As the needle bends

A world view thru my hobbit hole door

The Incredible 6 Day Slumber Party, or “How I Spent My Autumn Vacation”

This is my response to someone who told me that perhaps I would learn to be compassionate if I were ever placed in a position where almost certain death was bearing down upon me, and I had no way to escape.

I spent Labor Day weekend at work. So much for a long weekend, paid holiday. I was at the Astrodome when the evacuees were brought into Houston, as I was there when ambulances were evacuating nursing homes and hospitals in the run up to Hurricane Rita. I know that it is a mandate that nursing homes have evacuation and disaster plans, and I wondered why, in the face of warnings days in advance, they were not implemented in NOLA.
I have thought a lot about those people who had no transportation in NOLA. Many I met at  “DomeCity,” as we came to know the Astrodome after 1/4 of New Orleans moved in there, fell into that category. And I have wondered why there were hundreds of New Orleans city school buses sitting drowned in a parking lot that could have been taken out of NOLA, fully loaded with residents who had no other way out. I have wondered why offers from Amtrak to bring out train loads of people from the city were turned away by Ray Nagin and Governor Blanco? Preparations for an impending weather disaster are the responsibility of the local and state government, as both Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco were so quick to point out when offers of early assistance from the federal government were made.

 I had co-workers in fire stations 1 block from the beachfront of the Mississippi coast when Katrina made landfall almost directly on top of them, because we sent all the ambulances and staffing that could be spared to the area to help evacuate BEFORE the storm hit. Some were even declared missing and presumed dead, due to the total devastation witnessed from the air, after the storm passed. Thank God the reports were wrong. But they were not in LA because they were told that they were not needed – by the state and local government.

I was faced with impending disaster when Rita was bearing down on the Houston area – with warnings that the predicted storm surge MIGHT stop a few blocks from the ambulance station where I had no choice but to stay – or desert those people who were depending on me to help them prepare their healthcare facilities for the storm by helping move the patients out. Mind you, we got to do this in the middle of the huge traffic jam that was on television. It was even more fun in person – in an ambulance.

The first night I stayed in town, the storm was covering most of the Gulf of Mexico, with sustained wind of 185mph, and the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded at that time.
I faced the decision to stay in Houston during Hurricane Rita, which the Hand of God turned to the east – to the least populated area of the Texas coast which put us on the “clean side of the storm,” knowing that I might never come out again. But I knew that I could not expect young kids, who happen to be medics, to stay in the face of that same prospect, if I were not willing to do the same. And that night, Houston was like a ghost town. If you haven’t lived through rush-hour on a Houston freeway, you can’t imagine how spooky it is to drive down freeways with no traffic – zip… zero… nobody… I guess everybody was stuck up north trying to get to Dallas, because they sure weren’t here.
It may be easy for people who have never been in the path of a hurricane to say afterwards what someone else should have done. I live with the thoughts of what might have been, had God not turned the storm. I lived daily, for a long time, with feelings of guilt for having prayed that God would turn the storm to the east, so Houston would be on the clean side. (I can do math – they said 2 million people had evacuated. There are close to 4 million in this area. The nightmare would have been NOLA doubled.) Then I felt horrible for those people who then wound up in its path. We told horribly inappropriate jokes, because we had to laugh to keep from screaming. And the President’s BBQ? When we could finally find fresh meat, and charcoal we too, had a BBQ! It was just hamburgers but what a welcome change from cold cut sandwiches three meals a day, or the alternative MREs. I found it incredibly strange to be in the fourth largest city in the United States, and get missed by the storm, and still no be able to get a hot meal.

Since then I have participated in debriefings and conferences about what could be done to improve the response next time,  because – as surely as I live and breathe- there will be a next time. If not here, somewhere else. And I know that we did not depend on the federal government to come tell us what to do before the storm. FEMA was on site in Houston, waiting before the storm BECAUSE THEY WERE REQUESTED,  not because it was the President’s job to send them. But they did very little until after the storm hit – because that is they way they are designed. They respond to EMERGENCIES. They take over afterwards, to organize, & provide supplies (which, by the way, they commandeer from wherever they are available). Not before. I know this because, after the storm hit, the ambulance service for which I work got “FEMA-tized.” We went no where that they did not tell us to go. When our contracted customers called, we had to tell them to call the “Unified Command” because that is the way it works.

