EMT's account of the last few days

Josh Seipp

Nov 19, 2003
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My friend David got this email from his friend who is currently in New Orleans helping out:

i just got this email from my friend philipp. it sort of gave me chills reading it.

Hi everyone,

As a few of you may have heard, I recently left my job
as an EMT in Baltimore and moved to Austin, TX, to
accept a James Michener fellowship in writing. Austin
is about five hundred miles from New Orleans, so on
Sunday evening, when I heard what the news was
predicting about Hurricane Katrina, I packed my car
and headed for New Orleans.

I drove all night and got to the suburbs of the city
around 11am Monday morning. The hurricane was still
blowing and though the winds had slowed somewhat, the
rain was sideways and visibility was almost nothing.
Interstate 10 was blocked with downed streetlights,
the roofs of homes, and every other kind of debris
imaginable. It was like driving through a junkyard.
Every so often a big piece of steel roofing would go
skating across the interstate or down a side road. For
the most part I was numb to it, but when the big
debris started blowing I would tell myself: “Stay
alive, stay alive, stay alive.”

As I got into New Orleans proper, the freeway
descended slightly and there was between five and ten
feet of water blocking it. At the edge of the flood,
there was a full-size pickup sunk to its roof. I
turned around and drove back the wrong way on the
highway, hoping another car wouldn’t run into me
head-on. Finally I noticed a bunch of empty police
cars parked on an overpass. I parked behind them and
waded toward a building I hoped was the police
station. It turned out to be the Kenner Police
headquarters. Kenner is a city a few miles west of New
Orleans proper, right on the edge of Lake
Pontchartrain. Like New Orleans, Kenner is just at or
below sea level. The police station itself, though,
was built on slightly higher ground than the immediate
area. The building was dry and the generators were

I was passed up the chain of command until I got to
the Captain, who promptly put me on a team that was
going out to restart the pumping stations. New Orleans
is kept dry by a network of massive pumping stations,
and several of them are in Kenner. All were shut down.
The conditions were so dangerous and unpredictable
that everyone thought someone on the repair team might
get seriously injured, so they were happy to have an
EMT to go along.

The water in the streets was between three and five
feet deep, and the only vehicles that could travel in
it were military-style deuce and a half trucks. I rode
in one of them with about a dozen police officers and
National Guard soldiers. There were downed power lines
everywhere, across every block, it seemed. We swerved
to avoid them but some were so low that we brushed
them anyway. The driver would yell “Duck” as if it
mattered. If one of the lines was still energized, we
would all be killed instantly.

There were facades ripped off hotels and apartment
buildings, beds and furniture visible through the
gaping holes, huge trees uprooted and flung down
streets. Many of the big billboards were bent double
to the ground, smashing whatever was beneath them.
Where it was dry, there were bricks, wall sections,
pipes and jagged tree limbs everywhere. Then there
were the power lines. One was so low that I had to
lift it up over the truck as we went under it.
Writing about the power lines it sounds like the
stupidest thing I ever did, but the electricity was
out everywhere, so you just did it and prayed.

We spent all day Monday getting the pumping stations
restarted. The regular pump operators were nowhere to
be found, so everyone pitched in and tried to figure
out how to get the pumps working. The diesel engines
that ran the pumps were big enough to power a
battleship. Figuring out how to start them was
impossible. After several hours, tempers were flaring
and some of the police officers and national guardsmen
were having heated exchanges about what to do next.

Finally the pump operators showed up and got the pumps
online. As it turned out, the stations were soaked but
in good shape, so with the exception of wading all day
in water and sewage among pieces of sharp debris, it
was pretty safe. When we got back to the station, they
fed me and bunked me with the officers. I examined my
sewage-soaked feet and rubbed them with hand
sanitizer. There was no running water anywhere.

The next morning they sent me out on one of the deuce
and a halfs to respond to emergency calls. The area
hospitals were completely overflowing and the city had
set up a temporary clinic/hospital/triage center on
the second floor of the airport. With the pumps
running, the water levels had gone down a few inches
overnight, but there was still three or four feet of
water in the streets. Stores were already being
looted¬—every store I saw had its door kicked in or
ripped off and a line of people going in and out of
it. People were floating merchandise out of Walmart on
boats. The police tried to stop it but were completely
overwhelmed. I know that President Bush has called for
the police to stop the looting, but at the moment this
is an impossible and ridiculous request. There are
thousands and thousands of looters and only a handful
of police. And there are thousands more people who
still need to be rescued. If 25,000 military
policeman had been sent in from the beginning, there
would have been no looting. Another thing I’ll say is
that most or all of the civilians I saw were poor and
humble folks. No one I saw (with the exception of the
police officers) had decided to stay behind during the
hurricane to “brave it out”—they stayed because they
had no means to leave.

Back to the story—by Tuesday morning, basic
transportation was still a major problem—the Kenner
PD’s functional vehicles consisted of its own two
deuce and a halfs, one National Guard deuce and a half
(under loan and command of the National Guardsmen),
and one swamp boat (also on loan). Two of the deuce
and a halfs were assigned to drop officers at
strategic locations where they would keep the peace. I
was assigned to the third deuce and a half, with three
officers going along with me as escorts. Folks in the
street were already getting pretty desperate, most of
them were running out of food and water, so while some
were respectful, many others yelled profanities at us
as we went by. Luckily the three officers I was with
were pretty experienced—one of them was a long-time
narcotics officer, another was on the SWAT team—so I
felt relatively safe. Later, we found out that in New
Orleans, people were beginning to shoot at the police.
But, at the time, we didn’t know it.

