Six Months Later
Six months Later--A Vision of Chaos, Determination, Courage, and Generosity
by Barbara Clark
For those of you who didn't know, I am a Registered Nurse with a specialty in Pediatrics. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, I volunteered to go to the affected area with an idea to help deliver health care. It took six months for our government to get it together, and I finally departed on February 22, 2006, assigned to the St. Bernard Parrish HHS Clinic in Chalmette, Louisiana.
One would think after six months that a city as popular as New Orleans and its surrounding suburbs in one of the richest countries in the world would be back on its feet.
Not so. The term, "third world" comes to mind when going through the New Orleans area.
The devastation looked as if it happened yesterday. It is impossible to take the ride from the ship where we stayed to the trailer where we worked and not be affected. The route takes you through the lower ninth ward, one of the hardest hit areas, to Chalmette, an area that was almost equally hit. For those of you who remember the song, "The Battle of New Orleans," that battle took place in Chalmatte. A monument to that battle sets off the main road, but it's closed, flooded. The street lights don't work; the traffic lights don't work, and row after row, street after street there are collapsed houses where people once lived and businesses once thrived. **Picture 28, 29, 30, or 31 here Under the freeways are blocks and blocks of cars, trucks, SUV's, and RV's rendered useless by flooding. There are currently six city buses left in New Orleans, and no street cars. A taxi is a rarity.
Katrina tossed boats about like paper mache, but what people forget is that most of the boats were not recreational. They were a means to make a living--gone in a matter of minutes. (pix 16 and 17)
On the doors of some of the houses, you can see a circle. That circle brings home the reality of the consequences of the hurricane. In the circle are divided into four areas, each containing a specific piece of information. The fact that there is a circle means that someone, a rescuer, went into the house to look for survivors. (Who that someone was or what agency they represented is put on the left side); the date they went into the house is put in another area; the number of people they found alive is on the right side of the circle, and the number of dead people they found is written at the bottom. There may be a second circle on the door, one of a different color. That circle represents animal rescue efforts, and usually it is written whether they found a cat or a dog. (See picture #3, Fats Domino's house.)
The first thought that occurs on someone who is traveling through is: why did it take so long to rescue these people? The second thought is: why hasn't there been more progress in terms of reparation? The debates and cover ups will probably go on forever as to why people were not evacuated before the hurricane since the weather center had predicted it would be a bad one, and that it would probably hit New Orleans. What is shameful now is the feet dragging.
Katrina was a equal opportunity destroyer, but she was devious in the way she did it. The wealthier homes along forty mile wide Lake Ponchatrain were hit directly by Katrina. Those who lived there were warned and some had time and did leave, expecting to come back in a matter of hours. Others in the New Orleans area got hit from another source--the levies which were not high enough to withstand the force of a hurricane such as Katrina, not strong enough, and they breached in several areas at once. The 17th Street Canal unloaded water in Jefferson Parrish. The London Avenue levees and the Industral canal levees let loose on the lower ninth ward and Chalmette. Everyone knows that New Orleans and its surrounding area are below sea level. The above- ground graves and mosoleums are famous fixtures and a source of industry for those who like the macabre. We learned in middle school science that water seeks its own level, and that is exactly what happened.
Image sitting in your living room on August 29th, perhaps following the track of the storm on TV. All of a sudden, you wear a noise, and more water than you can ever dream of comes pouring down on you from at least 3 different directions. In less that five minutes, the water is up to your ankles. You have time to grab nothing, and by the time you get out to your car, if you have one, it's flooded and inoperable.
The water is rising at the rate of SIX FEET PER HOUR.
That's right. In one hour the water will be over your head. You can't go anywhere; it's too late. The only thing you can do is go up in your house. If the walls don't cave it, you've got chance. If you have a one-story house, it's not looking very good for you.
A number of people ran to roofs; others to their attics, but the water kept coming--as high as 14-15 feet in some areas. Those people who went to their attics found themselves trapped there. Those are the bodies being discovered every day as they bulldoze the houses. There are over 700 people still missing; most are believed dead.
One lady, we'll call her Ella, showed the marks on her legs where the debris in her attic kept hitting her as it floated around. She recounts at the first sign of flooding, she grabbed her pets and ran up to the attic, thinking they would be safe there. By the end of the day, the water had risen to her chest, and there was no way to get out of the attic. By the time they rescued her two days later, her pets had drown. Some waited longer than two day. For others, rescue never came and they perished.
