In the Wake of Katrina: A Surgeon's First-Hand Report of the New Orleans Tragedy

Scott E. Delacroix, Jr., MD

In This Article

Thursday Dawn

Thankfully, an overcast morning. People had now been there for 36 hours. I was getting tired of lying to people and telling them to hold on a little longer for a ride. Ambulances and buses were more frequently arriving to transport patients, but again, getting the elderly and large families aboard was problematic considering the pushing and shoving when a bus arrived. One of the volunteers approached me and said that there was a medical convoy that had arrived to help and wanted to know where to set up. I walked about 2 blocks and met Gordon Bergh and the Austin City [Texas] EMS [Emergency Medical Services]. Gordon asked how he could help and where I wanted them to set up. They had a command and control station, 4 ambulances, and 8-10 EMTs. We discussed a plan to set up a triage station on the opposite site of the current one. Now our "hospital" had swelled to encompass both the East and Westbound lanes of Interstate 10. Helicopters still landing. About 3000-5000 people still in our location. I received word that the FEMA official said that they were pulling out. Until this point, FEMA was providing no medical assistance, but they were helping to obtain transportation for these people. The transportation was inadequate to say the least, and now they were pulling out? I approached the official and asked him whether it was true that they were pulling out and if so why. I was told that yes they were leaving, and he was unsure why. His comment was that the decision had been made by "people above my pay grade" as he shrugs his shoulders. Rumor was that shootings in New Orleans had spurred someone higher up in FEMA to pull back. This was ridiculous. We were 1.5 miles outside of New Orleans proper. At that time, we had no security problem. We did not have a security problem until later that day when transportation slowed almost to a standstill. No more FEMA, very little transportation. No coordination. It is Thursday -- 3 days post storm! There was no gunfire at our location. Only people in dire need of medical assistance and transportation. The lack of transportation for the people caused more of them to become medical patients. Dehydration and exhaustion. The FEMA official walked away leaving our crew, the local EMS crew from Austin City, and a mass of people -- patients lying on the Interstate in their own urine and feces. Supplies were still minimal -- oxygen, albuterol, IV fluids. I was rationing 2 bottles of nitroglycerin. No aspirin for ACS [acute cardiac syndrome]. Found the largest bottle of 2 mg of alprazolam (Xanax) I had ever seen -- 500 count. Immediately rolled one up in some cheese from an MRE (Military-issued meal ready-to-eat) and fed a big pitbull that had been scaring patients and myself for the past couple of hours. He went to bed until Friday morning (he was OK). State police were there to keep the general population off the Interstate lanes: about 3000-5000. Every time a bus would pull up to take the general population, the elderly and young would get shoved out of the way, and there was nothing that we or the state police could do without causing a riot. We attempted to put mothers with small children into some of the ambulances, but there were just too many hospital patients.

Triage continued through the day (Thursday) (Figure 1). Helicopters continued landing. We did accomplish to clear out the initial side of patients. With Austin EMS's help, they took over the triage while some of us tried to clean the area. There was trash everywhere. People had urinated and defecated where they lay waiting for transportation. We had cut holes into some of the cloth cots and placed boxes under the holes for sick patients to relieve themselves. It was a mess. This area was something out of a UNICEF [United Nations Children's Fund] commercial.

A small portion of the general public stranded at our triage station during the day on Thursday.

I ran into one of my Charity Hospital patients under the I-10 on Thursday morning. He had been evacuated from an apartment building in midcity with 150 seniors without water. He said they were in dire need of help. We spoke with the air traffic controller (military) and talked with Gordon from Austin City EMS. Coordination between the state police and the communications trailer from Austin was our best asset. Still no FEMA. No transportation and no coordination other than among ourselves on the ground. We were allotted a BLACK HAWK helicopter to fly water into the building. I hate flying. Two EMS technicians from Austin City, 4 state police officers from Houma, Louisiana, armed with AR-15 semiautomatic rifles, myself, Nick the EMT from New Orleans, and the ER doctor from Baton Rouge. Also accompanying us was a news crew from Austin KXAN 36 (an NBC affiliate) with reporter Rich Parsons. Austin City EMS would be pulling out of this area as soon as we returned. Bulletproof vests on, we loaded the chopper with water and MREs and took off. This was the first (and I hope only time) I would be seeing patients with a bulletproof vest, a 38 revolver in my scrub pants, and a white coat with 38-caliber cartridges jingling in my pocket. We flew into the city around 6:00 pm. Amazing site of destruction and flooding. The city where I grew up was under water. We found the building and circled a few times, but could not land on the roof. We landed at a softball field next to Cabrini High School by Bayou Saint John about 2 blocks away. Found a pirogue (a Louisiana flatboat), filled it with supplies, and waded through water about 2-3 ft deep and brought water and MRE's to the Park Esplanade Apartment complex. Triaged the grateful patients and went back to the LZ [landing zone]. Our chopper had taken off, and we were unable to get a lift out. Night fell and we were stranded. The state police officers contacted their commander by radio. Helicopters were no longer landing at night possibly secondary to gunfire. At this time, getting more and more nervous, we started popping glow sticks and laying them in a pattern to call in a chopper. Rich Parsons called into Austin and gave a television phone interview. We heard 3 shots fired from across the bayou. After 3-4 hours and hearing gunfire on the other side of the bayou, a BLACK HAWK finally landed and got us back to the LZ at Causeway and I-10. Nick the EMT and myself couldn't move. It is late Thursday night, and the triage center again has swelled to its prior state. Still no FEMA -- little transportation has these people languishing in horrible conditions. Austin City EMS pulled out and headed to the airport where FEMA was supposedly set up. Nick and I remained at Causeway and I-10 for a couple more hours and had to leave secondary to exhaustion.


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