Monday, August 27, 2012

My Katrina Story Part 1

*Warning, this is long. I found myself telling this story to a co-worker yesterday and figured I should write this out.

I lived in uptown New Orleans from December 2001 to December 2005. Hurricane Katrina made landfall August 29, 2005. I did not grow up there, I had moved there with a boy, moved due to boredom, and due to feeling lost in deciding on a major to pursue at university. About 1.5 years into living there, the boy I moved there with left New Orleans after we broke up. At the time I was a few months into the 2 year nursing program at the local community college. Time marched on, I graduated from school and started working in the Emergency Department at the hospital where I had worked as a tech at during school, and about a 10 minute walk from my apartment uptown.

Fast forward to August 2005 and a few days before Katrina made landfall. On Saturday, Mayor Ray Nagin calls for the first ever mandatory evacuation of the city, things were picking up in the ER on night shift in anticipation of the storm, and I was not sleeping well during the day due to anticipation and to watch the storm updates and press conferences. We were told by the hospital that when we reported to our shift on Sunday, the day before the storm, to bring 3 days worth of personal belongings. As Saturday night's shift was ending on Sunday morning, my phone was exploding with friends calling me that they were evacuating, with one person calling me that their car had broken down on the interstate (it restarted and he continued to drive to California to evacuate). You see, when they call for an evacuation, they turn all lanes of the interstate into one direction away from the city, also closing all exits for hundreds of miles to encourage people to disperse over a wider area.

The other phone calls we got a lot of at work were people calling to ask if they could drop off grandma or grandpa because they did not want to evacuate with the family, we told them no and that the superdome would be open as a shelter. Knowing that we told so many people to go to the superdome became a little ominous after the fact. We also had people pretty much abandon family members at the ER with vague medical complaints so that they would not have to care for them either at home in the city or to evacuate with them. Pretty frustrating in general.

Sunday during the day I got a little sleep, but got up early to pack my camping gear to bring to the hospital and to get my car in the parking structure several floors up, away from the likely flooding streets. A regular summer afternoon rainstorm will flood the street for about 30 minutes, I could only imagine what a hurricane could do to street flooding.

I got my car in one of the last inside facing parking spots in the garage, which would be key later as the pressure change with the storm blew out people's car windows that were parked in outside facing spots and those that were on the upper deck. As I was walking from the garage to the ER I got to meet the hospital's new CEO, he was from Colorado where they do not have hurricanes and had started only 1 week before. He was being shown the building's flood protection by one of the VPs.

My shift started Sunday night at 7pm, and we spent time packing up all the supplies and beds in the ER on the first floor and moved them up to the 3rd floor where they had same day surgery center, not currently being used. The move was in anticipation of street flooding. We only had a few patients that night, a few that were the family of staff that were staying in the hospital, and one that was in line at the superdome but the daughter was tired of waiting, made up a story about her mother having chest pain, called an ambulance, and so we admitted her as a bit of a social admit so that they would be safe in the hospital. By 1am we closed our alternative ER location and got a few hours of sleep after I made rounds to touch base with nurses that I knew that worked on other floors and stood for periods of time trying to look out the windows and watch the storm. We slept on ER stretchers in unused patient rooms without windows and so you could not really hear any noise from the wind.

Many of my co-workers I could come to find out, showed up at the hospital drunk as they had been having a hurricane party at one of the ER MD's home, and they were all lined up in their rooms with IVs going to help with their hangover.

The next morning at dawn, the storm was about to make landfall (though New Orleans is a few hundred miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico), cell phones still worked, I wandered over to the parking garage to try to check out the storm and look up the street, "it is windy and rainy with a little street flooding so far" I told my mom on the phone. I wouldn't talk to them until late the next day.

I went back inside, tried to sleep again, and about 1pm with the majority of the most severe weather over, they unlocked the hospital doors allowing us outside, and I walked with an ER tech that I was rooming with to my apartment to see if everything was OK. The building looked fine and our landlord had already taken out all of the fridges, put them in the driveway and emptied the food out of them. We wondered outloud how long until we were back to normal, and we guessed 1-3 days, we had dodged a bullet.