One of the first things I was told was when I went to Chalmette was that there are no dogs, cats, birds or even rats left in the area. They're gone. What there seems to be an overabunance of is alligators and snakes.
What are the survivors left with? If they were lucky, their lives and the clothes on their backs. Gone are their homes, the furniture, the cars, their businesses, everything with which they were familiar. They have been dispursed all over the country. Some live in 'Tent' city, in Chalmette under conditions you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. Some are living with friends or relatives. A few have gotten FEMA trailers, though the red tape associated with getting one is apparently so extensive that the trailers are disintegrating, sagging under the weight of the mud while people go begging for lodging. The 'hippie' tent gives free food to anyone who comes there. They ask for donations if the person is able.
Gone are their hospitals, medical clinics, pharmacies, drug stores, doctors. New Orleans' Charity Hospital, the largest hospital in the country, was destroyed. Of the 156 doctors in St. Bernard's Parrish, only 3 stayed. What they did in terms of getting patients to safety on August 29th and what they have done since then is nothing short of heroic.
Hence, the St. Parrish Medical HHS Clinic in Chalmette in St. Bernard's Parrish. Run by rotating volunteers--doctors, nurses, a psychologists who donated their time--and local staff of three doctors and 3-4 nurses, this clinic operates out of a heavily guarded FEMA trailor on a washed out Walmart parking lot. (FEMA is a bad word in the New Orleans area). Here, we saw up to 177 patients in one day. Most of the patients had no insurance because they no longer had jobs, and their medical needs were great, everything ranging from diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol to patients who were in the midst of having heart attacks. Many patients came in with injuries which arose from them trying to clean up their own homes. (It appears that many of the insurance companies have wiggled out of paying the homeowners, leaving them to fend for themselves). Deep glass cuts, nail punctures, eye lacerations, and the like are not uncommon. A skin disorder has developed among Katrina survivors, one associated with cleaning up their homes. The patient presents with boils that are resistent to most antibiotics. There's also what we termed the Katrina Crud, an upper respiratory infection probably caused by the mold that has grown on the walls of the homes and the mixture of oil in the flood water that covered everything. (A tank filled with oil was tossed over a levee, and it broke, leaking oil everywhere.) Since our care was totally free, including the medications while they lasted, we saw a large number, and some had to wait a long time because we could only see six patients at one time. (if we had enough doctors)
So, here are these patients, some as sick as dogs with relatively nothing to call their own. They are survivors in the truest since, made out of stuff I thought had left the America character ages ago. They're stong, they're determined, and they're grateful. They are proud people who have had to set their pride aside and accept help from total strangers. When one lady learned I was not getting paid for being there, she cried, then thanked me for doing it. These people been screwed by nature, by our government, some by the insurance companies, and some by opportunists who want to take advantage of their vulnerability. Their stories are horrfic. Yet, they keep their faith and they keep trying. They have a hope, an optimism, a positive aura I will never understand. They had that southern politeness and that steel magnolia strength. Of course they celebrated Mardi Gras. It was not nearly on the scale of what New Orleans has done in the past. But for some, that was the one bastion of normalcy they had seen in months. One mother had brought sent for her small children whom she had not seen since the hurricane, and watching them celebrate Mardi Gras was precious.
I learned so much from them. One cannot tour through there or meet the people from there and not be humbled. I have so many good stories to tell, but I am limited by space.
Who are the real heroes? The people at the hippie tent, the volunteer construction workers, the college students who gave up spring breaks to donate their time to help clean up. The doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists and other health care workers who gave up their time to deliver free health care to those who really need it. The churches who took up donations and sent three doctors and medications to help out. The SPCA. The everyday Joe and Jane who said, "I'll help." There are too many heroes to name, and real heroes don't feel like they are.
Many people have made donations, uncertain their money got to the intended people. If you would like to make a donation, and I'm not soliciting, I would encourage you to buy test strips and/or blood Gluometers which would be given directly to the patients.
(Glucometers are machines that diabetics use to test their blood sugar.) Most people lost theirs when it flooded. The machines often go on sale at Walgreens, Rite and and Longs and can range from $9.99 to $29.99 each. What is expensive are the test strips, which range from $50-$100. (A diabetic may need to use as many as 4-5 test strips a day.) So, if you're inclined, buy a box of strips or Glucometer. The patients really need them.
Send them to:
St. Bernard Parrish Medical HHS Clinic
8108 West Judge Perez Drive
Chalmette, LA 70043