This story is unfinished and will likely never be finished. It is a first draft and has plenty of spelling & grammatical errors. Writing it causes little more than sadness & anger and I don't need that. But I put a lot of work and heartache into writing it, not to mention into the events described herein! I thought it was important that what happened never be forgotten, and many have asked me about this story.
This is dedicated to all my fellow EMT's, those who know what it is like to give all you have in a thankless job. And especially to all those who were there with me - you've already saved my life, and you can do that for me again any day! You are truly the best!
We were told months ago that in the event of a Category 3 hurricane or higher, New Orleans EMS would be evacuated well ahead of the storm and return when it was safe. That didn't happen. We all met at Headquarters on Moss Street, and were assigned to various locations around the city. Some went to the LSU Dental School, Some at the Bellsouth building in New Orleans East, some at the Monteleone Hotel in the French Quarter, some at the JW Marriot downtown and a few at Moss Street. I was assigned to the Monteleone along with about 23 other EMT's. We had a single king-sized bed and 4 people to our room. The first night, when the hurricane actually began to come ashore, was fine. I had brought a bottle of wine for our down time, and the other hotel guests were perfectly happy to share their beer, true hurricane party-style. It wasn't our first storm, and we knew we would lose electricity and water at some point. We had all brought several days worth of clothes, food and water. We had no idea what we were truly in for.
As city civil servants and emergency workers, we are expected to stay when a hurricane approaches. The rest of the city was under a mandatory evacuation. They were required to get out. Many thousands chose to stay, to tough it out. The media, the mayor, the police, everyone pleaded with the populace for 3 days to get out of the city any way they could. Yet thousands who had cars and other transportation ignored the warnings and remained behind.
The next morning saw Katrina building in force, as far as our point of view was. From the parking garage at the Monteleone, we saw debris flying down the street, heard windows breaking, and were pelted by rain flying at over 100 mile per hour in the wind. As expected, there was no electricity and no running water. Many people had sought refuge there and had nowhere to go in the height of the storm. The hotel had graciously offered them what few rooms they had left for free. As I knew full well would happen, those people who got the free rooms immediately began to complain that they didn't have any electricity! I know it seems shocking to those not from New Orleans, but as a paramedic, I deal with this mentality on a daily basis. The vast majority of New Orleanians have some sort of sense of entitlement that the world owes them something. Generations of families have grown up on welfare and Medicaid, waiting for handouts, never contributing a single cent or ounce of effort to the system upon which they depend. I have delivered babies to mothers who deliberately got pregnant so as to enlarge their government welfare check. I am not kidding. I have seen it with my own eyes on countless occasions. And here this was being perpetuated under the direst of circumstances, at the beginning of the greatest natural disaster ever to strike the United States.
The night of the hurricane itself wasn't to bad, protected as we were. There were some moments we found ourselves laughing hysterically at the circumstances. One or two other hotel guests had their windows blown in. We laughed when we heard about it; they said they were trapped in their room and couldn't open the door. We wondered, how does one could get trapped inside a room that locks from the inside? The guests later told us that they couldn't open the door because of the pressure from the inrushing wind. That impressed us about the power of the storm. Dave was one of the paramedics in my room and we rolled on the floor at him as he was afraid the magnetic key card wouldn't work in our door once we left the room because the electricity was out. I guess he figured that the door needed to be plugged in or something.
We spent Sunday morning huddled in the hall, in our rooms or in the parking garage wondering what we were going to do once the storm was past. We worried about our houses, our families, our things. All in all, a typical hurricane detail at the city.
I took up in the entrance to the parking garage on Bienville Street. About two dozen other people were there too. No one had a battery powered radio or TV, so the only outside information we could get was through our dispatch radios, listening to other EMS crews and police channels. We got word that the levee in the lower 9th ward had broken. I wondered at what that part of town must be like now. True, it was one of the worst parts of town, but it was part of my city. Many of my friends' parents and grandparents had grown up in the 9th ward. Despite the poverty and crime and rampant drug trafficking there, it had still maintained the character of New Orleans, with decrepit but still beautiful architecture and old-city feel to it. We had no idea how bad the devastation would be, but we knew it wouldn't be easily repairable.
The group of our co-workers at the Bellsouth building in New Orleans East reported in, saying that as daylight broke, they could see the floodwaters all around them. They had taken refuge on the higher floors and as far as the eye could see, water was enveloping the houses at least to the first floor. Many single-story houses were only visible by the roofs sticking out of the water. All their ambulances and other vehicles had been parked below, and were now destroyed. They had no way to get out.
At the LSU Dental School on Florida Blvd, the group called in to say that they too were trapped, as the storm was dumping tons of water on the city and the floods had risen high enough to trap them in the building. They were able to park their ambulances on a nearby overpass on Wisner Blvd. The ambulances were OK, but there was no way to get to them because of the intervening floods between the school and the overpass a half-mile away. At the moment, though, they were all right.
After the wind died down and the rain stopped, we ventured out into the city to retrieve our EMS units. We had parked our ambulances at the Superdome under the overhang for the protection it offered, so we piled into the one ambulance we had kept at the hotel and headed over there. In the few short blocks we drove, we were aghast at the amount of trees down and buildings demolished. In front of the Superdome on Poydras Street, every high-rise building as far as we could see looked as if it had been struck by a tornado, and in fact, they had. A 300-mile-wide tornado had broken windows on every floor and had ripped off façades on every building and skyscraper in New Orleans. Office papers, broken glass and debris continued to flutter down to street level, causing us to retreat to our ambulances to avoid getting hit. We had to keep convincing ourselves that this was real, that it wasn't a huge movie set, that we weren't sitting comfortably in a cinema watching some end-of-the-world film while we munched on popcorn and Goobers. As the shock began to settle in, we began hearing calls come in on the radio for the rescue of stranded and injured civilians. We began responding to emergency calls, but were at a loss as to what to do with the sick and injured because virtually every hospital was locked down and on emergency power with no water or any advanced life support services. Since there was little else we could do, we dropped those needing immediate medical care off at the hospital and those who only needed shelter or had minor complaints or injuries were brought to the shelter at the Superdome. It was a mob scene there. In the years that the Dome had been used as a shelter during hurricanes, it had only once gotten more than 1500 refugees seeking shelter; now there were 15,000. Quite few were poor or elderly, simple folks who just had no way out of the city. But many of these were people who simply chose to stay; of the mentality that “someone” would take care of them, that they needed to do nothing to take care of themselves. Many had functional vehicles, but chose to stay despite the repeated warnings to flee the city prior to the storm. I saw this myself the day before. I had taken my motorcycle to the parking garage at Tulane hospital where it would be safe. On the way I passed dozens of families and groups of people in front of their houses barbecuing and drinking, no doubt having what we call in New Orleans a “hurricane party,” all with vehicles in perfectly good shape out front, ignoring the warnings that had been sounded for three days to evacuate the danger zone.
We began to collect our thoughts, and focus on the task at hand. We moved away from the falling debris on Poydras and reassembled outside of the emergency room at Charity Hospital, our home-away-from-home. Floodwater had inundated the far end of the ambulance ramp on Gravier Street; the near end was still dry. The cross-street, Freret, was blocked by a fallen tree. EMT training teaches you that whenever you park your vehicle, make sure that there is a way for you to exit so you're not trapped. Where we were parked at the moment, we were trapped.
Earlier, I had noticed that one of our other paramedics, Ron Pelas, had brought a small chainsaw with him. I had poked fun of him at the time, thinking that the power tools was a tad bit of overkill. When he pulled it out and began sawing the tree on Freret Street, I realized that I should try to stick close to that guy. Several of us walked over and began clearing away the sawed-off boughs. When enough weight had been shed from the tree, it took about a dozen of us to move the trunk off the street so the road was passable. Doctors, nurses and civilians on the ambulance ramp across the street watched us and cheered as we cleared the road. They knew New Orleans EMS could handle a lot of weird situations, but that knowledge took on a whole new dimension as they added 'tree-clearing' to our already lengthy repertoire of skills.
By this time, several other units had been dispatched to respond to calls, and I was assigned to wait at Charity hospital until I was needed to respond. In addition to myself, Katrina Lewis, Tommy Evans and Katrina McCrary were assigned to my ambulance crew. As coworkers, I love both Katrina's but I would have more than enough “Katrina” in the days to come! While we were waiting, I decided to take my ambulance and drive to my house in Lakeview to see how my house had fared. As I drove up and down the Interstate, I saw nothing but water where streets should have been. At least the levees in this part of town hadn't broken. The flood that currently existed was bad, but no worse than the bad floods New Orleans had experienced before – like the May 8th flood twenty years earlier, the May 9th & 10th floods from ten years ago, Hurricane Betsy in 1965. I searched for a way into my neighborhood, but all the accesses were flooded. My neighborhood doesn't usually flood, but the surrounding areas do. There is an Interstate exit two blocks from my house, but I couldn't access that either, as the route goes through an underpass which was under 25 feet of water. Incidentally, it is that underpass at Metairie Road where I had found two men drowned after the May 9th &10th flood ten years earlier. I gave up trying to get to my neighborhood and asked over the radio what part of town we were expected to cover. They sent us to Algiers, the part of New Orleans across the Mississippi River, on the West Bank.
I drove across the Mississippi River Bridge, officially called the Crescent City Connection, or CCC for short. I was amazed to find that Algiers was dry. The West Bank is usually the first part of New Orleans to flood. We met up with the other two units assigned there at the Crescent City Connection police station at the foot of the bridge. We remained there for an hour or so when I noticed how quiet the radio was. I heard no one being dispatched to scenes, no crews advising their status. As I checked my radio to make sure it was still on, I saw that it was not receiving a signal from the trunking towers! Communications were out! I scrolled through the channels, trying to find an alternate tower from which to transmit a signal. The only one I could find was the tower at Moisant Airport (Louis Armstrong International), but the tower is at the far limit of our radios' range so communications were spotty at best. One other EMT, Jacob Oberman, had realized the situation; he was on the radio talking to me, but he was stranded by floodwaters at the LSU Dental School. I told him I would try to find the rest of our people and tell them to switch their radios to the functioning tower. Jacob also informed me that one of the police officers there had fallen down some stairs and appeared to have fractured his leg earlier that afternoon. The EMT's at the building had splinted it and given him an IV and morphine, but he would need to be evacuated to receive further care. At the time, though, there was no way to get him out.
One of the problems in getting everyone to the one working channel was the fact that many of our EMT's were relatively new, with fewer than 5 years of experience with New Orleans EMS, including our new Administrator, Dr. Saussy and our new Operations Manager, Mark Reis. and Mark had both been EMT's for New Orleans, but that was way back in the 80's, before we had gotten this radio system. They had only been part of EMS since January, 2005. New Orleans had gotten the radio system in early 1994, along with a comprehensive overview for the the employees of how the radios worked. Now most of those old-time EMT's were gone, having moved on to bigger and better things. Only a handful were still there that received the original training on the radios. I doubted Dr. Saussy and Mark had gotten a full briefing on the intricacies of switching to different transmission towers. I tried to call other EMT's on my cell phone, but the cell towers were down; there was no cell phone communication in addition to the very limited radio communication we now had. Along with being unable to contact one another within EMS, we couldn't contact anyone in what was now the outside world. We had no idea what had become of our families and loved ones who had evacuated New Orleans and we now on the outside, wondering what had become of us. We tried to put this anxiety out of our head, to focus on the immediate tasks at hand. We would have to make do with what we had.
I advised the other EMT's at the police station on the situation. I showed Clarence, Jeff and Carl how to switch channels so they could have communications, then drove back across the river to search for our ambulances with the message. A few units were still at Charity Hospital. The far end of the ambulance ramp was still underwater, but at least the ramp was still accessible. I walked up the ramp to find the EMT's. As I probed through the chaos of the emergency room, I bumped into Dr. Halton. Dr Halton was in charge of the ER and he asked if I could find some cans of gasoline. Since the main generator had failed, he was trying to power the emergency room with portable generators he had brought from his house. Along with the power failure, the laboratory had been flooded so the hospital was unable to run blood tests, the operating rooms had been damaged by wind and water that had entered through broken windows, and ventilators providing life support to critical patients had begun to fail, requiring hospital staff to stand at the patients' sides and manually breathe for them with Ambu bags. Without power, they couldn't even take X-rays. The hospital could now only provide more or less the same level of care that we could in the ambulance. And this was the case not just with Charity, but with every hospital in New Orleans. I didn't even want to think about what it would be like to be a patient at a hospital in the middle of this.
I tried to contact Brenda Carter about Charity's needs. She's one of our paramedic supervisors who was working in the Office of Emergency Preparedness (OEP) on the ninth floor of city hall. I got no response over the radio; she didn't know about the failure of the radio towers. Fortunately City Hall is only a few blocks from Charity so I drove over there to find Brenda. At OEP I discovered that even with the radio set to the proper channel, the concrete walls of City Hall prevent the signal from getting through! Worse yet, the landline telephones at City Hall were out of service too! Apparently there is no backup communications system in the backbone of our emergency system! OEP might as well have been located on the moon for all the help they were able to offer. Charity was just going to have to manage as best they could, just as the rest of us were. We assigned Katrina Lewis to remain at City Hall to assist Brenda, but I wasn't sure how much help an extra body would be at the all but useless OEP. Tommy, Katrina McCrary and myself left to try and re-establish communications with our remaining functioning crews.
