I was feeling motivated to continue my Katrina story in light of hearing about all things Sandy going on in NYC and NJ right now. Part 1 of my Katrina story can be found here.
I am thrilled to see the rave reviews in the news of how FEMA has been handling things this time around when compared with with Katrina. I am always a little puzzled though when people are in a mandatory evacuation area and yet a few days after the storm are complaining about the government not providing enough food/water/electricity/etc. Umm, mandatory evacuation area. There just must be something about the human condition where we must re-learn the same lessons learned over and over again. Great story on NPR today about the garbage situation in NYC, I recall the large pile of garbage bags on our front lawn in New Orleans for weeks and recall that pickup began again in October, about 5 weeks or so after the storm hit.
The story left off that we had just evacuated from the hospital on Tuesday (the storm hit very early Monday morning) in New Orleans and had driven approx. 1 hour West to Baton Rouge, crashing at one of the ER MD's parents house. We took turns taking showers and calling family. I had someone at my house, I recall perhaps this was my sister, get on the interwebs right away and book a one way plane ticket from Baton Rouge to Seattle. Not knowing when the hospital may open and when life would return back to normal, I figured I could hangout in Seattle to wait for what was next. The return ticket was on the order of about $400 and was surprisingly for Thursday, 2 days away. Right after the phone call and a shower, I crashed hard on the bed in the spare bedroom for a several hour nap. We tried to watch some of the news on the TV, we were shocked at what we were seeing, but the group was not too into focusing on the TV and we didn't watch it for any length of time. After dinner, we headed next door for overflow sleeping area at the neighbors and while the kids slept in their parents bed with them, they allowed us to sleep in the kids beds. I will always remember the lady of the household setting us up with a carafe of coffee in an insulated container up in the kids play room so that we may have some once we got up. She said "I never want anyone to see me before I have had a cup of coffee."
We all felt guilty for leaving the hospital, and so on Wednesday, we had heard there was a makeshift hospital set up inside a large gym at LSU in town, so we headed there to volunteer for the day. Most of us were in the "ER section" where patients that were being evacuated from New Orleans, both private homes and hospitals and being flown in helicopters or driven in ambulances there for evaluation and then to rebook them a hospital room somewhere else in the state. There was a line of ambulances bringing patients there, and luckily an even longer line available to transfer patients to new hospitals. There were every private company of ambulances there along with helicopters landing in the adjacent field frequently. The entire setup was like a one floor hospital, with the main difference is that in disaster medical triage they will also have a black area for patients that will imminently die and/or are beyond any resources that we would have. As far as I know, they had 0-1 person over there the day we were there. The setup was run by the Public Health Corps and they were dressed in khaki uniforms that made them look like military personnel. We got armbands to show that we could administer medications after showing our medical licenses, however they had very limited medications. The ER MD whose parents we were staying with, volunteered to be in charge of the medical surgical area. Once it was decided by volunteer physicians that the patient needed to have continued or new hospitalization, then they would fill out a little slip of paper and bring it to a central desk where they had people calling hospitals to find an admitting physician and an available bed.
The most interesting thing here was there were 3-4 physicians to every RN in the whole place. So a patient would come in, they would all rattle off orders with almost no-one around to execute those orders. We had very little ancillary services so we couldn't execute most of their orders, but it was just a weird situation and opposite of staffing ratios in the hospitals. I did end up meeting a radiologist that lived a half a block away from me in New Orleans during volunteering, although I never talked to her or saw her again after that one day.
We had patients repeatedly ask to go home, and upon questioning finding out they lived in very hard hit areas where most homes had water up to the rafters. They were certainly in a bit of shock as they didn't listen to us when we told them that they would not be able to go home anytime soon. The day sped by and we headed home mid-afternoon, still uncertain of our own futures just as much as our patient's that day were.
