Medics return from disaster

September 14, 2005

Jan Loomis and Jeff Pricher felt like they had walked into a war zone when they arrived at the Louis Armstrong International Airport in Louisiana on Sept. 1.

“It was total chaos, there’s just no other way to describe it. I think the memory that most etched itself into my mind was the incredible look of fatigue and despair on people’s faces,” said Loomis, an emergency room nurse at Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital.

“The smell was just rotten. It was like walking into a wall of odors and we were just completely overwhelmed,” said Jeff Pricher, Cascade Locks’ only full-time paramedic/firefighter.

He and Loomis had been deployed to New Orleans as part of the 35-member Oregon Disaster Medical Assistance Team. The crew gathered from around the state had been specially trained under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for response to a mass casualty or disaster event.

They had just never dreamed that scenario would involve so many thousands of people in the middle of a flood zone.

The medical professionals from the Gorge found themselves surrounded by a sea of humanity in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The temperature on the airport tarmac hovered near 100 degrees and the humidity level was at almost 100 percent.

The odor of feces, urine and unwashed bodies was overpowering and they struggled to cope with an onset of nausea. There was no time to waste since a seemingly endless number of exhausted and traumatized patients needed their attention.

To add to the confusion on the ground, 91 military helicopters were taking turns dropping off more evacuees — all without the aid of air traffic controllers.

“I went to help out with Hurricane Ivan (on the Florida panhandle) last year but that seemed like a walk in the park compared to this,” Pricher said.

As he and Loomis stood wondering where to begin, they were spotted by an exhausted Peter Mackwell. The volunteer assistant chief of West Side Fire District and paid Hood River paramedic/firefighter was going on his 36th hour with no sleep. He had already been on the ground working in New Orleans for the past two days as part of the Washington State Disaster Medical Assistance Team. Mackwell had been enlisted to fill their quota of 35 professionals.

“You have no idea how great I felt when these guys showed up. It was like the cavalry had arrived,” Mackwell said.

He was one of the first 100 medics to be deployed to the airport outside a city that was 80 percent under water. Mackwell had originally been sent in a convoy to the Superdome where thousands of frustrated refugees were sheltered.

However, he was taken back to the airport as authorities determined that the danger from a second levee breach and rioters had become too great.

At that point, doctors, nurses, paramedics, emergency medical technicians, pharmacists and respiratory therapists quickly set up a triage center at the airport. All critically ill patients, many suffering from diabetes, were sent to the red tent for first transport via ambulance or plane to a hospital.

Those with less threatening medical needs, such as dehydration, were put into the yellow tent for secondary treatment. And the “walking wounded,” many with minor injuries, stood in line outside the green tent for medical attention as time allowed.

“The patients would get off the helicopter and all that they would have of their worldly possessions was in a garbage bag,” said Loomis.

Mackwell said there were about 1,000 evacuees on the premises when he arrived just two days after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. However, by the time that Loomis and Pricher joined him that number had spiraled into the thousands.

Within the next few days, the number of evacuees at the airport would reach 25,000 and fill every available space at the terminal.

“Once the word was out that the airport would take people from New Orleans it was like somebody just turned on a big faucet and the place was inundated with patients,” said Pricher.

But the patients seen by the trio were not those typically associated with a mass casualty scene. In place of major cuts, broken bones and open wounds, most victims were suffering from an inability to treat existing health problems. Loomis said it was ironic that stacks of Krispy Kreme donuts were the first food source to arrive — not such a great choice with so many starving diabetics around.

“Thank goodness we had enough insulin to keep up with it,” she said. “At the end of the day when you went to bed, you weren’t sure you were making a difference. It was only a few days later that you could see that you had.”

Both she and Pricher, who alternated between medical duties and safety detail, were up for 24 hours before getting their first opportunity for rest. And sleep was found stretched out on one of the Baggage Claim 7 or 8 conveyer belts — but the discomfort didn’t seem to matter as exhaustion set in.

Medical supplies initially ran low and Pricher said emergency responders were forced to improvise, such as making colostomy bags by using plastic and duct tape. The three medics from Hood River County said the U.S. Forest Service “saved the day” by setting up an incident command post.

Because the federal agency orchestrates major firefighting operations that are military in nature, FEMA had tasked the Forest Service with administrative duties.

Between their expertise, and that of hundreds of military personnel, Mackwell said the situation on the ground began to gain order and quickly became the model of efficiency.

Which, he said, was no small feat since there were dozens of law enforcement and emergency responders all working together.

“Believe it or not, out of the 6,000 people that we treated we only had 38 deaths — and 10 of those people were already deceased by the time they arrived,” Pricher said.

There were touching moments that will forever be frozen in the minds of the medical team. Mackwell remembers one man who was partially immersed in brackish water for four days before being rescued. He arrived at the airport clutching his beloved dog and was more concerned about its debilitated condition than his own.

There were eight babies born at the airport following America’s worst natural disaster. But there were also dozens of terrified children who had become separated from their parents and were temporarily “adopted” by strangers. Loomis said many nurses and firefighters from New Orleans arrived at the airport to help out — most walking into the site on foot — in spite of the fact that their own homes had been destroyed.

“They were all just so grateful for the help and wouldn’t talk about what had happened to them unless you asked,” said Loomis. “We had no way to keep up on the news but when we learned about all of the international aid that was coming in, we started telling people just to give them hope.”

The Gorge contingent also helped sneak a few animals out with their patients. Mackwell said cats and dogs were not allowed on planes but they could travel onboard an ambulance.

So, whenever empty space became available, he and his cohorts tried to tuck their injured pet owners into a vehicle for transport.

Mackwell and Pricher caught a flu bug from being exposed to a multitude of germs and the grueling schedule. But both were already feeling better when they arrived home on Saturday. However, all three admit that being part of the historical calamity had changed them, personally and professionally, in ways they don’t yet fully comprehend.

“I’ll perceive a busy day in the emergency room very differently now,” said Loomis. “It reminds me of how lucky we are to have running water that’s potable and know where our families are.”

“And we had houses to go back to — it felt great just to be able to sleep in our own beds,” added Mackwell. “We have trained for something of much less caliber to happen here, perhaps a collapse of the high school grandstand that would involve about 1,200 patients. If something like that were to happen now, and let’s hope it doesn’t, we are in a better position to deal with it.”

“We’re going to be able to draw on these experiences to enhance our emergency operations plans,” said Pricher. “You can read books, you can try a plan but when you’re there it’s a whole different ballgame.”

Loomis, who resides in Trout Lake, Wash., has already been invited to share her experiences with the local Presbyterian Church.

On Monday evening, Pricher headed off to brief the Cascade Locks City Council about his public service. He joins Loomis and Mackwell in the desire to share their hard-won lessons with other emergency responders.

“I think this disaster is going to teach us a lot, it was the experience of a lifetime,” Loomis said.

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