I realized that we were going to have to try to coordinate our communications with the police and fire departments. At this point I heard that the prisoners had rioted in Central Lockup and taken over police headquarter at Tulane and Broad. Police headquarters is where their communications systems are! All 911 calls come in through that center! Even though the police had taken back headquarters in short order, it was clear that police communications were not going be under control anytime soon. Fire and EMS communications were at a separate location in the city, but those centers had been evacuated prior to the storm and had long ceased operations since the day before. I continued to try to find our people to tell them to switch to the Moisant tower. I met up with Frank Petta and Luke Strack and their crews. Actually, I almost got into an accident with Luke as we both blew our respective stop signs on adjoining streets! As I advised the various crews I encountered, I told them to spread the word to other crews so that we could have working communications again. Slowly, over the course of several hours, the rest of the crews got the message and reported in over the radio.
After my near-accident with Luke, my crew and I drove back to Charity to let Dr. Halton know the situation. I walked into the emergency room, through what had become utter chaos. As night began to fall, people by the hundreds had walked to Charity. Some had legitimate medical complaints, but most had arrived simply seeking shelter. Charity Hospital had given them free medical care for generations, so they figured that Charity would continue the free handouts. Many generated make-believe medical complaints to get them into the system as patients with a “need” to be there. The sheer number of people, coupled with the lack of services the hospital was able to provide and the growing darkness of night, made the emergency room an almost nightmarish place of confusion and desperation. Kathy, a nurse there who also worked with me at Tulane Hospital, broke down in tears at the bedlam. She, like us, had no idea what had become of her home, her family or her friends. And there was no end in sight of the deteriorating social order.
Amid the worsening confusion, I gave up trying to find Dr. Halton. All I had to deliver to him was bad news, anyway. I left the ER and walked down the ramp. To where my ambulance was parked. At the bottom of the ramp I stepped in water that was up to my ankles. As I shook the water off my boots, I thought about where the water level had been earlier in the day. It had covered the exit of the ramp down the street, but the entrance, closer up the street had been dry. Now there was nearly six inches of water at the ramp entrance! Why would the water be rising half a day after the rain had ended? The answer dawned on me like another hurricane on the horizon: the remaining levees that protected the central part of the city must have broken!
I envisioned the vast volume of water contained in Lake Pontchartrain. The lake is spanned by the longest bridge over water in the world, the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. It is 24 miles long north to south. The lake is about twice that distance wide east to west. Under normal circumstances, the levees keep millions of tons of water outside the city. Now, though, the lake was swollen with extra millions of tons of rainwater and storm surge that had been dumped there by Hurricane Katrina.
The narrow concrete and dirt barriers had failed, allowing those thousands of cubic yards of water to begin to inundate the city that I had grown up in, gone to school in, worked in, gotten married in and was the setting for so many of my memories.
I couldn't imagine how bad it would get, but I knew there wasn't much time to dwell on the matter. New Orleans is, on average, six feet below sea level, some parts lower than that. With all the extra water in the lake, I knew that six feet of water in the city would be the best scenario we could hope for. In the few minutes I spent contemplating this, the water had risen visibly. We had to get to higher ground. In exploring the city earlier, I knew that the existing floods had already cut off any routes out. We would have to find refuge somewhere downtown. The only high ground we could drive to was the Superdome.
Most of the crews in town who still had ambulances were on the working radio channel. I interrupted someone's transmission and called out “6234 to all units. The water is rising in the city. I think the levees have broken. We're going to need to get to high ground to park our units. The Superdome is the only place you can get to if you're downtown. All units, 10-8 to the the Dome ASAP. Acknowledge!”
One by one, the other crews responded.
“Yeah I thought the water was getting higher.”
“10-4. We'll meet you there!”
“Copy that. Where should we meet at the dome?”
Crews continued to respond, and we gave directions to those who were unfamiliar with the process of getting their ambulance up onto the mezzanine level on the outside of the Superdome. As we drove up to the Superdome on Poydras Avenue, we passed by the spot where we had parked earlier, which had been dry just a few hours earlier. Now the corner of Poydras and LaSalle was under a foot and a half of water. Our ambulances would barely make it through. I pulled up to the big ramp in front of the Dome that leads up to the higher level. As we arrived on the mezzanine level, we were encountered a large crowd of refugees gathered outside to smoke or get some fresh air. The National Guard was keeping them in tight groups outside of the Superdome entrances. We pulled past the barricade and circled the Dome to where our units had been parked the night before during the storm. Military vehicles now occupied that space, so we found an empty spot near the ramp that adjoins the Superdome with the New Orleans Arena. I pleaded with the other units to come to the Dome as quickly as possible. The water around the area was barely passable; in less than a few hours, they would be unable to get to the Dome at all, and we needed to stay together. Eventually, all the functional ambulances had joined us, eight in all. About 35 EMT's were there. We parked our ambulances together and gathered our people. We surveyed our surroundings. There were about 15,000 people at the Dome who had come seeking refuge. In the night, with no water or electricity, the inside of the Dome was crowded, dark, hot and stunk like an unflushed toilet. There were plenty of National Guard vehicles around, but only about 200 Guardsmen. Some patrolled with M16 rifles slung over their shoulders. Cedric Palmisano, one of our paramedics, had served with the National Guard. He pointed out that those with weapons had no magazine clips in the rifles. Rifles with no bullets! They may as well have been carrying around baseball bats. I wondered how well they would be able to control the crowd. As we had been driving around the Dome, Tommy and I spied two separate fights break out in the crowds milling about the Dome entrances. Here were thousands of people all thrown together, who under normal circumstances would be out doing what they usually do. From an EMS standpoint, that meant they would be dealing and doing drugs, shooting, stabbing and beating each other up, and be busy having their medical issues that they didn't take their medicines for. I wondered how many people would have heart attacks, strokes, diabetic crises, seizures and asthma attacks and there wouldn't be a damn thing we could do for them. Now I discovered that should they riot or otherwise get violent, there would be little backup from the virtually unarmed National Guard.
We set ourselves up for what would certainly be a very, very long night.
“We NEED evacuation of this police officer!” Oberman shouted over the radio. Well, I never heard Jacob actually shout; he has something of a Zen quality about him. He always appears calm, cool, almost otherworldly. Hard to believe he's a black belt in three different schools of martial arts. But on this occasion, we could hear the stress in his voice. The policeman had been in the LSU Dental School since that morning with a broken leg. “We've given him morphine for the pain, but he's a diabetic, and there's no insulin around here. His blood sugar is increasing, and he's not doing well. He needs more care than we can provide,” Jacob explained over the radio.
“I have no way of getting him out of there, Jacob,” Yolanda explained over the radio. Yolanda Wilson was one of the supervisors who had made it to the Dome with us. She had been in the Monteleone Hotel with us the night before. Along with Kevin Hoag, another supervisor, they were the only two administrative personnel at the Superdome. At the time, the title 'Supervisor' held little weight anymore. We were alone. Alone, that is, with 15,000 other hurricane refugees. We still hadn't heard from Dr. Saussy or Mark. OEP was still silent. No city official had contacted us, and we had little way of communicating with the outside world. The only information we could get was through AM radio in the ambulances, and that told us little we didn't already know – that the levees had broken in five places and the city was screwed. We began to feel completely abandoned. No one was trying to help us, no one was coming to get us. Unlike the thousands of people in the Superdome with us, we knew what was going on in the “rescue” efforts – nothing. At least the civilian refugees had the illusion that something would happen, someone would help them. At least the National Guard was there with MRE's and bottled water. They brought us a few cases, and some of us had managed to bring some food that we had brought with us to the hotels the night before, but much of our personal effects were still there in the hotels.
I wanted to check out the surroundings. It was inadvisable to venture into the Superdome alone, we had already witnessed a few fights and individuals yelling at the National Guard, so I took a few people with me and headed into the stadium. The first thing I noticed was the stench. As I walked into the building, I was hit by the smell of those thousands of individuals who ordinarily bathed only infrequently. Now they had spent the better part of two days smashed together, with no electricity for air conditioning, and no water to flush a toilet with. I couldn't stand it for more than a few minutes, so I directed our little group to head back outside.
At least everyone had checked in. Everyone except Ray Mandola, Dave Wilson and Thomas Jordan who had all been at headquarters at Moss Street. We weren't sure what had happened to them. Last we heard, they had taken refuge in the upstairs loft where we kept all the supplies. But they were big boys, and we felt confident that they could take care of themselves. As long as looters didn't decide to hit Moss Street. Cliff Washington, the supervisor in the Bellsouth building in New Orleans East began calling over the radio, saying that civilians and looters were wading up to the building, shooting at the building, demanding to be let in. They had no intention of doing so, but the desperation in Cliff's voice was palpable. They felt just as abandoned as we did, and there were no bulletless National Guardsmen or any other images of authority with them, armed or otherwise.
Jacob continued calling out over the radio that the policeman was getting worse. They had reached the limit of the care they could provide and they needed to get him out. Still, no one responded. He had been calling all day for assistance, but none was forthcoming. I finally realized that if anyone was going to organize any kind of a rescue effort for those other city employees who were trapped, the effort was going to come from us individuals. We couldn't afford to have the same mentality as the refugees in the Dome, who expected everything to be simply handed to them. Generally though, we had a plan for most situations. Big events like Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest were planned for every year, and we were all accustomed to the big, unpredictable events. But now with the scope of devastation becoming more apparent, the lack of planning for a situation like this became clearer and clearer.
Listening to Jacob's repeated, unanswered pleas over the radio, I became convinced that if any action was to be taken to rescue the injured cop and the others at the Dental School, I was going to have to take the lead. I don't enjoy taking command of situations, but I'm very capable of doing so. 14 years of working for EMS and dealing with one unstable situation after another had sharpened my skills in doing so. Never, though, had I been in a situation like this. I considered my options and the logistics of the situation. I went over to the edge of the deck on the Superdome and surveyed the encroaching water. The street that had been bone dry just a few hours before was now covered with a lake at least three feet deep. I had no idea how much higher the water would rise, so any rescue effort would have to come now. There was a nearby group of National Guard. I walked up to one of them and explained he situation, that we needed rescue of an injured policeman and several other emergency workers. He said I'd need to talk to his commander. He pointed me to another Guardsman and I repeated my story. The commander said he would put me in touch with his General. I expected him to call over his radio to the central command. Then I realized he had no radio. The National Guard not only had no communications with the civilian world, they didn't have any communication among themselves! The commander assigned a soldier to lead me to the General. Their office had been set up on the exact opposite side of the Dome. We walked over there (a long way in the dark through the throngs of refugees gathered at the exits) and found the General. Once again I explained the situation. He said he'd be happy to detail one of his “deuce-and-a-half” trucks to help me out. The soldier I was with volunteered to drive, and he said he would be outside the office in the truck in twenty minutes.
I walked all the way back around the Stadium to inform Yolanda and the rest of our people what I was planning. Given the instability of the situation, my coworkers looked at me incredulously. We had heard the reports of looters and shooters in the city and they asked who I gotten to go on the rescue attempt. Considering my limited options, I said I would go. Becky Calvo, Faith Upton, Liz Farrell and Tommy Evans reluctantly wished me good luck and hugged me goodbye. I got the distinct impression that they did not want me to go. I knew though, that if the cop and the others were to get out of there, someone was going to have to take the lead.
I walked back to the office and contemplated how I was going to get to the school. What route would we take, how deep would the water be? Would it be too deep even for the big truck? As I walked, I heard Ron Pelas over the radio, the paramedic who had brought the chainsaw and cut up the tree across from Charity Hospital. Apparently he had gotten in touch with the Wildlife and Fisheries Department and was beginning to coordinate rescue efforts using their boats. Wildlife and Fisheries had a large contingent of skiffs, airboats and assorted other shallow-draft vessels. We had been hoping they would show up, and now there was a way to get our people out! I called Ron over the radio and let him know my plans for the cop at the Dental School. We conversed about the logistics of the situation and decided that he would send boats to the school to get the policeman and then they would head to the Interstate 610 where my truck would meet up and take him to Tulane Hospital.
I finally made it back to the office where my deuce-and-a-half was waiting. The deuce-and-a-half is a huge truck, designed for extreme situations. What a Hummer is to a Honda Civic, the deuce-and-a-half is to the Hummer. It's massive. The cab is about five feet off the ground; the back end of the cargo area is about six or seven feet off the ground. The tires are about five feet in diameter. It's big.
A Guardsman was waiting nearby. He came up to me and asked if I was the paramedic with the special mission. “Special mission?” I thought. That sounds pretty cool! I don't think I've ever had an official special mission before! My head inflated just a bit. I answered the guardsman “yes” and briefed (briefed!) him on the details of the plan. The other soldier walked up and told me to hop in, they were ready to go. I climbed in and told him the best way to get to the Interstate. Downtown was deeply flooded. There was no way our ambulances could have gotten through. One of the soldiers pointed out how high the water was on a car parked on Poydras that they had apparently been using as a depth gauge. The water was about six inches below the window. It had been a foot lower only two hours before. We navigated down LaSalle to Tulane Avenue where the on-ramp to the I-10 was. The water at the foot of the ramp was nearly too deep for the big truck, but we were able to make it. Finally we were on the elevated freeway. As I looked down to street level, all I could see was the glint of starlight on water where streets should have been. The waterline was well up on the sides of the houses and buildings, much higher than it had been earlier that day. I could only imagine what my neighborhood was like, and those of my family. The more I thought about it, the more depressed I got. I decided to make conversation with the soldiers.