PREPAREDNESS is a local/state responsibility. I know – I’ve helped put together plans. And the President is not listed in any of them. 

Compassion? I hope I do understand what it is. And that’s how I spent the incredible 6 day slumber party – when I was suppose to have left for a road trip to Maine, to see the autumn leaves.

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February 12, 2006 - Posted by | Life and Ramblings

3 Comments »

  1. I’m the person who made that statement. I still don’t understand. I mean, I get it that you were there and that you gave the full measure of devotion. But I don’t get that you could have been there like that and still feel the way you do. So I guess we will just have to agree to disagree. I am sure that my elderly aunt, if she were still alive, would wonder why she was left behind. I am sure my cousin, if he were still alive, would wonder why he couldn’t get to her in time and why he died from infection in his wounds, suffered trying to rescue her.

    And you asked on my blog, “why should MY president be blamed.” (that is probably a loose paraphrase…) First, he isn’t YOUR president; he is our president. Everyone’s president. And why should he be blamed? Because it is his job. He is the guy at the top of the chain. He is the one who appoints people to do the job, and ultimately it is the guy at the top who has to take the blame. Passing the buck on down to the people you appointed, when they turn out to be incompetent, just doesn’t work.

    I am more than willing to share the blame with Mr. Nagle and Ms. Blanco. But what about the people in Mississippi and Alabama, whose elected local officials did their jobs and did them properly, and yet they are still living in tents and going hungry and cold and uncared for?

    When do we stop passing the buck?

    Comment by Shoshana | February 12, 2006 | Reply

  2. Yes, Sho,
    I guess we will have to agree to disagree.
    I believe that getting the people out of New Orleans BEFORE the storm hit was the responsibility of people who are now blaming someone else for their ineptness. I suppose that they just never believed that Katrina was going to be as bad as it turned out, or surely they would have gotten all the people out – somehow, whatever it took. I still don’t understand why they didn’t use the buses to get those people without transportation out. I don’t understand why, and I guess I never will.
    The people I spoke with at DomeCity told me that they stayed because they thought they were safe, because where they stayed always had been safe in the past. Somehow the message that I got loud and clear, here outside Houston, that “if you don’t get out now there will not be enough body bags” just didn’t make it to those in NOLA. So, I still do not understand how it is OUR President’s fault that they did not get the message. (And I suppose that you will have to forgive my remark on your blog about MY President – but somehow you didn’t sound much like you wanted him for your president anymore.)
    I could go into the responsibilities of the President as outlined in the Constitution, but don’t have time. And I know that saying that there is no mention of Disaster Preparedness in it will not be enough to satisfy you. Do I think things could have been done differently, to prevent much of the suffering – yes. Do I believe it was President Bush’s job to DO those things – no. There was plenty of blame to go around, and ultimately, ‘the buck stops here’ but I am sick to death of people calling for the impeachment of OUR President for not magically making everything OK with the storm, while excusing the people on whose shoulders the responsibility actually rested.
    I’m going to get off my soapbox now.
    Once again, I’m sorry if I posted something offensive on your blog. Feel free to delete it if you like.

    Comment by bsue | February 13, 2006 | Reply

  3. I started to say “we Americans” are so quick to place blame before finding out the entire story, but suppose it is really “we humans.”

    That the Katrina disaster turned to chaos is a fact, but the JOY in apportioning blame is self-defeating. Even with information in hand (which most people don’t bother with)correcting the problems is difficult enough. Changing cultural patterns an unbelievable obstacle; attempts to make changes to the levee board are not going well at, and that is one of the first lines of defense!

    I’m not a Bush fan, but I am from Louisiana and cannot for the life of me see how anyone can place the blame on the President.

    Comment by jenclair | February 13, 2006 | Reply


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