My flight was to leave the next morning (Thursday, Katrina was early Monday morning) and I got a ride from one of my co-workers there. Sitting at the gate in a small regional airport, I chatted with a couple sitting nearby. They had evacuated from New Orleans East after walking from their flooded home to the elevated interstate from where they were evacuated from. The husband had recently had some type of brain surgery and had an extensive crown of sutures still in place across the entire top of his head. They had no idea where they would go once the plane landed in Texas (I roughly recall it was either a Houston airport that the plane was going to or Dallas-Fort Worth). We boarded on time but sat on the tarmac for 2 hours with the pilot telling us that the air traffic controllers of this small airport were directing traffic for both the airport and all of New Orleans, and they were overwhelmed which was probably an overstatement. After a layover in an airport in Texas, I arrived late night in Seattle but luckily before the last ferry to the island, where my parents live. I had with me a small bag of some clothes and camping gear, the stuff that I had taken with me to the hospital for "3 days of supplies."
It is now Friday, and to kill time I went with my sister to the local coffee shop to get online to start changing all my mailing addresses, to file with FEMA, and to figure out what was next. Early afternoon I get a call from a co-worker that had started working at a regional hospital, the same hospital that I was supposed to start orientation at on Monday, the day Katrina made landfall. They had called on Saturday, 2 days before the storm to let me know that orientation was suspended until further notice.
In this call, my friend had spoke to the ER manager at this hospital and she had said that I could start working whenever I showed up and that we could do orientation in a few weeks. I spurred into action and could find a flight only to Houston as the closest airport. I could not find a rental car from any of the regional airports, but as luck would have it, I got ahold of a co-worker that was planning to drive from Houston to NOLA on Saturday but was willing to wait until my plane landed at 1pm. So, the trip was a go with less than 48 hours in Seattle, and I was headed back to New Orleans.
After easily getting through a checkpoint on the interstate just before entering Jefferson Parish, we stopped by my co-workers home. I was spooked in an empty neighborhood at night with no power. After a quick look around, we headed to hospital #2 where I would live and work the next few weeks. He picked up his daughter and they dropped me off. This was 5 days after Katrina made landfall.
The next 7-10 days was a blur of sharing a room with a co-worker in the same day surgery unit that was not being used, sleeping on a very comfortable bed. Working at night 8 hours from 11p-7a, getting paid around the clock by the hospital for "disaster pay," and eating bad hospital food. A few times in the morning when we got off work we headed out with the national guard in their big trucks to deliver water and MRE's to people still living in their homes. We got a lot of request for ice and formula, but we had neither. Each day we would hear about a CVS opening or a gas station and to stave off boredom we would drive there during the day to buy things and to just get out. A few times I rode along as a co-worker bought chew and cigarettes to hand out to national guard to say thanks for their service.
We took a few trips to co-workers homes during the day to help clean out fridges and tear out wet carpet. Our hospital badges were a magical key for us to get around the city and through check points. One day, we took a trip from Jefferson Parish to Orleans Parish (the "county" in which NOLA resides) to pick up my car from the parking garage at the hospital I was in during the storm, and to check on one of the nurses homes in uptown NOLA. I did not grow up around guns, and during the entire storm ordeal, there were a lot of guns around and that came out of the woodwork whenever we would leave the hospital. We even had to wear our ID badged in the hospital at all times as the national guard would make rounds in the hospital and we could be stopped even when going to/from the shower area.
After 10 days of a lot of people drinking alcohol off shift, suspension of general morals that people often describe happen in war torn areas, we were told that we needed to move out of the hospital. My co-worker lived nearby and had a spare bedroom and invited me to live with her. In hindsight, the house had had 6-8 inches of water from flooding in it and there was more mold growing in it every day. We were puzzled that we couldn't get the fridge smelling non-moldy despite copious amounts of bleach to wash down the insides. Turns out we were just living in a box of mold, and after I moved back to my own apartment, they needed to cut out a good 1-2 feet of drywall throughout the home.
Part III - Continued recovery and a hospital re-opens.