“So how did you get the privilege of being at the dome?” I asked.
“We were sent here from Alexandria, Louisiana. Our mission is to 'feed the dome.'”
“'Feed the dome?'” I replied. “Not for security or rescue or anything? How many of you are there?”
“Nope, just to feed them. And security? Have you seen our weapons? The ones with no rounds?”
“Yes, I noticed that. Fat lot of good those are going to do. You know those people are going to riot, don't you?”
“We wouldn't be surprised.” The other soldier responded. “This afternoon we were handing out MRE's and water, 'feeding the dome' like we're supposed to, and this woman took the MRE, looked at and said 'I don't want this shit!' and threw it right back in my face!”
“Yeah the same thing happened to me this afternoon,” the first guardsman said.
The guardsman driving thought for a bit and said “You know, I just got back from Baghdad, from the war in Iraq. The conditions there were better and I felt safer in Baghdad than here.”
“Welcome to New Orleans, “ I replied. “Somehow I knew that if there were ever a major disaster here, this is how it would turn out – anarchy.”
We continued to drive down the Interstate; occasionally I would check on the radio with Ron to find out his progress. “We're not there yet. We're still getting all the boats in the water.” It would be a while. We stopped the deuce-and-a-half at the off-ramp at Elysian Fields Avenue and North Galvez. I was trying to picture where Ron wanted to meet us. For the moment I couldn't think how to get onto the I-610 from the I-10 without plowing through eight-foot deep water. I knew this city like the back of my hand, but the fatigue and anxiety was getting the best of me and I was drawing a blank.
As I tried to collect my thoughts, I stared out the window into the blackness around me. Across Elysian Fields on another Interstate ramp, groups of refugees climbed up out of the water. One of them had a boat, but apparently it wasn't working. They tried to get the engine started, but it wouldn't turn over. After watching them struggle for about ten or fifteen minutes, it seemed they figured out that the massive vehicle across the street (ours) was a military truck. Some of them began pushing the boat through the water with a pole toward us. I knew they were going to come ask us for aid, but we had no aid to offer. Besides Ron had called over the radio saying that his boats were heading for the LSU Dental school. Watching the group in the broken boat, I was reminded of the countless times that random people had strolled up to my ambulance asking me to “check their blood pressure” or to seek medical advice, usually for ridiculous problems. “Yeah, my uncle has cancer, and I started coughing last week. You think I caught cancer?” As annoying as that was, I thought back to the crowds at the Dome and the fearful looks I got when I said I was going on this mission, looks from my coworkers that said they feared for my life. I began to realize that the group of desperate, unpredictable people approaching us outnumbered me and the guards 3-to-1. The guards, too, had been unnerved by the barely-controlled throngs they had been dealing with for two days. I suggested we get the hell out of there before they reached us. They agreed and we started the truck and backed up the ramp. Back on the Interstate was a group of State Police and other law-enforcement agencies. We stopped and I asked the best way to get to the I-610 where we could meet the boat carrying the injured police officer. A Wildlife and Fisheries agent explained to take the I-10/610 split the wrong way and head back up the 610 the wrong way. Of course! Why couldn't I have figured that out? I guess I had a lot on my mind.
I contacted Ron on the radio to let him know we were almost at the meeting point. As we arrived at the 610 at the St. Bernard exit, we saw a number of fire trucks, State Police trailers and various other official-looking vehicles. As the road dipped down into the water, we could see the Wildlife and Fisheries boats arriving with civilians. I asked some of the agents about the rescue attempt of the EMS and Police from the school. They informed me that aside from the policeman, for some reason they refused to go. I tried calling Jacob about why they wouldn't get out of there; he said that they were OK and would try to get out in the morning. It was beyond me why they chose to stay when boats were right there, tonight. At any rate, W&F was now occupied with retrieving stranded survivors from the nearby St. Bernard housing projects. The policeman was waiting for us nearby, secured to a cardboard stretcher lying on the pavement. We found him and had to figure out a way to get him into the deuce-and-a-half. The truckbed was about seven feet off the ground and this cop easily weighed 300+ pounds. I recruited the guards and a couple of firemen and a W&F agent to help lift him. I doubted the structural strength of the cardboard litter he was attached to, but was impressed by it's design when it didn't buckle at all. As we slid the litter into the bare floor of the truck, Ruel Duvillier, a fireman who used to be a paramedic with EMS, ran up to us.
“Fitz, I need you to came check out a man who's been stabbed! He's right over there,” he shouted, pointing to a group of people that were yelling at each other. Several state troopers had some of them face down on the ground.
“Ruel, what's going on?” I asked.
“Well, Wildlife and Fisheries is trying to rescue them and they're all getting up to their usual ways. They've been here for about an hour and they're already up to their usual tricks. There's been at least three fights and now they've started stabbing each other. The guys in the boats say the people still in the projects are getting in fights and shooting each other too.”
“But why? That doesn't make any sense! It's all gone, what are they fighting over? These people here are being rescued and they're starting fights with each other and with the cops?” My patience was worn out. I no longer cared about these idiots who had stayed behind despite the days of pleading and their consequent ignoring of the warnings. Now they were arguing and fighting not only with each other, but even with the very ones they were depending on to rescue them. I told Ruel “I'm not going over there. It's not safe. If they want to kill each other, let 'em. They all said they were going to ride out the storm and its aftermath; well, let them ride it the fuck out!”
“You're right man. You go take the cop; I'll handle the situation here,” Ruel said.
“OK, man. Be careful.” I told the guardsmen that we were ready to go. He asked how to get to the hospital. I tried to give him very detailed instructions as I was going to be in the back of the truck and there was no window or anything between the cab and the back. If he got lost, there would be no way for me to redirect them.
I climbed up into the truck and tried to assess my patient. There was no light in the truck. I pulled out my pocket flashlight and tried to take a look. His leg was swollen and bruised, with a cardboard splint that the EMT's had applied at the school. He also had an IV, the bag of fluid was nearly empty. I tried to ask him questions about his age, medical history, medications, etc. He could barely speak to me. Jacob had said he was a diabetic and hadn't had his insulin in a couple of days. He seemed to be hyperglycemic, glucose building up in his blood with no insulin to get it into the body tissues. I had precious little equipment, other than my own jump bag. I pulled out a new bag of saline and spiked it onto the IV line to give him a saline bolus to try and dilute the concentration of glucose. I hesitated to give him any more morphine for pain, his level of consciousness was decreased enough already. After the truck had begun to to head back up the road, I contemplated how much rougher the ride was, compared to the back of an ambulance. It was nearly impossible to sit on the bench, so I assumed a place on the floor of the pitch-black truck next to the cop. I had to hold onto the cardboard litter to keep him from sliding around the truck bed. And at 300 pounds, that was no easy task. I vowed I would never complain about the rough ride in the back of an ambulance again.
The guards followed the route I had dictated, taking the interstate the wrong way back downtown. Our destination was Tulane Hospital, which was still somewhat functional. Its designers hadn't made the mistake of placing the emergency generators in the basement. But since we were heading up the road the wrong way, all the signs pointing out the exits were facing the wrong way, and I doubted the guards would recognize the way back. The only way I could point out the exit was if I hung out the side of the truck and hollered into the drivers side window. Sure enough, that's what I did. I pulled back the heavy canvas and hung as far out as as I could while moving at 60 mile per hour. I banged on the wall of the cab and yelled to get off at the next exit when the guard rolled down the window. Evidently he understood and pulled off at the right place. At the bottom of the ramp, the water was higher than it had been when we left. We slowly drove through the encroaching lake until we got to LaSalle Street, where Tulane's Emergency Department's ramp was. While not exactly high and dry, the water had not yet inundated the Emergency Room. And was only a few inches deep. The deuce-and-a-half made it up onto the ramp, completely occupying the entire space and barely clearing the overhead awning, which was now a bare metal frame since Katrina had removed it the night before. Was the hurricane only yesterday? It seemed like days. And the aftermath was just beginning.
John Mullins, Mike Condatore and Greg Gavel met us on the ramp. They were nurses at Tulane, Greg is one of my best friends and I had known him since he used to work as an EMT at NOHD ten years ago. I also worked at Tulane full-time as a nurse; my paramedic job was actually my part-time gig. I was happy to see that all my co-workers were safe there.
I asked to get a stretcher onto the ramp, since it was going be hard to get the cop out of the truck at all, let alone haul him into the hospital on the cardboard litter.
For some reason, Dr. Moises was unwilling to allow a stretcher to be brought out. I couldn't figure out why, but no matter. I said “OK, doc, in that case why don't you come out here and help us haul him out of the truck?” He looked at the size of the policeman and studied the height of the truck. He disappeared inside the hospital and moments later reappeared pushing a stretcher out onto the ramp to the back of the truck. John, Mike, the guards and I pulled the litter out onto the stretcher. Greg was still recovering from a fractured leg from a motorcycle accident. He had only been back at work two weeks and wasn't able to help pull the big guy out. I went directly upstairs with the cop to a hospital room since the ER wasn't functioning any longer due to the rising water. When I got back downstairs I tried to catch up with Greg. He had been my roommate for a few weeks till he broke his leg and couldn't get up the twisting, narrow Staircase of Death to my apartment on his crutches. Before the hurricane he had helped me relocate my motorcycle to the Tulane parking garage where it would be safer. We had had a conversation regarding the dozens of groups we saw remaining in New Orleans despite the repeated pleas to evacuate.
“None of these people have any idea how bad this might be,” I had told Greg. “We've both been through hurricanes before, but looking at the radar today, I started to get this sense that this one might be the Big One.”
“Can you imagine what will happen if it hits us directly? The bodies?” he had asked me.
“I think there'll be at least 10,000 dead with all these people staying here.” I had replied.
Now in Tulane's ER, in the light of the emergency illumination, we looked around where there had been a perfectly normal city just a day or so ago. The water was lapping at the door, the heat made just breathing an exhausting activity, and the hospital smell coupled with the raw sewage in the water made that breathing additionally unpleasant. Greg and the rest of the staff were occupied moving equipment and patients upstairs to the third floor in the endoscopy lab. He had finished his shift and was curiously attired in his pajama bottoms, t-shirt and Spongebob Squarepants fuzzy slippers. At least he hadn't lost his sense of humor. Humor, I sensed, was going to be crucial to our psychological survival over the coming days and weeks. “Remember the conversation we had yesterday about if the Big One hits New Orleans?”
He took a look around us at the ruined hospital and the disease-ridden water now pushing into the doors. “Yes, and the scary thing is, the hurricane missed us. This is all from a glancing blow.”
I confirmed that observation and talked a little more about the hospitals plans. Apparently they were moving the patients and staff all together to prepare for whatever evacuation plan might come to pass. Greg had no idea what that might be. At least he had gotten his cat, Rhett, and some of the other staff's pets and family members out of the hotel down the street where they were staying. He had used the inflatable raft I had helped him load into his truck a day or so earlier. I recalled that at the time I had poked fun at him for being over-prepared. Now I was impressed that he had had the foresight to bring all that food, water, raft, camping gear, cooking utensils and whatnot. I thought I had prepared myself well, but no matter how much I had brought, not of it would prove to be much use in the days to come.
After chatting with Greg for a while, I knew it was time to get back to the Superdome. I was exhausted and didn't want to think anymore; not about the flooding, rescuing people, where my family was, what we were going to to do, where the future would lead. It was about 11:00 pm by this time. Back at the truck, the guys were ready to head back, but none of us were looking forward to returning to the debacle of human suffering that awaited us at the Dome. Nonetheless, we piled into the truck and headed the four blocks back. Since we had left, the water had risen appreciably downtown. The tall truck was well able to handle it, but there were areas that the soldiers said were too deep, even for the deuce-and-a-half.
Back at the Dome, Melinda, Faith, Becky, Tommy and others gave me a very warm welcome. I was happy to see everyone. All the medics who weren't trapped in the Bellsouth building or the LSU Dental School were there, with the exception of a few who had remained on the West Bank. Everyone had checked in, and we at least knew where everyone was. Except Mark and Juliette; we hadn't heard from them since our briefing at Moss Street the day before. Had it only been a day? It seemed like weeks.
Many of the EMT's came up to me and asked about using the deuce-and-a-half to return to the Marriott and the Monteleone to recover their personal effects and the medical gear that had been left behind. I was a little reluctant to ask them for another journey out into the dark water in the middle of the night, but everyone seemed determined to get their stuff. I could hardly blame them; I too had my own things back there I needed. Finally I went back to the truck where the guards were still standing. I explained our situation, but I was afraid of overstepping my boundaries in the use of the truck that the federal government had loaned me. However the guys were more than happy to help us out. “This truck is assigned to you. We can help you do whatever you need.” God bless the U.S. Army!
