were no tents, no equipment, no medicine, and notably, no patients. Finally, after several hours, after having planned on paper what we would do if any one of these things arrived, some healthy telephone company workers wandered in for tetanus boosters.
So we were reassigned. Gladly, with joy and anticipation, we were sent to the New Orleans Convention Center, and loaded onto the back of a US Army high water vehicle. The truck was staffed with Army sergeants in the cab, and paramedics and law enforcement officers with us in the rear.
We rolled into downtown New Orleans, into the water, into the reality of this particular ground zero. Our mission was to try to get people onto the truck, and to safety. It wasn’t as easy as it would intuitively seem. Stranded on porches with filthy black scummy water lapping onto the steps, far more dismissed our efforts than accepted the offer of refuge. Some came aboard for treatment, but then returned to their porches. Only four men accepted the option of returning to the Convention Center, and one was having chest pain at times, and another was nearly catatonic, speechless, in need of anti-psychotic meds that he would normally use.
One success on this first day in the water was when William, having weakness and shortness of breath, joined us along with his dog Rosco. He refused to leave Rosco behind, and reluctantly, the sergeants broke the rule of no dogs aboard. They did the right thing. I don’t think they suffered any repercussion from their superiors, who as far as I know, never learned of our transgression.
The rest of the week was spent again with paramedics, who are a hearty bunch, great company. They had come from all over the US by order of FEMA, with their ambulances. They were frustrated to wait and wait for boats, security, food, everything. Every day hours were wasted waiting, but the mission was never compromised by these men and women. The mission was compromised by the abject paucity of organization at the administrative level.
Even still, these selfless individuals accepted the job of body recovery. They suited up in haz mat gear, Vicks vapo rub under their noses, body bags in double gloved hands. My job was to accompany them assure their hydration and health. I had twenty to thirty paramedics in my group. We were sent to bring bodies from hospitals and nursing homes. Sometimes we did; other times the powers that be had sent us to wrong addresses, or we were absent of boats, or absent of boat operators, or the daylight simply ran out. There was no shortage of bodies to bring back to their families, there was just a huge disconnect in getting our personnel present and equipped to do it.
Daily, as we regrouped in the fading city light, the message among us was that we could do so much more. So much more. These fully trained , highly motivated professionals were expending as much effort to manage their frustration as they were completing the actual mission.
Possibly the last straw was the night that they were denied the decontamination showers at the end of their work day due to failure of their company to make a contract with the shower operators.
They were headed into time off. I headed into a local evacuee clinic, where I treated the basic ailments that are common to any one thousand people gathered for any reason: hypertension, sore throat, infected eyes, out of refills….the common denominators of our frailties….
I have returned to Phoenix, to my home, to the Peacework office. It’s been only about 20 hours since I got here, so in many ways the thoughts are still swirling.
But I wish I could have done so much more.