People who have done this before at Katrina, and others who have had experience with the military all admit that this is the way things tend to go. It was new for me, though.
Nine of us received phone calls at about 0730 on Sunday morning, just five hours after many of us got home after a long shift at the concert venue. The message was direct, but hollowed out and filled with mystery: get up, get packed, expect to leave within the next couple hours. It was chaos from the get-go, as most of us had no idea what to pack, how to pack it, and what might lie ahead. Groggily we all asked whatever questions we could muster when the phone calls came, but the supervisors calling didn't know the answers. All we know is that you are heading out today, probably soon, they said. Plan for seventeen days.
I got up and packed whatever I could think of, wondering if this was a good idea. I had already said that I would go, but this morning I wasn't quite so sure. I packed seven pairs of EMS pants with matching uniform shirts, loads of underwear, socks and various t-shirts. I remembered a rain suit and my MP3 player, a camera and the cell phone. I ran to the store quickly and bought granola bars and travel-size toiletries. When we finally got the call to go, I almost walked out of the door without my boots.
It is a scary thing to respond to a call like this. The storm had not yet hit, and none of us had any idea when, where, or how hard it would. On the TV they were showing frightening looking images of circular swirling clouds in the Atlantic ocean, arrows of potential paths swinging westward and slightly to the north, fading out in uncertainty around landfall. At the airport we huddled around together and nervously chatted about what may lay ahead. There were a few with us who had done this before, and we relied on them for whatever information we could get a hold of. As we sat and waited for our flights a few people told stories of their time at Katrina, horrible and haunting. Some of their experiences made my bones chill.
Through a layover we ended up in San Antonio Texas at about 0100, where a bus driver waited for us with a sign that read FEMA EMS DISASTER RELIEF. Stepping out of the airport was like walking into a sauna. We all staggered a bit at the heat, even at this early hour the air was saturated with thick humidity and almost hot to the touch. We weren't used to this at all.
The driver took us to a base of operations about 20 minutes away. It was obvious when we had arrived at our destination: idling ambulances lined the streets for blocks surrounding the building, which sat aglow from generator-powered overhead lights. There were hundreds of cardboard boxes filled with supplies in neat stacks at various locations outside of the building, and workers walked quickly from pile to pile with clipboards and packages like worker ants sprawling the terrain. The place was alive, and everyone was busy.
We got a quick briefing from one of our administrators, who had taken an earlier flight down. He was sweaty and looked tired already, having spent a number of hours preparing hundreds of brand new Nextel phones. Sitting back from his work for a moment, he informed us that we didn't know when we would be moving out, but it would probably be in a few hours. The main base of operations was at Kelly Air Force base, an hour away, where we would receive further instructions. Until then, he said, we should grab a spot on the floor and try and get some sleep. On the floor? It was concrete with a thin carpet, but we were exhausted. I bunched up a sweatshirt for a pillow and was asleep within minutes.
It was a consistent theme throughout our deployment that information would be both set at a premium and low in supply. From nights on the floor to travel arrangements that changed as sure as hours passed, it seemed rare that our group heard about plans that would actually occur, reliable news about the hurricane's path, or informed truth about large-scale decisions. We were all used to working small-scale: champions of the backs of our ambulances and the source of decisions to be made on scenes. The patient laid out before us in clear presentation of the problem at hand. It was strikingly clear on our first night of this deployment, though, that we would not be experiencing the familiar. Our view was instead from the bottom-up, clouded by rumor and indirect contact with the management, and while we listened and obeyed, the decisions brought down made little sense to us other than that they came from authority who presumably knew better. Uninformed, we entrusted ourselves to the greater machine and blindly did as we were told.
We were awoken twice in the middle of the night from our snoring slumber, asked to perform a few minor tasks, and then let back to bed. Later in the day we were brought to the air force base, packed 6 deep in the back of a modular ambulance along with piles of suitcases. It was sweltering hot, and we sat quietly as the loaded ambulance labored through unfamiliar streets. We all remained in good spirits though, uncomfortable but inspired by the magnitude and meaning of our presence.
We arrived on the outskirts of the base, greeted by an incredible view of ambulances that had already arrived. They stretched off in the distance to vanish points, row after row. I have never seen so many ambulances together in once place. It was difficult to appreciate the view through my camera lens, but I made an effort:
After a brief wait at the staging point, we were brought by bus to another section at the base where we were to stay. It was an extremely large multi-purpose building, expansive on the inside with carpeted concrete floors and pillars spread out in grid fashion. We were given fold-out cots and a blanket, and told to settle down where we liked. Our group picked a spot in the corner, adding a margin of privacy by stacking the cardboard cot boxes in a makeshift wall in front of us. Many others followed suit as they arrived, and in a number of hours the building was a maze of sleeping EMS workers, cots, boxes, and tables.
It was here where we spent the rest of our deployment. We were there for two days, waiting on instructions to move south that never came. FEMA supplied the some 700 EMS workers who responded with ample sleeping supplies, hygiene kits, and food. Information remained spotty and often incorrect, while rumors were constantly passed from camp to camp about what our fates might be. At night when the lights were turned down, flipped-open cell phones were visible across the room like stars as workers searched the internet and friends for updates on the storm's path. We played cards, watched DVDs on laptops, and slept as much as possible.
While we waited, the storm crept onward towards Mexico, never swinging north as so many had feared. Word was passed around about the diminishing storm categories, from five to four to three to one.
On Wednesday a large group circled around the center of the room to hear news of our dismissal. Representatives from FEMA and Texas thanked us for our response and apologized for our inconvenience, giving the official word that we could all go home. Everyone clapped, a bit disappointed for the lack of action but ready to leave.
Our group left in a caravan of ambulances at 0500, ready for the 15 hour trip from San Antonio to Gulfport MS. It must have been a sight to see our 18 ambulances rolling down the road, filled with EMTs and Paramedics unshaven and exhausted looking. We emptied our fuel tanks twice, each time gathering at truck stops and joking around, taking photos of our group in front of ambulances that used to be part of our own divisions. Some people were extremely frustrated with the situation, becoming loudly vocal about their discontent from time to time. One group from another division taped signs to the back of their ambulances reading "Lied 2" and "Corporate Puppet" in lieu of our missing license plates. Most of us rolled our eyes at the complaints, though, and the experienced members of our group commented that such frustrations were absolutely typical of large operations like this one. The time-honored military motto of "hurry up and wait" was mentioned often, and despite the frequent frustrations, most of us remained in good spirits.
Towards the end of the drive we crossed through New Orleans and the surrounding areas affected by hurricane Katrina. I had never been there before, but was shocked to see how much of the damage still lingered even as viewed from the highway. We passed countless homes that remained crushed and broken, roofs folded in and windows smashed. I rode with a medic who was in this area for the storm, and he pointed to the left and right as we drove through, talking about where the water was and what the terrain looked like then. We drove over a large overpass which he said was almost taken over completely by the onrushing waters. Looking over the now dry and damaged terrain, it was difficult to imagine the forces that caused so much wreckage.
Many of us, myself included, were at least in some small way disappointed that Hurricane Dean stayed so far south. We wanted at least a little bit of "action," and wanted to charge into broken areas and work. Seeing this destruction, though, firmly grounded us. The extent of what a hurricane can do was never palpably clear to us, and realizing what disaster was avoided, all we could do was thank god nothing like this happened again.
We took flights the next morning out of the south and back home. On the way we discussed FEMA and the response, whether we would come back on the next deployment. Just about all of us said we would. Though the hurricane did not hit US land, this was in effect the largest drill FEMA has ever conducted, and with the experience under our collective belts, we each look forward to coming back and doing it better- next time.