I returned to our camp and told everyone that needed to get personal gear to be at the truck in twenty minutes. That was a great morale booster, everyone was thrilled that they could at least have the stuff they came with, since no on knew how badly their homes were damaged. Guesstimating city-wide damage from the rising water and the devastation from the storm, whatever was in those hotel rooms was all we had left in the world. In addition, much of our medical gear, radio and EKG monitor batteries, battery chargers and medications were still back there. Seeing as there were no hospitals functioning, our eight ambulances were all the city had as far as medical care went, besides the overwhelmed clinic downstairs at the Dome, and dealing with the ever-rising population there, providing emergency care for them was a daunting prospect. Many of the refugees were people who had barely marginal health in the best of times. On top of the asthma attacks, diabetic comas, seizures and chest pains, there were going to be fights, possibly shootings, people suffering withdrawals from their normally plentiful drugs and alcohol, and the enormous population of schizophrenics and psychiatric patients who were going to totally lose it with the lack of medicine and disruption in their lives.
Everyone who had left gear back at the hotels piled into the truck and we ventured out once again into the dark, wet city. We plowed through water four or five feet deep at Tulane and South Robertson, and the majority of water remained around three or four feet in depth till we got to the edge of the French Quarter as we headed first to the Monteleone. In the streets, the big deuce-and-a-half bucked over bricks and fallen walls as we passed damaged buildings. Some roads were impassable because of fallen trees or power lines, which were nearly invisible in the pitch dark, broken only by the trucks headlights. On Canal Street, there were dozens of groups of people who we at first thought were trying to get to the Dome or other high ground, but upon closer inspection, we saw that they were all looting the stores downtown. Men, women, little kids and old ladies were going from shop to shop, their arms ladened with purloined goods. Some had even fashioned rafts from floating debris and plastic tubs so as to be able to tote more stuff. In later days, I would see pictures of Canal Street with all the people wandering up and down the street. The captions on the pictures would describe the people as “displaced” or “searching for shelter.” I knew better; every single person in those pictures was a looter. I wondered how the store owners must feel, seeing their businesses not only torn apart by the storm, but also pillaged by the parasites that now, in the unfolding anarchy, could have their way with whatever goods they wanted. In the back of the truck, we all quietly discussed our hopes that they all either got shot or acquired some disease from the disgusting floodwaters.
Back at the Monteleone, we went back to our rooms to get whatever we had left. The hotel still had emergency generators working so we were able to use two of the elevators to move the heavy stuff. The magnetic card readers on the doors had quit however. I thought back to my conversation with Dave, when I had made fun of him about 'plugging the door in.' It turns out he was right, those things do quit working without electricity! We had to kick the doors in. After the frustration of the Dome, the looters, the lack of communications and the lack of any kind of a plan for the city, the act of brute force against the door was an enormously satisfying release of aggravation. I wanted to go down the hotel hallway kicking in all the doors, screaming at them the whole time. But that would have made me no better than the looters and vandals we had passed on the way. Most of the other EMT's were relatively new, and I didn't want to seem like I had lost control of myself, although I sure felt like I was barely keeping it together. I was happy to get my bag full of food and my clothes. My computer was back at the Dome, besides my two forays tonight, I made sure that my new laptop wasn't leaving my side. As it turned out, I never retrieved my glasses, so I was stuck with contact lenses for the duration. That was mildly annoying.
We piled back into the truck and headed to the J.W. Marriott, where the other group of medics had stayed. We again had to cross Canal Street, where the looters were busy in full force. None of them even took a second glance at the military truck passing amidst them. I wondered at the intelligence of them though. I saw hordes of people at the Athlete's Foot and similar stores; looters were hauling away armloads of cheap, ugly clothes and shoes, but next door at Adler's, New Orleans most expensive fine jewelry store, the doors were untouched! Across the street at the discount electronics shops people were hauling out video cameras, laptops, TV's and DVD players. I wondered what exactly they thought they were going to do with a bunch of waterlogged electronics in a city that had no electricity to plug those things into. This was a prime demonstration of the mentality of most of New Orleans residents. Gimme, gimme, gimme. Once the barriers of society crumbled, they simply helped themselves at the misfortune of others. But in all of it, their choice of booty demonstrated the depth of their intelligence: taking cheap, sweatshop-made shoes instead of diamonds and rubies; stealing unusable electronics. At Smith and Wollensky's Restaurant, I found out later, the idiot looters had pilfered all the beer and liquor behind the bar, whereas the glass case that contained the $4000-a-bottle Napoleon brandy remained untouched. When it finally dawned on their darkened brains to hit Adler's, they focused on taking the cheap gold-filled jewelry, while some of the cases containing solid gold and genuine gems were untouched, so I found out from an Adler's manager later on. Bright baubles for dim minds.
At the J.W. Marriott, most of the stretchers, EKG monitors, and medical bags had been left there. We loaded them into the truck and headed back to the Dome. By this time, it was nearly 3 am. In the darkness at the Dome, I looked up into the night sky. Without a single light on in the whole city, I could see the entire Milky Way galaxy, millions of stars up there. Normally you can see one or two dozen stars in New Orleans, and none from the middle of downtown. But here, in the dark, desperate Dome was a singular sight of beauty. Faith Upton and Melinda Guerra saw me staring up and they too were overwhelmed with awe at the incredible sight of the countless stars. I began to feel good. I had headed up two successful rescue missions, one for the injured cop and one for our stuff, and I had done it on my own, with no outside authority, flying by the seat of my pants. Melinda and Faith hugged me and said “you did a great job with everything tonight. You know you're a hero.”
“I don't know about all that. I felt just as scared as anyone else. Besides, somebody had to rescue the cop and our gear, and nobody else was doing it. I don't think we can count on the city for much anymore. We're on our own.” I laughed a little at the term 'hero,' then said “I don't think any of that makes me a hero, just a good improviser. But then again, working for New Orleans EMS, accomplishing so much with virtually nothing, makes us all good improvisers!”
They too laughed at the comparison and agreed. I headed for the ambulances and tried to find an empty spot to take a nap. The stretchers and bench seats were all already filled with exhausted medics trying to sleep. I found a unit with an empty driver's seat and climbed in. The driver's seat is my comfort zone. I've spent so many years behind the wheel of an ambulance that I can instantly make myself comfortable there. This night was no exception. The night air was tolerably warm, the noise was at a minimum, and some National Guards had taken it upon themselves to stand watch over our ambulances. Spent from the days activities, I quickly fell into a satisfying, if all too brief, sleep. I wondered what the dawn would bring. After a nap of maybe two hours, I found myself stirring towards consciousness, the sun warm on my face. Had I simply had an apocalyptic nightmare? Surely my city hadn't been destroyed; it was just a weird dream and I had only fallen asleep on duty. At worst, I had slept past the end of my shift and I would get off late and maybe be in a little trouble. I kept trying to convince myself that it was all a dream. It certainly seemed like one. But I opened my eyes, and all around me was crowds of refugees, National Guard, and fellow bewildered EMT's. I got out of the truck and was immediately hit by the odor of the Superdome, even though I was probably a thousand feet from the nearest entrance. As unpleasant as the smell was, it only promised to get worse as the heat of the day wore on. It was only about 6 am. and it would just get hotter and stinkier. I looked over the low wall down into the street. Or at least, where the street used to be. Now it was a lake. It was a lake with buildings sticking up from the dark, smelly water, huge trucks trying to make it through. The water was at least five feet high around the Superdome. I wasn't sure how deep the military trucks and semi's could withstand, but surely this was near their limit. Any deeper and they'd need submarines. The big tractor-trailers with “FEMA” on the side were making their way to the Superdome and the Arena next door. We let out private cheers for their efforts. All of us had been impressed with George Bush signing documents declaring a state of emergency two days before the hurricane had come. Here was the benefit, FEMA setting up operations in New Orleans the day after the storm! But all of us wondered if it would be enough. It seemed like no amount of resources would be enough, not just to rescue us and the all the other refugees, but the overwhelming task of getting the city livable again. Would it ever be back?
Unfortunately, human nature rarely makes its presence felt as ferociously as it does upon waking in the morning. Several other EMT's were in the same predicament, ravaged by the urges inherent in simply being alive. We had to go to the bathroom. But where to go? We certainly didn't have toilets in the units. I considered digging a hole in one of the potted plants along the perimeter of the Dome and simply squatting on the edge of the big concrete planters, but I wasn't sure that these desperate times had become quite that desperate. Several of us decided to go brave the interior of the Dome in a group and try to find a secret bathroom that might have a working toilet. We headed into the stinky, hot stadium and started climbing stairs. The refugees were being kept to the first three or four floors so we headed up to the nosebleed sections where no one else was allowed. Our uniforms had always served us well. Paramedics can go anywhere. Our magical suits allowed us to bypass metal detectors in airports and courthouses, they render us impervious to the “police line do not cross” yellow tape on crime scenes and even allow white EMT's to buy lunch at the food stores in the worst neighborhoods that always seem to have the best and cheapest soul food, places you would never set foot in as a white guy civilian without fearing for your life. Again, our uniforms, sweaty and bedraggled as they were, allowed us passage into the virginal upper levels of the Superdome past the scrutiny of the National Guard. We walked past them as though we were invisible.
On the sixth level, the corridors appeared quite deserted. People had obviously been there, judging from the raided concessions stands, but now it appeared we were the only ones there. We head down the darkened, steamy halls till we found a bathroom. It had been discovered and there were no clean toilets. In such an emergency state of affairs, few would worry much about finding a clean toilet and this were no exception, but the unbelievable extent of the filth was nauseating. Whatever beasts had found this bathroom earlier apparently did not have the sense of cleanliness that a rat has, as human excrement was piled not only in the toilets, but in mountainous heaps on the floor as well. We asked each other 'was that really necessary?' in reference to the beings that had defiled the bathroom with such disgusting force. To refer to them as animals would be an undeserved compliment.
Frustrated, we pressed on. We headed up to the next higher level. None of really knew that the floors of the dome went this high. Apparently, nobody else did either as we found another bathroom with at least a dozen toilets that had been as yet undiscovered! We were delighted! There was even toilet paper! Of course the toilets didn't flush, but heck, it was clean! We decided to keep this treasure as EMS' little secret.
Business and paperwork accomplished, we decided to explore a little more on this level, up amongst the clouds. We found where the private suites were, the rooms that people and businesses owned to impress clients by taking them to football games and having a little hotel-like room all to themselves. The suites were locked, and we weren't about to give away our presence by trying to break in. But down a pitch black, narrow hallway our little group came across “The Club Room,” the room where the suite owners could congregate and have private parties with cocktails and food. I wondered what undiscovered gems might be stashed away in there. We began a systematic search of the Club Room and hit paydirt! There were cases of soda, packets of mustard and ketchup, napkins, bottled water, chips and even baskets to carry the loot in! We piled whatever we could carry into the baskets and headed back down. We even found a cooler with ice in it! Instead of taking the ice with us, we memorized the location so Faith and Charlie could come back and store their insulin there. As we headed back down the stairs, we noticed several other refugees staring at our purloined goods, obviously wondering where we got it. It appeared a few headed down the hall trying to find where Cokes and chips were being handed out.
Back at our little camp, we were heroes! As we distributed the warm sodas and chips and condiments, our co-workers wondered where we got it all. One thing I found out, some people will offer you nearly anything for a Coca-Cola! But I was only too happy to distribute the goodies to any of us who wanted them. My only request from any of my co-workers was that they watch my ass as the natives were sure to grow more restless.
As the day wore on, we mingled around our staked-out territory, wondering what to do with ourselves. We still had not heard from Mark or and we had no direction. It also became apparent that the less we had to do to keep ourselves busy, the more sad and anxious we each got over our families, homes and possessions. Many of us had seen the looters the night before and we knew they were still out there. All anyone could envision was gangs of those sub-humans going through our personal things back home, stealing and vandalizing our homes. Dave Frezel was worried about his aunt who had stayed home for the storm. He had a growing suspicion that she was dead in the flood that had consumed the Lower 9th Ward and New Orleans East. We needed something to do to keep our minds off the dread in our thoughts.
Fortunately Ron Pelas had made it back to the Superdome. He had offered EMS' services to the National Guard. They were overseeing the one entry point in the Superdome where the refugees were being let in. They requested some EMT's to help them determine which of the thousands of people seeking refuge was a “special needs” case. They were defining “special needs” as people who were not acutely ill or injured, but couldn't take care of themselves, such as the very elderly and immobile and the mentally retarded, and such people were being assigned to a special part of the Dome. Another Paramedic, Becky Calvo and I volunteered to go help triage the incoming people.
We got down to the main entrance on Poydras Street and were overwhelmed at the volume of people waiting to come in. In the day or so since we had arrived at the Dome, the crowd had swelled from around 20,000 to probably 35,000. Now here at the entrance, we could see first-hand the thousands more people waiting to get in. People were lined up along barricades underneath the overhang and out into the water lapping up against the sidewalk. All kinds of people were there, black and white, young and old, families, couples and single people. All had the same shell-shocked expression on their face that didn't describe anger or joy or sadness or puzzlement but hinted at what could only be described as disbelief. I imagined that the people were going to riot to get in, but each time I walked outside and looked at the crowd, they were just standing there, waiting their turn to get in.