The ER was then set to re-open Monday night, and so part of the day we spent time bringing supplies back downstairs to get ready. However, that plan changed when an overhead page went out for all available staff to report there. At that point we were on generator power and the power for some reason had failed only on the 3rd floor where the ICU was located. The plan was to transport all patients down to the ER where the generator power was still working. This took a while as the only elevator that was still working was the visitor elevator that was barely large enough for a full inpatient bed. I milled about to help the ICU staff find supplies, but I will never forget the shell shocked look on the faces of the patients as they watched us scurry around. The A/C had all but given out, and the humidity was beginning to make the linoleum floors slick, and ceiling tiles to occasional fall once they had become saturated. I was was also made fun repeatedly of for my "miner's lamp," known as a headlamp in the backpacking world, that I never understood but somewhat spoke the level of preparedness of the staff and the hospital. We did ponder breaking into the well stocked vending machines but never did in the first few days.

I headed to my room then late Monday night to try to sleep but was awakened by overhead paging for some specialist to report to the ER. Being curious and wanting to help, I headed down there. Turns out the police came literally knocking on the ER door, still closed and locked with the flood gates up. They had a man that was involved "in a drug deal gone bad" and had been stabbed in the chest. They placed a chest tube with limited medication as none was available and the ER doctor's orders for the patient read "chest xray when the electricity returns." I always wish I would have taken a picture of that order sheet. Now that the ICU was in the ER, we simply turned care over the ICU and we again were done with work.

I sat there for a little while and they were able to get one radio station tuned in and we were listening to it, people were calling in saying that the water was rising quickly, that they were getting stuck in their attics, etc. And then rumors continued to flow that the city was refilling with water and that soon the water would be up to the 3rd floor. I do not easily cry, but as I was sitting there in my sleep deprived state, I started to cry sitting with some fellow ICU nurses that I knew from school. It was over as quickly as it started and I certainly felt more embarrassed that it had happened than anything else. I needed sleep and I sought it out. I headed outside with a blanket and pillow and laid down on the helipad, there was no aircraft in the air at that time, at least near our hospital, and the air was much cooler outside than in the hospital. Looking south toward the gulf, the remnants of the storm was releasing energy and there was a spectacular lightening, but a very long ways in the distance.

After probably just a nap, I headed inside and the rumors continued to build, with the latest one being that the hospital was arranging private airplanes to evacuate the cardiologists (!). At this point, cell phones, land lines, and the phone lines (we call them bat phones) that work during power outages had all stopped working late morning on Monday, the day before. So rumors were our main source of information. We had also been hearing about widespread looting, that the roof at the superdome had collapsed and that people were shooting people in the superdome, and that the city was reflooding.

This became decision time and the ER staff started talking amongst ourselves that we were going to leave. Our rationale was that we were not being used as the ER was not open and there were no plans now to re-open anytime soon, and that we were not abandoning patients. So, in a frenzied way, we began to pack our stuff and find our co-workers to let them know of our plan, and that only those with SUVs would drive trying to get to Baton Rouge. Most of the ER staff left except for an ER MD and one of the ER techs. And as we loaded up the cars, the medical director, and former ER director told us that we would drown in our cars if we left. Well, we were going to try. Guns also came out of the woodwork as people got them ready and had them out should they need them. For a person that is never really around guns this was pretty scary stuff.

The streets uptown were pretty dry with our main obstacle being downed trees, large debris and powerlines. It was a total maze to get out, we would drive down one street only to have to turn around and try the next street. Eventually were were going up the ramp to drive over the famed bridge where police stopped people from walking across it from the convention center to the other side of the river. At the time we did not know this was even happening. What we did see, was newspaper employees crammed in a box truck like sardines with the lift up but the rolling door pulled back, and them evacuating the city. The sight was very ominous as it showed that bad things really were happening in the city when the reporters leave and that they left in a hurry due to the water rising quickly. We had smooth sailing once on the highway and were in Baton Rouge an hour later. One of the ER MD's parents lived there and that is where we headed.

To be continued...