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    Friday, September 09, 2005

    Tales from the Superdome: One paramedics story:

    Hesch -- one of 35 people in a self-contained, federally funded team from New Mexico -- arrived in New Orleans at 3 a.m. Aug. 30 with 20 tons of supplies. Without a wink of sleep, the group set up treatment tents in the Louisiana Superdome, which was packed with tens of thousands of refugees.

    But between 9 and 10 a.m., their plans were quickly altered. "We had people running through screaming that the levy just broke, and we had to evacuate," Hesch said in a telephone interview from Louisiana on Thursday.

    ....As the water rose, so did the group of doctors, nurses, pharmacists and emergency technicians from New Mexico. They fled to the bleachers and then to the third level of the Superdome.

    Hesch was dumbfounded by what he saw around him. Disaster teams from other states evacuated.

    "It was very unique because they were yelling for us to get on the bus," Hesch said.

    But Mike Richards, an Albuquerque doctor who heads the team, replied, "No! New Mexico isn't going anywhere!"

    ....Alone, the New Mexico team -- and one doctor from New Orleans -- set up a full-scale acute medical-care clinic by 11 a.m. in the basketball and hockey arena, which is connected to the Superdome by a causeway. The sick and injured from the Superdome came to them. Some had head injuries. Some had gunshot wounds. Some had cuts on their bodies from walking through the water-filled streets. Some had gone cold turkey off their medications.

    In the space of 40 hours, the staff treated 800 to 1,000 patients. Hesch said he sutured wounds under the light of his headlamp.

    ...More startling for Hesch were the attitudes of the refugees in New Orleans. "I saw both ends of the spectrum and not much in between. Either they were ramping up and getting angry and wanting your stuff or they were very helpful," he said. "It's not really something I've ever seen before."

    In other disasters where Hesch has worked, people pulled tightly together as a community. But New Orleans didn't seem to know how to do that. "The Dome turned into a den of depravity at some point," he said, noting reports of rapes and people beaten to death.

    Some screamed at Hesch, "You should give me your cell phone!" Others demanded to know, "Where are all the resources?" He told them the break in the levees and the heavily populated city had created a difficult problem.

    Hesch, luckily, met a few of what he calls "salt of the earth" people who kept him from losing faith in humankind. Two brothers who cleaned up the wreckage. A quadriplegic man in a wheelchair who took care of his cantankerous 84-year-old mother. A circle of people singing hymns.

    "That was uplifting, but the rest of the time was like walking in a tiger's den," Hesch said.

    ...By Aug. 31, the Federal Emergency Management Agency told the exhausted New Mexico team it was time to leave. "You guys are just incredible but you're pushing it way too far," Hesch recalls FEMA telling the crew.

    Before he left New Orleans, Hesch was confounded once again. A FEMA convoy from California had come under attack. People threw rocks at it.

    Upon advice of others, the New Mexico team removed all signs that connected its vehicles to FEMA. "They told us, 'Be careful not to run over any dead bodies, and keep this as quiet as possible,' " Hesch said.

    Does this sound right? They brought 20 tons of supplies to the Superdome on Tuesday, the day after the hurricane? That's a fast response, and lots of supplies. So what the heck was going on in that Superdome, anyway? All this time I thought people were stuck in there because of the flood waters, but the media and volunteers seemed to be coming and going. And if the media and volunteers were coming and going, why couldn't they get supplies to them? Why did they make people stay there? Crowd control?

    There's something else that's disturbing about all of this. Maybe I've misunderstood the coverage, but I thought one of the problems was a lack of communication between the governor, the mayor, and the national guard troops who were providing security in the Superdome. And that lack of communication, supposedly, was due to the hurricane and the flood knocking out all the phone lines and cell towers. So how come the media was able to communicate to the world from inside the Superdome?

    If there's any lesson to be learned here it's not to put a large number of people in one spot during a disaster. Spread your shelters out, like the bomb shelters in World War II.

    P.S. New Mexico's governor confirms the medical team's timeline.

    posted by Sydney on 9/09/2005 09:14:00 PM 0 comments


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