All the time they were waiting, others continued to be deposited at the entrance. They piled out of deuce-and-a-half's, boats, four wheel drive trucks that had made it through, and an array of makeshift watercraft. One man showed up towing his elderly neighbor on a piece of paneling that had been strapped to an inner tube. He had trod through the city about 2 miles with the old man on the “boat.” When he got to the Dome, he shouted to us “Where can I bring a dead body? I was trying to get my neighbor here from Pauger Street but he died on the way.” He seemed perfectly chipper about the whole affair, as if hauling a dead body for two miles through disease-ridden floodwaters in 95 degree heat was the least possible inconvenience he could have experienced; it seemed running out of milk midway through his morning coffee would have been far more devastating. We told him the refrigerator truck was at the loading dock at the back of the Dome and the National Guard offered him a ride to get back there but he said “no, I've walked this far with him, what's another couple of blocks?” All of us standing there were awestruck with respect for someone that really knew how to maintain a good attitude!
Becky and I went inside to where the National Guard had set up an area that they could do a quick check-in of all the refugees. Name, address, date of birth. You're in. Males were all subjected to a head-to-toe frisking to check for weapons. About 50% of the guys who were frisked had something pulled off them, maybe a gun, a knife, a crack pipe, whatever. I didn't see any of the women get body-searched, only their bags, but I knew from experience that they should have been. Several people in the Dome had already been treated for lacerations and stab wounds sustained in fights. Those stab wounds weren't inflicted with the plastic sporks that came in the MRE's. The women animals in New Orleans can be even more vicious than the men, so it would be no surprise that many might have weapons on them.
Actually, at the entrance we had no problems with anyone brandishing weapons. Becky and I were supposed to determine which incoming people had “special needs” and which ones didn't. The National Guard, God bless 'em, were overwhelmed with the volume of individuals being brought in, and when someone said they had diabetes or asthma and didn't have their medicine, the Guard didn't know any better and sent them over to us. All we could do was ask if they're having a problem right now. Most of them said no so we just sent them into the Dome. It's not like we had any inhalers or insulin or anything anyway. The handful that were having a problem got sent to the emergency clinic on the other side of the Dome. As we determined that some were special needs and others had acute problems, we began to realize the ludicrous setup that had been determined in the shelter. Perfectly healthy people, after entering the Superdome, could set up camp anywhere they wanted within the boundaries that the Guard had determined. However, people with acute problems, like an asthma attack or chest pains or lacerations were sent to the emergency clinic all the way on the opposite side of the Superdome. The shortest route to it was to walk across the entire football field in addition to the long corridors behind each goalpost. Or they could walk the circuitous route through the semicircular hallway on the edges. Either way, it was at least a quarter mile for someone having an immediate health problem. Even worse was the location reserved for the “special needs” people. Their designated area was not only on the opposite side of the Superdome from the entrance point, but also on the third and fourth level up! That meant that people who had to use crutches, walkers and wheelchairs not only had to traverse the quarter-mile around the Superdome, but also had to navigate up to at least the third level while the healthy people could stay on the first and second levels! Whose idea was this?
I was amazed at the stupidity I encountered with some of the incoming refugees. None of them could have known that the Superdome was a shelter without also hearing the words “Bring your own food, water, clothes and medicine. They will not be available at the Dome.” Of course, every single person I saw at the entrance had brought NOTHING with them. I think the closest thing I saw to provisions with someone was a woman who had a plastic bag with a bottle of water and some peanut butter crackers. Nobody else had a single change of underwear, a can of Coke or bag of chips. Three teenage mothers came in who had just given birth within the last week. They asked if there was any baby formula. At first we started to waste our time asking why they didn't get out of the city when they had a week-old infant but their responses could all be boiled down to “stupidity.” Becky and I told them “No, we don't have any baby formula, so welcome to breastfeeding class!” Becky took the three mothers along with three other women who had come looking for formula and gave a quickie how-to on the joys of breastfeeding. After about five minutes of that they were off, on their way to bond with their newborns. We told them to teach their friends.
Some people came in thinking that the shelter was some sort of free clinic. Dozens of people asked what I had for their sore throat or their stomach virus or their headache. It was all I could do to keep myself from slapping them in frustration. Not only did they come here without a single provision for themselves, but they also expect some sort of free medical care for whatever crappy complaint they've had for the last week or month? Others wanted to know where the free clothes were. I could only tell them “This isn't a drugstore or a clothes shop or a grocery. It's a shelter. You needed to bring that stuff with you. If you didn't, there's not a lot I can do for you.”
We stayed down at the entrance for several hours. Becky had commandeered one of the golf carts that belonged to the Superdome and began ferrying the special needs people and acutely ill to the appropriate places. We simply couldn't just tell elderly people on walkers and crutches to tromp all the way over to the designated areas without any assistance. But after several trips, the cart ran out of juice, stranding Becky upstairs in the special needs area. I couldn't get in touch with her and I had been at the entrance by myself for over an hour waiting for her to get back. I realized I wasn't really doing too much that the Guard couldn't do. I didn't have any medications with me or other kinds of treatments. My job basically consisted telling people where the special needs area was and saying “No, I don't have any medicine or baby food.”
Since Becky had disappeared, I figured she had been reassigned to something else. So I quietly left the entrance and went back up to EMS' campsite on the outer perimeter. By this time our people that had been stranded in the Bellsouth building in New Orleans East were at the Superdome. Cedric Palmisano had worked with Med-Evac National Guard unit based in New Orleans and had convinced his buddies there to airlift the stranded medics out from the East. We were happy to see that they were all OK. Keely Williams and Samantha Graham had taken photos of their flight. The devastation apparent in the pictures was unbelievable. While New Orleans East is certainly not the best part of the city, geographically it is a huge portion of Orleans Parish, and now it was inundated with water. For the most part, nothing but parts of rooftops were visible above the dark water, in some cases even the tops of the roofs were submerged. Many of the houses were on fire. To see the scope of the destruction of the city filled everyone with even more anxiety and depression. But we were happy to be reunited with our friends, and that they were all right. They told stories of the walls and windows blowing out during the storm, and having to deal with people coming up to the building trying to get in, threatening the personnel inside with weapons. They heard a lot of gunshots out in the East. We had heard a number of them throughout the day also coming from nearby neighborhoods. Since there was no traffic or city noise to drown them out, the crack of gunfire could travel quite a distance, so it was hard to estimate how far away from the Dome a particular shot might have been.
As the day wore on, though, the sound of helicopters coming and going began to drown out noises from the outside. The helicopters started to come in droves, bringing some that they had rescued off rooftops, and taking away the critically ill that had been in the emergency clinic downstairs in the Superdome. The FEMA trucks we had seen earlier were setting up an emergency area in the New Orleans Arena for the special needs people, since the one in the Dome was so clearly malapportioned. They would also have a few capabilities for some medical care for the chronically ill. It was going to be our job to transport them from the special needs area in the Superdome to the Arena. It wasn't going to be a big deal, since the Dome and the Arena are connected by two broad ramps. At least, that's what we thought.
Eventually we were given the go-ahead to transport the special needs people to the new care area. It had been set up in the front corridor of the Arena, right by the door adjacent the Superdome. We took our ambulance stretchers, and a couple of golf carts and headed up into the special needs area. People were arranged at the top of the escalator on cots, in wheelchairs and on the floor. There only seemed to be a couple dozen or so so we got busy moving them. We were strict about telling the people that were with the infirm that they could not come with us; there was only room for the actual special needs people. Many had schemed to get special treatment by saying they were “family” of the special needs, leading to an entourage of ten, twelve or fifteen “family” members who were all there to “take care” of the one sick person. These support groups often included babies, neighbors, vague acquaintances and random strangers who were hoping to catch some of the fallout of the special needs like a slightly better place to stay or better food. We weren't about to let any of that happen. We let exactly one person accompany the elderly and crippled, and they had to be able to prove that they were actually there for the other person. Often the only way to do this was to ask the special needs person who this other person was. Sadly, oftentimes the special needs person had no idea who the other one was, not because they were senile or ill, but simply because there were that many people who were trying to leech off them and had plopped themselves into the ostensible position of “caregiver.”
We weeded out the fake family members and got everyone in the area downstairs and across the ramp. It seemed too easy. As we went back for a final sweep for any stragglers some of us noticed a pitch-black hallway near the area. We shone our flashlights down the hall and saw several dozen more people in wheelchairs sitting in the dark. As we explored the corridor, it ended in a very large room that curved around. In it were hundreds of cots, mostly occupied by the very elderly, handicapped and mentally retarded. We gasped at the sight (and the smell) of so many infirm special needs people. I didn't know if there would be enough room in the Arena for all these people, but I called out to everyone in the room “Please gather your things together. We're here to take the special needs people over to the Arena where they'll be able to get some care. We're ONLY taking the people who have special needs, not the family and friends.” All the EMT's came back upstairs and began the task of moving everyone. Most of the people were there alone, with nobody to look after them. The first people I picked up from the back room was an elderly lady who was recovering from hip surgery. Her husband, on the cot next to her, was suffering from advanced Alzheimer's and had no idea who he was or what was going on. She was wearing an adult diaper that had not been changed in over two days. She was as sweet as could be and kept apologizing for the mess, but there hadn't been anyone to help her since she had gotten here before the storm. She also hadn't had much to eat. Others in the room had given her water and some of the MRE's they had. But she hadn't had her medicine, and there was no family there for her other than her delirious husband. She told me this as I changed her diaper and I found myself on the verge of tears at her story. Ashley Fain and I placed her on out stretcher and wheeled her downstairs as another crew took her husband.
After dropping them off at the Arena, we went back for another. This time we transported a frail older lady who hadn't had any medications or anything to eat or drink in over a day. As we rolled her across the ramp in the hot sun, I could see that she was barely conscious and her breathing was irregular. After I felt her thready, rapid pulse I realized that this woman was going to die. Today. Judging from the looks of many of the special needs people, a lot of them were going to die soon. I told Ashley about it and she confirmed my fears. I wasn't afraid of having all these elderly and infirm people die, I was afraid of what would happen when others started to realize that people were dying at the Dome. That might be just the trigger to set off all the frightened, desperate people there into a full-panic, maybe even a riot. I began to pass the word on to my co-workers that it was time for us get out. It wasn't going to be safe for us to be there anymore. These people were going to riot and there were only a couple hundred National Guards with no bullets. I barely had to remind them of the First Rule of EMS: If the scene's not safe, get out! A dead EMT can't help anyone.
There were still dozens of people to transport. I wasn't sure how many the FEMA people could handle; it looked like they were pretty full up already. But we went back to the dark hall and searched for others. The rain had caused huge sheets of ceiling to fall in. The carpet was soaked and covered with dissolved sheetrock and plaster. Combined with the sweltering heat and the smell of excrement from 40,000 people, I had a hard time imagining that a third-world prison could be much worse than this. In the beams of our flashlights, we saw concession carts belonging to the Superdome with people in wheelchairs tucked behind them. There were a few large sheets of ceiling material that had partially fallen, forming plaster curtains in the hall. I checked behind one of them and found and old black man propped up in a wheelchair. I asked if he had any family with him and he said he didn't know where they were. He told me his wife had come with him to the Superdome but hadn't seen her in “a long time.” He had been there since before the storm. He had been in the hallway since getting there. Apparently nobody had found him since the lights went out and he had been hidden behind the plaster for two days with no food or water. I gave him the bottle of water I had in my pocket which he accepted gratefully and asked me where his wife was. I said “I don't know, but we're taking all the people in wheelchairs over to the Arena where they can care for you and maybe help you find your wife, OK?” I hoped I wasn't telling a lie.
When I arrived at the Arena, the FEMA people told me that they were too full already and they couldn't take any more special needs people. I wanted to say the man in the wheelchair looked heartbroken, but more than anything else, I think he was simply numb. I thought I had been through a lot over the last two days, but I couldn't imagine losing your family in a shelter and being trapped behind a chunk of sheetrock in pitch-darkness with nothing to eat or drink and nobody even knowing you were there. I lied to the FEMA official “Look, we just brought his sick wife over here and he's had nothing to eat for two days. I don't want to separate them.” He relented and said “OK, you can bring him in.” I pushed his wheelchair into a corner behind the hundreds of wheelchair patients that were already there. I wished him good luck and he said to me “Son, if you find my wife, can you tell her that I'm here? Her name's Margie Smith. Thank you for all you've done.” I promised him I would, but knew that I'd never find Margie Smith.
As I walked outside the Arena into the blazing sun, I felt like I should cry for him, or at least be sad, but I didn't. I was as numb as Mr. Smith appeared to be. No, I wasn't numb, and I wasn't sad. I was angry. I was angry at the stupidity of thousands of people who had been pleaded with to get out of the city but they had chosen to stay. I found out months later that a study by the Red Cross showed that of all those tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people who had not evacuated, only 8% truly were not able to get out of town. Over 90% of the people the throngs I saw at the Superdome and on the streets looting the city had the means to leave but chose to stay and were now yelling and whining about why they had to put up such bad conditions!I was angry at the fact that fewer than 300 National Guard troops had been sent to the Dome for over 40,000 people, and they had not been given any bullets for their weapons. I was angry at the selfish, uncaring attitude of families who had evidently dumped off their elderly parents and grandparents at the Superdome with no one to feed or care for them as the rest had gone on their merry way to evacuate, or more likely, head out for a looting spree. I was angry that although New Orleans, a city deliberately built below sea level and surrounded by water, has had over 400 years to prepare itself for “the big one,” but not a single plan was in place to deal with the exact emergency that generations of people had warned about and was currently devolving all around. In addition, I had not seen a single city government official or administrator. I was angry that EMS had been operating for over two days with no leadership at all; we still hadn't heard from our EMS Administrator or Operations Manager for two days, nor had we seen a single city council member, and Mayor Nagin had jumped ship and was off in Dallas buying his new condo. It angered me to think of the mismanagement of the Superdome as a shelter. The sick, handicapped and elderly who were least able to get around were directed to one of the most inaccessible areas of the building, the furthest distance one could possibly get from the entrance. I thought back to other times when the Superdome had been used as a shelter during hurricanes, and that thought angered me too. The first time, about eight years earlier, about 2,000 people were sheltered there. None had brought their own provisions. They got angry that free food wasn't being served to them. In fact, that crowd had looted the Superdome itself; news cameras showed hundreds of people leaving the Dome carrying televisions, furniture, electronics and various other items they had stolen from the stadium. One man shouted on camera that this was recompense for “my being inconvenienced.” At that time people had again been pleaded with to evacuate the city, chose not to, then chose to go to the Superdome in order for their lives to be saved from potential floods and other hurricane hazards, then proceeded to steal the shelter's furniture in retaliation for being “inconvenienced!” I was angry that the city didn't learn from that mistake and several years later opened the Dome again as a “special needs only” shelter. That time the Superdome was to be used as a shelter only for people with specific medical needs, such as those on oxygen or who required dialysis or were on home ventilators. New Orleans had spent God-only-knows how much money and effort on staffing the “special needs only” shelter. There were over 500 medical personnel including doctors, nurses, paramedics, respiratory therapists, nurse's assistants, dialysis technicians and physical therapists, plus all the logistics people, police, fireman and administrators. After all that planning and effort, exactly fourteen patients showed up seeking shelter.
After those spectacular debacles involving the Superdome as a shelter, I had foolishly thought the city had learned its lesson. But as I stared across the Arena ramp back towards the Superdome, I was clear to me that it had not.
I looked out at the crowd, and the ambulances at the far end of the ramp. I realized that letting my anger get the best of me was not the best use of my time. I walked back to the ambulances and tried to figure out what to do with myself. We had moved all the special needs people that FEMA could take, and I really didn't want to go back to triaging incoming people who were looking for free handouts in the midst of this disaster. There wasn't much to do. I thought about my earlier realization that the crowd could very easily riot, once they figured out that people were dying. As I began meeting up with other medics, I quietly explained my thoughts to them to convince them that it was time to leave. We needed to figure out a way to get out of the Dome. But how? And where were we to go?
By this time, Wildlife & Fisheries had rescued the EMT's in the LSU Dental School in their boats and had gotten them back to the Superdome. Everyone was accounted for, except Mark and Juliette who we didn't have a clue about, and Ray Mandola, Thomas Jordan and Dave Wilson who were at the station on Moss Street last time we heard. We were concerned for them, but there wasn't a lot we could do for them at the moment. Besides, Tom and Ray were pretty big, tough guys and maybe a little on the far side of crazy, so we figured they were probably OK on their own. Raymond is a boxer with a little gleam of insanity in his eyes, and Thomas is an ex-Marine who is a really nice, quiet guy, but could probably be a master serial killer. Dave was pretty new at EMS, and we didn't know him too well, but if he stuck with the other two, he'd be pretty well off.
After some time talking to my fellow medics, we began to reach a consensus that we needed to leave. But my guys who had driven us around last night were out helping with rescue missions, and all the other deuce-and-a-half's were similarly occupied. The crowds were growing more unsettled. The numbers of refugees had grown from around 20,000 when we arrived at the Superdome to about 40,000. We witnessed more fights breaking out, and more people seemed to be in a greater state of panic. More National Guard had arrived (bulletless) but at least there was a slightly growing presence. We quietly brainstormed the idea of departure while we tried to occupy ourselves with other tasks.
At last, around four PM, Juliette and Mark showed up. They both looked as frazzled as the rest of us. I had no idea where they had been, but apparently they had managed to get all around the city for various tasks. Juliette had apparently been at police headquarters when the prisoners broke out of Orleans Parish Prison and took over the police department offices at Tulane and Broad. The riot didn't last long; she had been able to get to the overpass on Broad Street with the rest of NOPD and the Criminal Sheriff's Office as they planned to quell the rebellion, which occurred in short order. We were all angry at them that we hadn't seen them for three days and accused them of abandoning us, not having a plan, nor any idea of what to do now, and we were pissed that they had managed to get around the rest of the city but somehow not able to get to their people at the Dome. At one point Rhonda Serignet began hollering at Mark for his abandonment of his people and Mark lashed out at her, physically pushing her away from him. She began to push back and Jay Winston and Dave Frezel got between them to break them up. There was some more shouting, but others tried to calm them down, saying this wasn't helping, we needed to stick together and fight later. Right now we needed to focus on getting out of the Dome. No one could argue with that line of reasoning.
They told us to move our personal gear from the ambulances to the upper level of the Arena where it would supposedly be “safer.” I didn't really see the logic in this, at least some of us were constantly there at the units, keeping an eye on things, whereas the upper level of the Arena was relatively unguarded, and we saw random, unidentified people strolling down the hall where people's things were. I wasn't taking a chance with leaving my clothes, food and computer out in the open in the Arena, so that stuff stayed in the unit. Some of the medics complied and moved their things there.
After moving, we heard that the city's Director of the Health Department, Dr. Stevens, was at the Dome and wanted to meet with us. EMS at the time was governed by New Orleans' Health Department. We were eager to talk to Dr. Stevens, seeing that his Department had no medical plan for a disaster, other than the brilliant use of the Superdome. Because of this ingenious idea, we were now faced with the circumstances we now found ourselves, namely trapped there with 40,000 angry, desperate, panicky people with no way out and more arriving and virtually no security system in place other than 300 National Guards with bulletless guns, who may as well have been carrying flyswatters for all the protection their M16's offered.
Dr. Stevens showed up at the Arena nicely groomed, wearing a pressed maroon oxford button-down shirt, starched khaki pants and shiny loafers. We sweaty, unwashed, sleepless medics gathered around him on the upper deck of the Arena. We listened as he blustered about what a great job he was doing in the face of such adversity. He told us that he hadn't left City Hall since the storm. He was working day and night. He was doing a wonderful job in the face of huge adversity. Not once did he even say the word “you.”
Keely told him that none of us felt safe. The expression on Stevens' face indicated that the idea of whether or not the Dome was safe hadn't even occurred to him. “What do you mean you don't feel safe?” She mentioned the fights we saw, the hysteria of some of the refugees, the lack of weaponry of the Guard should things get any more out of hand. Melinda repeated the first lesson you learn from day one of EMT class: If the scene isn't safe, get out. He had no idea what she was talking about. Whatever little respect we may have had for him completely evaporated at that point. How can someone who hasn't the slightest clue about what our job entails be the head honcho over our department? We began to walk off, snickering to ourselves at the uselessness of Dr. Stevens, even as he continued to chatter on about his position and the importance of it and what a wonderful job he was doing. I suspect he was still there after we had all left, talking to the empty hall, listening to the hypnotic sound of his own voice.
We left the Arena and met up with Mark, who told us that he was going to try to arrange transportation out of the Dome for us. I talked to Guy and Steve. We decided that it was time to leave. Maybe Mark would get us out, but maybe not. Screw EMS. I was only there part time anyway. We weren't safe there and we needed to leave. I was convinced the city would never come back, that New Orleans was finished. Who would want to come back to a ruined city where the basic infrastructure of society was dissolving? There was no electricity, no water, no police, no fire protection, no EMS, no hospitals, no food, no schools, and the only people left over were those who were too stupid to leave and were now occupied with looting the remaining vestiges of civilization. Steve was panicked about his wife and child. Like the rest of us, he had no contact with his family since the storm. Guy was just tired of this whole scenario. We talked each other into it and we each gathered up our belongings and began to walk off. We could all but hear each other's thoughts. Was this the right thing to do? Were we really going to forge off into the chest-deep water, hoping to find a way out? We had walked to the entrance to the New Orleans Center, a shopping mall with a ramp adjoining the Superdome. We stopped and asked each other if this was the best idea. We reconsidered our decision. There were only three of us and we had no way to protect ourselves, or even a coherent plan of what to do or where to go. Plus Guy wasn't the brightest crayon in the box. He had once driven an ambulance past the big orange barriers and straight into the wet concrete of a re-paved section of roadway, with all the road workers watching him. Steve said he couldn't swim.
“Are we doing the right thing?” Steve asked. We paused and began to re-think our decision. At least at the Dome we had a hundred of us, rather than just three. If Mark could arrange transport, it would likely be safer than venturing out on our own. At the Dome, we had MRE's and bottled water. Not so out on the flooded streets. Slowly, we began to out-talk ourselves from leaving. It would likely be a better idea to remain where we were for the moment. We turned around and walked back to the group of ambulances. As I trod along, I felt ashamed. I had managed to keep it together this long, but I had succumbed to panic and lost sight of reason. Worse still, I was ready to abandon the people who I counted on, and who counted on me. If there was one unspoken rule in EMS, no matter how much you like or dislike your partner, you watch each other's backs. I had nearly left behind the people who I had worked with for so long and depended on, and they had watched my back. At that moment, I just wanted to crawl under an ambulance and cry. Fortunately, I hadn't told anyone about what we had done, but some had seen me gathering all my stuff and walking off. I quietly told them what had happened. Jeannie, Samantha and Donnie said they couldn't blame me for wanting to leave, but were glad I stayed. I said I was glad I did too. The time to leave would come, but it wasn't now.
It was getting to be evening, and there were probably 45,000 people at the Dome by now. We decided to buddy up and watch our partner's back, just in case the shit hit the fan. I chose to buddy up with Samantha. We would make sure the other one was OK and make sure that we stuck together if and when it finally came time to leave. No one had any idea where we would go, but anywhere had to be better than our current circumstances. In the meantime, Mark had asked us to help with hospital evacuees. The V.A. Hospital and Charity and University Hospitals were trying to evacuate their critical care patients and our services were needed to get them from the boats docking on Poydras Street to the helicopter landing zone atop the Dome parking garage. We had brought our stretchers to the LZ (landing zone) and met up with the deuce-and-a-half's. They were loaded with patients from the ICU and were on ventilators and had IV's with all kinds of medications dripping. These were people who stood little chance of survival, but what could the hospital staffs do? Just let them croak?
I helped unload the first patient from the huge truck. Fortunately we had more help than at Tulane with the cop. This patient needed all the help he could get. He weighed 450 pounds if he weighed an ounce. He was intubated and there was a V.A. Respiratory therapist rhythmically squeezing the Ambu bag, breathing for him. He had three IV's going, all with medications that needed to be finely regulated, but with no pumps attached to the IV's to do the job. The respiratory therapist wasn't sure what this patients underlying malfunction was, but he thought he had suffered a stroke. It didn't matter. We just needed to keep him alive till he could be loaded onto the helicopter. We lifted the huge man onto the stretcher and rolled it onto the LZ to await our turn. A paramedic from Acadian Ambulance was overseeing the patient loading, which patient was to go on which chopper. I had never seen so many choppers in the air and on the helipad. The noise from their rotors was deafening and the wind blew the patients hospital gown and stretcher sheets all over the place. I awaited our patient's turn, squeezing the bag, breathing for the patient, wondering how long he would live.
While I watched the helicopter operations, another crew was busy loading someone into a nearby helicopter. There was a commotion in the crowd on the other side of the low wall that divided the LZ from the plateau around the Dome where the refugees stood watching the helicopters. A young man jumped over the wall and ran screaming towards the helicopter. The National Guards wasted little time grabbing him and subduing him, delivering a few well-placed blows to the man's anatomy. He laid on the ground and faked a seizure. It wasn't a good seizure-faking, because the whole time he kept on shrieking at the top of his lungs. I couldn't make out what he was saying due to the noise of the whirling helicopter rotors, but I kept watching as an imposing older black woman walked over the scene of the ruckus and began shouting also, first at the National Guards, then at the man on the ground. The Acadian paramedic walked over and quickly checked him out. The Guards stood the man up and walked him back over to the wall he had jumped over, and practically tossed him back over into the crowd. I was very pleased to see that despite their lack of bullets in their weapons, the National Guard people weren't going to take any bullshit off the idiots they were forced to deal with.
As it neared our turn to load our patient, the paramedic came over to us and directed us to the helicopter designated for our patient. After placing him into the waiting chopper, I returned to the Acadian guy and asked him what had happened with the young man. He said that the man had jumped from the crowd because he had recognized his uncle being loaded into the chopper by the other EMS crew. He panicked and ran over shouting that he had to go with him in the helicopter. Obviously he couldn't go with him, he couldn't even be in the LZ as it was restricted from civilians, so he threw a tantrum at the National Guard, who promptly took him down, after which he faked a seizure. The man's mother came from the crowd, pissed off at the Guards, but when they explained the situation to her, she re-directed her anger to her son and shouted at him all the way back to the Dome, calling him a big sissy and saying “and what exactly do you think you can do fo' yo' uncle in dat helicopter? You just want a ride outta here! You supposed to be takin' care o' yo' baby brother and here you is acking like a baby...” I laughed briefly at the situation. I was happy that at least Big Mama was keeping her wits about her. But the people in the crowd that had witnessed the situation didn't seem as happy. All they saw was the National Guards subdue a black man. I'm sure the stories they would tell later would recount how the Guards beat up a black man for no reason. I wondered how long it would take for the crowd's resentment to grow. Combined with the obvious panic setting in, it would be a violent explosion when the two volatile emotions started mixing on a large scale.
I thought about this as we unloaded another patient from the deuce-and-a-half's. As we again waited our turn for a helicopter, I asked my partner, Liz Farrell to ventilate the patient while I went over to talk to Yolanda. When I approached Yolanda, she confided in me that she wasn't sure how long the Guards would be able to maintain order among the desperate crowds. She asked me to imagine what would happen if the scene we had just witnessed was repeated by 5,000 or 10,000 people. There would be no way that anyone would be able to restore order! I replied that I was having the exact same fears and we needed to get out of the Dome ASAP. She hoped Mark could secure us a place somewhere else.
I thought about this as Liz and I rolled our patient over to the helicopter. After we situated him on the cot in the chopper, the soldier in there shouted that they needed a flight medic; there was no flight medic to care for the patients in this chopper. In an instant, the scene with the panicked man on the LZ flashed through my mind, and my imagination repeated that scene 10,000 times over as Yolanda had suggested. I felt a wave of panic come over me and I opened my mouth to say I would stay on the helicopter and care for the patients. But in another instant, I thought about how ashamed I felt when I had almost left earlier. And I had told Samantha that I would look after her, and she was going to watch my back. I wasn't going to leave her, nor any of my fellow EMT's after we had gotten through so much together. I turned around and saw the Acadian paramedic who was overseeing the chopper loading. I told him that there was no flight medic on this chopper. He offered to go. I asked about who would oversee the helicopters. He explained that evacuation flights would shut down after the currently loaded helicopters left. It was no longer safe to fly because people in the city were shooting at the rescue and evacuation helicopters. I would have liked to say I was stunned at this news, but I wasn't. I knew just how stupid and malevolent the residents of this city could be. That they would fire guns at the people who were trying to save their lives was a tidbit that fit perfectly into the melange of idiocy in the image I had built up in my mind of the lawless and ignorant thugs of New Orleans.
Seeing as we had no new patients to transport onto choppers, we returned to our base camp by the ambulances. We explained why there were no more flights at the moment, and several EMT's said that in the limited communications they had with friends on the fire and police departments, people had begun shooting at the cop cars and fire trucks in addition to the helicopters. Perfect, I thought. We discussed the way that future interviews with Katrina refugees would appear on the news. We pictured people saying they were sitting on their rooftops or n the floodwaters waiting for someone to rescue them, but no one came. Of course they would leave out the part where they fired their AK-47's and various other ghetto blasters at passing helicopters, rescue vehicles or any symbol of authority. We imagined the media sympathizing with the shooters and placing blame on those who were being fired at. If people didn't get rescued because the people were shooting at the rescuers, naturally it would somehow be the fault of those who were trying to save the people's lives, not the poor, pathetic people who should have gotten out of the city ahead of time, and could have, but didn't.
Samantha described some of her experiences since being at the Dome. One teenage mother had walked up to her and handed her and infant, said “I can't take care of it,” and walked off, disappearing into the crowd. Others described incidents where parents had asked for help after their children had been raped by other refugees in the Superdome. At least three incidents like that occurred, involving girls aged 14, 11 and 7. Although no shootings were reported, several people had been stabbed and numerous fights continued to break out.
There wasn't a lot to do, but Mark told us that he had finally secured transport for us out of the Dome. We needed to get our stuff together and be ready to go at a moment's notice, because he wasn't sure when the military truck would be finished its current assignment and be ready to take us. We were to go to the Aquarium of the Americas, on the Riverfront. Apparently NOPD had set up a base camp there and they had food, water and protection with all the cops there. It took about two seconds for everyone in our group to imagine what it would be like sheltering at the Aquarium and begin speculating on what methods we might use to catch some of the tasty fish in the display tanks there. Redfish, shark, turtle, catfish, alligator and trout sounded a whole lot yummier than MRE's! We could be stuffing ourselves on seafood and sushi!
With no electricity and no water, the Aquarium wouldn't be more fun than a barrel of monkeys, but anywhere would be better than the Superdome. We gathered our things together, and Samantha put her stuff with mine. We made sure that we knew what each other's bags looked like so nothing would be left behind when it came time to go. We spent a couple of hours waiting in the dark, talking and wondering what the future would hold. As would happen when we had nothing to do, our thoughts turned to sad things. We worried about our families and friends and homes. I thought of all the memories I had, all of them set in the schools, streets, homes restaurants and bars of New Orleans. How many of them were set in locales that were now forever gone? We tried to ignore the threat of mass panic around us; we stuck together and tried to comfort those that had broken down again in tears. We tried to encourage one another to look forward to getting out of the Dome.
Eventually a big deuce-and-a-half pulled up and the driver announced that he was going to take us out. But there was only one truck and there were a hundred of us, plus all our bags and medical equipment from the units. We were going to have to make at least two trips. Samantha and I volunteered to stay behind and go with the next group. By this time it was about 9 pm and the helicopters had resumed operations for a while. At least we'd have something to do. After helping the first group get all their stuff in the big truck, we went back to the helipad and started unloading more patients onto our stretchers and then into the choppers. It was an impressive sight, all those helicopters. There were military choppers that could carry four patients at a time and little private-service choppers that could carry just one. While choppers were being loaded, others hovered in the air nearby, awaiting a spot in the LZ. Cedric had taken over operations that the Acadian paramedic was handling earlier. He seemed happy as a clam in his role. Cedric has one of those personalities that is jaunty and gleeful no matter how bad the circumstances. He reveled in his task and did a good job.
I received a patient from a truck and rolled him over to the helicopter. It was one of the single-patient private helicopters painted bright yellow, with a flight nurse and a paramedic on board. By this time I had quit asking about what was wrong with the patients; the Guardsmen in the trucks didn't know and there wasn't much I could do for them anyway sitting on the top of the parking garage, other than making sure they were still breathing and had a pulse. This was why I got frustrated when the flight nurse on board the helicopter began asking me questions about the patient's symptoms and vital signs and medical history and medications and lab results who the accepting doctor was at the destination hospital and so on. I told her I had no idea, that all I was doing was keeping these poor souls alive on my stretcher till they could be flown out of here. She wanted to know what I was planning on doing if they needed medications given. I said “what medication? You see what we're dealing with here, I have a stretcher and my two hands. That's it.”
“Well what are you planning on doing if they go into cardiac arrest?” she petulantly inquired.
“Send them down to the morgue trailer,” I replied flatly.
Her partner the flight paramedic flashed me an apologetic look. I think the gravity of our situation finally began to dawn on her as I huffed off and she looked around at the thousands of people behind the wall. She had obviously spent too much time in a cushy emergency room somewhere where everything was organized and accounted for. Here at the Dome, we were just trying to function as humans, let alone get detailed histories on every patient that we plopped onto our stretcher for the 1000-foot walk between the trucks and the LZ.
After an hour or so, operations were again stopped because of gunshots at the helicopters. I headed back to the EMS camp to see if the truck was back for us. Samantha had been calling me on the radio to see if I was on my way, because they had gotten word that the truck was heading back. It had been over two hours since it had left with the first group. None of us could figure out what was taking so long, as the Aquarium is maybe a mile from the Dome, and no one had more than three or four things to unload. At last, around 11:30 pm the truck was back! We hurriedly loaded all our things onto it and helped each other climb in. About 12 or 15 EMT's stayed behind to help with helicopter operations once they resumed. The National Guard had sensed the growing danger and they instructed the remaining EMT's to sleep on the LZ where the Guard had the greatest presence. Before moving there, the Guard asked the those EMT's to rearrange the ambulances in a way that would form a defensive barrier, in case there was a bad riot and the shit hit the fan. We bid our farewells and wished our coworkers luck as Samantha climbed into the deuce-and-a-half with forty or fifty other medics. We were almost cheerful to be leaving, but harbored concerns in the backs of our minds for our own safety and that of our remaining coworkers.
As the truck pulled around the Superdome to the ramp that led to the street level, there were far more people standing outside than there had been on the first day. I estimated around 40 or 45 thousand people were there by that time. No doubt many had chosen to stay outside because of the unbearable stench within the stadium. No doubt it was also because it was nighttime, and the Superdome was pretty dark inside during broad daylight with no electricity. I imagined it was impossible to see anything at night inside. I glanced at the sky; it was another beautiful, clear, moonless night, incongruous with the turmoil that was all but palpable among all the hurricane survivors. As we turned down the ramp towards the street, we saw several National Guard troops intervening in a large fight that was taking place amidst the crowd. “We're getting out just in time,” someone in the back of the truck muttered. We all nodded in silent agreement.
We had been told that the Aquarium wasn't able to house the influx of city workers. Their limited resources were already overwhelmed by the police and National Guard that had taken refuge there. The two hours that the truck had taken to return to the Dome had been spent trying to secure safe haven for the EMS workers somewhere else. I wasn't sure how it had come about, but the other group had been transported to the Hampton Inn on Convention Center Boulevard in the Warehouse District, across the street from the New Orleans Convention Center. We headed there.
For some reason, the driver took Canal Street, which was a bit out of the way to get to Convention Center Blvd. But as we headed down Canal, we took in a sight that we had imagined but hadn't comprehended until we saw it with our own eyes. For one thing, Canal Street remained flooded. The water was at least four or five feet high, up to the chests of the pedestrians meandering back and forth across the road. We made a joke that Canal Street had finally earned its name. However, what shocked us all was not the floodwaters, but the pedestrians. There were hundreds of people on Canal, far more than you might see during a normal business day, but none of them appeared to be heading towards higher ground in the French Quarter or the Superdome or towards the riverfront, which had remained dry. Instead, as we looked closely, they were all engaged in heading in and out of the many stores an shops that line downtown Canal Street. And every single person, including the old ladies and little kids were carrying clothes on hangers, boxes of shoes, televisions, video cameras, even huge plasma screen T.V.'s just like the night before. Many had constructed makeshift rafts out of barrels and were pulling large Rubbermaid bins behind them on ropes, all filled with loot. Some of us had seen the looters the night before when we went to retrieve our stuff from the Monteleone, but the sheer numbers tonight made the mind boggle! Apparently word had gotten around town that everything was there for the taking, and there were thousands taking advantage of the “invitation.”
We made it to the Hampton Inn. As we all hopped down from the big deuce-and-a-half we took our bags up to the second-floor ballroom where we were to bed down for the night. Downstairs, NOPD officers were barbecuing and seemed to be in a relatively good mood. I took this as a sign that bode well for us. I searched out a few square feet of space unoccupied space among the eighty or so other EMT's to place my things and then headed out to the courtyard. Some of us had brought beer and were happy to share it with the rest of us. There was a pool in the courtyard and all of stripped off the grubby, smelly clothes we had been wearing for the last three days and jumped in, despite the debris, bricks and tree branches in the bottom of the pool. It was the first time any of us had a chance to wash off the the sweat, the gunk of the floodwaters and the residual stench of the Superdome, and we all welcomed the refreshing water. Chris Guenard, Tim Stratton, Charlie Brown, Patty Hasney and I played like little kids at the beach in the cool water. Others were taking a much-needed break, recounting their experiences at the Dome, the dental school and the Bellsouth building. None of us knew what had happened to our homes and we had no way to contact our families to let them know we were OK and we were anxious over the disturbing scenes we had witnessed on the way over, and that hung in the back of our heads like a dark cloud, but now, for the first time in days, we could let our guard down and relax a little.
I had just finished my second beer when Tammy Guenard, our communications System Status Manager, walked into the courtyard with a look on her face that reflected shock and fear. “I need you all to listen carefully! Listen up!” After being without any organization for days, the thought of someone having something definite to announce to us galvanized our attention. Whatever it was couldn't be good.
“NOPD downstairs just said that the water is rising again at the Sixth District station. They don't know how high it may get, but that's only about a half mile from here. They say we need to pack a bag and get out of here.”
Silence hung over us for a moment as the gravity of the situation dawned on us. Another move, my fourth in three days, the fifth or sixth for others. None of us were happy, to say the least, but our desire to survive motivated us to get out of the friendly pool and head inside to change into dry clothes and pick what of my few remaining possessions I would take with me. I packed my uniforms, some water a couple of MRE's and my laptop (I wasn't losing that!) into my backpack. I also took my jump bag with my medical supplies. My co-workers pared down what little they had left also. We had reported to work with suitcases, coolers, clothes, DVD players, medicine and food. Much of that had been left at the hotels, the dental school, Bellsouth, the Superdome and some had simply been lost. I left half my clothes, my toiletries, most of my food and the book I had never gotten around to reading, confident that it would go unread.
We all made the same decisions about what to take and what to leave behind and gathered on the sidewalk downstairs. NOPD was climbing into their police cars and eight or ten Cadillac Escalades. None of them made any effort to help us get in or mention where we were to go. As the last of them got into the cars and trucks an awful thought dawned on us. Patty Hasney walked up to one of the cars and asked “Who's coming for us – EMS?” The cop shrugged his shoulders and said he didn't know. “Well can you take us with you? At least some of us?” He didn't answer her question but instead started driving off. As the Escalades rounded the corner and had to drive past the gathering of EMT's, they shouted “Get the fuck out of the way!” And were gone.
In disbelief we all stared at each other. Here we were, the EMT's who came to rescue the police when they got shot or hurt, and not only weren't they NOT helping escape this madness, but they felt they had to curse us out too? We tried to attribute it to the strain of the times, but needless to say, we were all pissed. Charlie Brown got on the radio and explained the situation to Juliette who was back at the Superdome. She said there wasn't any way to arrange any kind of transportation for us; that no one was coming to get us. “Just stick together, don't leave anyone behind, wherever you go,” were her only words of advice.
We stood out on Convention Center Boulevard discussing our options. Some wondered if we should head back upstairs and wait it out there at the hotel. It seemed like a good option, but then Perry Lew pointed out that the only protection we had had just driven off in a bunch of Cadillacs. In addition, some refugees were already starting to gather at the Convention Center across the street, and none of us felt comfortable staying within a stones throw of more of the desperate, unstable people we had just left at the Dome. With reports of the water rising again, we decided that there was only one place for us to go – the West Bank, where we knew it was still dry. But how to get there?
At that moment, a civilian truck headed up the road towards us. It was a large moving truck, and immediately we all knew what to do. Prior to the storm, the mayor had declared that city emergency workers could commandeer any private vehicles or buildings necessary for rescue operations En masse, we stood in the street, all eighty of us and blocked the path. The driver looked shocked as we shouted out “New Orleans EMS! We're commandeering this truck to take us to the West Bank.” I immediately got the impression that this was a looter, or someone engaged in some sort of illegal activity. We opened up the rear door of the truck and found it half-full of furniture. Inside the back of the truck also were two more men. All three of the people in the truck claimed they didn't know the others. But we didn't really care what they were up to; we just wanted to get the hell out of there.
However, about half our group felt uneasy about commandeering the truck, especially with the shady circumstances involved with its three occupants, and they refused to go with us. The one word of advice that we clung to was “stick together.” The rest of us relented and decided to stay with one another and find some other way of getting to the West Bank. We let the truck go on its way.
We were still there standing on Convention Center Boulevard. For all we knew, the water was minutes away from us. We heard gunshots in the distance. We could see looters a couple of blocks away, carrying their boxes and bags of stuff. People were milling around out front of the Convention Center, probably seeking refuge from the flood. Our options were few. It was decided that we'd take our chances walking across the Crescent City Connection, or CCC, the bridge that joined the West Bank of the Mississippi River with Downtown New Orleans on the East Bank. Most of the EMT's were complaining, shouting in anger over being abandoned repeatedly by the city government, the police and the federal government. Some just stood there and sobbed. Before we started moving up the street toward the bridge entrance, I tried to get everyones attention without shouting too loudly. “People, I know we all feel abandoned and we're all pissed off. Once we get to safety we can scream and cry all we want. But right now, we need to move out in the open to get to the West Bank. We only have three weapons amongst us, so it's important that we stay in one group and stay as quiet as possible. If we scream and shout, it'll just be like a beacon for looters and criminals to come after us! We're all in EMS uniform and the public knows we all carry our drugs with us, plus our personal belongings. Are we clear on this? Do not advertise our presence here by getting out the box and screaming and crying!” Everyone acknowledged, but it was hard not to let our frustrations get the best of us. As we trudged along the street, several others admonished their coworkers to maintain silence.
At the base of the bridge, we could see an NOPD car parked in the street with its flashing lights on. Perhaps the cop could give us an escort or a gun or something to help. But as we neared the vehicle, we saw it was abandoned. One of its tires was flat, and the other three had been stripped by looters. The trunk had been broken into and emptied, except for some books of traffic tickets left there. We plodded on. As we began heading up the ramp of the CCC, I began to realize how steep it was. I reassessed the load I was carrying and began to question the wisdom of lugging around my jump bag. All the equipment I had in it was for critical care emergencies, like cardiac arrests. If anyone coded here and now, none of it would be of much use, as there were no ambulances to respond and no hospitals to go to anyway. Besides we had left all our cardiac monitors and other medical equipment back at the Hampton Inn. I asked if anyone wanted my laryngoscopes, the only actually valuable things in there. I gave them to Francene Jones and left the bag and everything else in it on the CCC ramp.
We kept on walking. It was so steep that we had to take breaks frequently, stopping to catch our breath and rest our arms and legs while carrying our stuff. The march went on for what seemed like miles. Tammy Guenard asked if I could carry her bag for a little while, which I was happy to do, even though it felt like she had packed it full of bricks. Charlie Brown passed out, but was able to continue after resting some more. Samantha Graham had stayed with me the entire time and I kept making sure she was there nearby. Each time I looked at her it seemed like she was fighting harder and harder to hold back the tears over her home and family and her boyfriend Greg, who was also one of my best friends. I kept feeling like I, too, should feel the need to cry, but for some reason I didn't. I just felt the need to survive.
We trudged for what seemed like hours. About a third of the way across the bridge, I realized that I still had my radio on me! Perhaps some other emergency service had found the one working channel we had been using earlier. I flipped it on and began searching through the channels – NOPD, NOFD, Mutual Aid, Jefferson Parish, St Bernard Parish, Public Safety. Finally I heard voices on one of the channels. The trunking system was down, so there was no way to tell what department it was, because normally the little LCD screen pops up with the Department name and radio number. I gathered from the transmissions that it was some police department, but I couldn't tell which one. I waited for a silent moment on the air and keyed up. “New Orleans Health Department to anyone on this channel! How do copy me?”
The previous conversations continues without any of the voices acknowledging me. I kept trying, “New Orleans EMS to anyone on this channel! Do you copy?” After a few attempts I started to think that I was simply out of range, that I could hear them, but they couldn't hear me. Finally one voice came across saying “[Garbled ID] to New Orleans EMS on this channel. Go ahead!”
I continued as several other EMT's gathered around me, straining to hear. “This is New Orleans Emergency Medical Service. We are on foot on the Crescent City Connection, trying to get to the West Bank. We've been separated from our command and have no resources. Requesting assistance.”
The voice replied,”New Orleans EMS? What the hell are y'all doing? Why aren't you out here pulling people off of rooftops with the rest of us?”
“Sir, I repeat: we are on foot on the Crescent City Connection. All of our ambulances are stranded or destroyed. We are alone here and have no defenses. There are looters on the streets and there are gunshots going off around us. Can you spare a vehicle to help us get to safety, or at least help us by sending an escort, or a guard, or a gun? Anything?”
“Man, you need to be out here with us! Piss off, EMS!”
I looked around at the other EMT's nearby who had heard. Jon Bailey, Charlie, Tim, Samantha all had the same shocked look. It was one thing to tell us that they had no one to send to us, but for one emergency agency to tell another one to “piss off” was unheard of. I switched off my radio. Obviously no help was going to come from there.
As we walked across the bridge, conversation was too exhausting, so most of us walked along with our own thoughts kept to ourselves. I thought about what Mark had said about hearing people calling 911 for help during the storm and the dispatchers having to tell them that no help was coming. I thought about the frail, elderly people we had moved from the Dome to the Arena and how many of them would die before any definitive help could be offered. While I stewed over the looting and selfishness that was rampant around us, I pondered over what help was there for the thousands of genuinely helpless people that truly needed us. Having been a paramedic for so long, I was used to always knowing what to do, what to say, how to help in any situation that was thrown at me. We always had to have the answers, and if we didn't, we would improvise, or make do with what we had. But now we had nothing. We had no resources, no ambulances, no support, no medicine, no hospitals, no medical control, no communications. We were on foot in the middle of the night lugging all we had left on our backs. The only thing we had now was each other. That moment, there on the bridge, was when we finally felt all alone. It was our hardest moment, but also that moment where we knew that with nothing else at all, we could rely on each other. It will forever be a defining moment for all of us EMT's stuck there on the bridge, when we in future months we could say “I made that walk across the bridge,” and the others there would have the unspoken knowledge of the bond of solidarity we all felt for each other, when the city we had loved and lived in and worked for abandoned us.
Near the top of the bridge, a CCC police car pulled up from behind us. The cops face was aghast at the sight of the entire city's EMS force, in uniform, marching up the bridge. We briefly told him our situation and asked if he could transport a few of us across. We put Tammy and Charlie into his car and wished them well, not really knowing when we would see them again. We asked him to let others know that we were here and to send help, if possible.
As we neared the end of the bridge, I wondered where we would go. Some of us lived on the West Bank, but getting to those homes would be difficult, as the CCC ends in the middle of the Fisher Housing Project, one of the most notoriously unlawful housing projects in the city. And with no lights, no police backup and only three guns among us, I began to feel that at least one of us was going to die that night. Of course I didn't voice my fears to anyone, but the thought gnawed at me. I felt I had to hold that in, along with all my other fears and worries. There was nothing else we could do.
Just then, as we were almost to the end of the bridge, was one of the most beautiful sights we had seen in days. A fleet of New Orleans Fire Department trucks began pulling up to our group and told us to get in! We cheered and cried and thanked them as we all threw our stuff into the ladder trucks, pumpers, sprint cars and personal vehicles. I piled into one of the Dodge Durango sprint vehicles along with about eight other EMT's. We asked how they had found us and they explained that one of the firemen happened to be passing by when he was flagged down by one of our group that had made it across the bridge before the rest of us. He went back to NOFD's camp and gotten the rest of the firemen to drive out and pick up the rest of us. The Fire Department had commandeered the Mary Joseph Nursing Home in Algiers and had set up a base camp there since all the nursing home residents had been evacuated before the storm. The fireman driving the car said that they had water and food and weapons and electricity from one of their big generator trucks. We could all stay there as long as we needed to since there was plenty of room. As we arrived at the nursing home we all thanked the firemen profusely and tried to apologize for all the shit we had given them over the years that they had been first responders and declared that we were going to secede from the Health Department and make ourselves New Orleans Fire Department EMS. For the first time in days, someone had backed us up, had welcomed us and taken us into their care. We felt safe at last; the firemen had more weapons than all the National Guard had, and plenty of bullets and rounds to go into their guns, unlike the well-meaning but unprepared Guard.
Samantha and I searched around the nursing home for somewhere to lay out our stuff. We found a few feet of floor in a hall near a door where there was a slight breeze to relieve the sweltering heat. We called it our bedroom and went off to explore our new home. There was food in the kitchen, so we helped ourselves to good fireman cooking, then headed out front where they had set up a bar with all the beer and liquor they had brought from their homes or “found” in abandoned stores. Every fireman I saw I thanked and declared my hero. We drank and laughed that night, the first time any of us had laughed in days, trying to purge from our minds the horror that we had all witnessed, that was still occurring just across the river. None of us had slept more than a few minutes at a time for days, so it didn't take long for us to finally give in to the fatigue that had building up in us. I laid down on the hard floor, using my backpack as a pillow and at long last fell into a decent sleep.
The next day I awoke to footsteps and shouting. Apparently some civilian had strayed too close to our camp's perimeter and the firemen were scrambling to evict the intruder. It was mildly disconcerting, but I was grateful that our new hosts were so vigilant. I shook off the last remnants of sleep and tried to eat something. After a while the firemen and EMT's began to take stock of our situation. There had been 150 firefighters before we got there and with EMS added to the family, we had nearly 250 people to look after. With no news of any outside help arriving anytime soon, it was clear that sooner or later we would have to venture into the outside world for extra provisions. Some of the firefighters had been to the Wal-Mart on Behrman Highway the day before, and said that the police had secured it shortly after the looters had broken in. Apparently, they let the fireman have what they needed from the Wal-Mart. We decided we would form an armed expedition to head over there and resupply our people. We got together several pickup trucks and formed teams that would be assigned to each one. No truck had fewer than two armed members who would ride inside and outside. Civilians had set themselves up as snipers in buildings and were taking potshots at fire trucks, police cars, National Guard vehicles and helicopters. We set our radios to working channels and tested each one to make sure we had communications between us as well as with personnel back at the compound. Each person had a “shopping list” of necessary items that everyone could use: canned food, socks, clothes, sleeping bags, water, medicines, first aid stuff, tampons, etc.
We piled into our vehicles and first went to the firehouse on Woodlawn to pick up some tools we might need to cut through doors or locks or whatever. As we were loading up the tools, several cars began pulling into the firehouse lot with us. The armed medics and fireman readied their weapons for potential bandits, but a moment later, we began cheering as our new visitors were the EMT's we had left the night before at the Superdome to help with helicopter operations! Luke, Nick, Jay, Donnie, Mark, Juliette, St. John, Mike, Cedric and all the others were safe, thank God! The ones that owned four wheel drive trucks and SUV's were able to get them out of the back entrance of the New Orleans Center, where the water wasn't as high. In addition, They had commandeered a huge bobtail truck from somewhere they probably shouldn't have, but it wasn't a time to be conservative. We were happy to see them all, and as we listened to their account of the growing madness at the Dome, we wondered how a full-on riot hadn't taken place yet.
We quickly explained what we were doing and Ron followed us to the Wal-Mart with the big truck which would make hauling our supplies to our new home much easier. We had no trouble getting to the store, other than having to readjust our course several times to get around downed trees in the road, and when we showed up, NOPD was there, as expected. They were cautious with us at first, but when they realized that we were, in fact, EMS and NOFD, they let us in to gather the supplies we needed.
There I was, with my shopping cart, as if it were a perfectly normal day just shopping at the Wal-Mart. Except the other shoppers were all armed with automatic weapons.
5 years ago