All of the patients I saw were trapped and had no way
out. They were all living on the second and third
floors of motels and apartment buildings. The first
call was for a lady who was six months pregnant and
thought she was going to deliver her baby right then
(her other four children all were born at seven
months). All I had was a blood pressure cuff and
stethoscope and a couple of bandages. I tried to
remember the section of the EMT textbook that talked
about delivering babies. I thought I could do it if it
was a normal birth but otherwise I was scared
sh-tless. She was shouting at me, “I have to go to the
bathroom, I have to push it out,” and I was shouting
at her, “Don’t push, don’t push, don’t push.” I
slipped aside her underwear and saw that she wasn’t
crowning, but I didn’t know how far the airport clinic
was. On the inside, I was thinking “Oh sh-t oh sh-t oh
sh-t.” There was a downed power line blocking the road
and we had to park far from the complex and wade a
long way because of it. I yelled at the officers to
get the truck right up to the complex. Somehow, they
did it. Right then, an EMT from the fire department
showed up and he had a bunch of experience delivering
babies and then everything seemed much easier. We got
the lady to the airport triage center with no trouble.

The rest of the patients that day were people that in
any normal situation should have been taken to the
emergency room—sick elderly folks, heart patients and
diabetics, sick children and infants, people with
sky-high blood pressure or fluid in their lungs, a guy
with a deep cut in his arm six inches long and three
inches wide. All of them were out or nearly out of
food and water. Some had had their food and water
stolen at gunpoint. All of the people were very, very
afraid. One was shaking so hard he couldn’t hold his
medicine bottle. It was a hundred degrees out and
incredibly humid.

I saw all this and my immediate reaction was “get this
person out of here right now” and then I would remind
myself that all over the area, people were dying. I
knew that in New Orleans, they were leaving the
corpses in the water, tying them down if they had
time, hoping they wouldn’t float away. I’d also heard
that when the power had gone out at one of the local
hospitals, the backup generators didn’t turn on and
all the patients on life support died.

In the end, I didn’t take any more patients to the
hospital that day. I reassured them, took their vital
signs, gave them medical advice, gave away my own food
and water, gave away antiseptic wipes and bandages,
taped and bandaged their injuries as best as was
possible. For the most part, my thinking was: “Okay,
this person will survive another few days, and someone
else is dying right now.” Definitely some of the
hardest decisions I’ve ever made and there is no way
to know if they were the right ones.

Tuesday night around dark we got back and had dinner.
Someone had donated a bunch of meat and we ate good
barbeque. We hadn’t had a patient in an hour or so.
The sun was going down and the clouds were beautiful
and the air felt dry. Then word started going around
about N.O.P.D. officers being shot and there was a
feeling in the police station that everything was
about to change. I felt sorry for everyone—for the
people inside and the people outside. On the most
basic level, everyone was just trying to stay alive. I
headed up to the command post and waited for my next

At the time, the pumps were still working and the
water was coming down. The previous day, my car had
been parked in a foot of water, but now the pavement
under it was dry. Most importantly, the lower water
level meant that the fire department would be able to
get their engines down some of the streets, which
meant that other EMT's with real equipment and
probably some paramedics would be available in Kenner.
As I saw it, it was time to get transferred to New
Orleans, where I’d be more useful doing search and

At 7:45 Tuesday night, I walked into the command post
to speak to the Captain about my transfer. In general,
it was a very serious place, but I could tell
something terrible had just happened. There had been a
four-hundred-foot breach in one of the levees that
afternoon. Word had just come down that the breach
could not be fixed. In a matter of hours, New Orleans
would be under an additional ten to fifteen feet of
water. The situation was already terrible, but it was
about to get much, much worse. And as I’ve said
before, many or most of the civilians I saw were
already out of food and water, wading through three or
four feet of filthy water to get anywhere. There was
no running water within miles. With the exception of a
few hospitals and police stations with backup
generators, there was no electricity, either.

The official estimate was that the town of Kenner was
going to get ten more feet of water. The first floor
of the police station would be swamped, the generators
and radios would be knocked out, and the only
transportation would be on the single flatboat. Not to
mention the jail, which would be flooded also. The
Captain assigned a sergeant to get cheap
battery-powered walkie-talkies from Wal-Mart—the kind
you use for hunting or skiing and have a range of a
few hundred yards—because with the power out, the
police radios were going to be useless. A lieutenant
was ordered to come up with a simple system of hand
communication that the officers could learn in a few
minutes. Despite all their preparations, the Kenner
police department was headed back to the Stone Age.
The situation at the New Orleans Police Department was
even worse.

I followed the Captain downstairs and asked when he
thought the water level would get back to normal.
“Months,” he said. “Maybe never. This is much worse
than the worst-case scenario. No one knows how to
think about it.” Outside there was a steady convoy of
emergency vehicles, hundreds of them, leaving the city
along I-10. I watched them leave. The waters were
coming and I had a very short time to make my
decision. Stay for the duration—a month, at least—or
leave that minute.

The argument in favor of leaving was that every day,
thousands more rescuers were arriving with serious
equipment and gear (mine was limited to what I’d been
able to buy at the Target in Austin). The biggest
difference I’d made was that I’d arrived during the
hurricane, hours or days ahead of most rescuers—FEMA
and all the official agencies had understandably
waited at a safe distance. There was also the question
of continuing my own life—keeping the fellowship I’d
just been awarded, not being kicked out of school,
etc. Still, at first, I knew I would stay. Then, a few
minutes later, I knew I should leave. It was the
hardest decision I’ve made in my life.

I grabbed my gear from the bunkroom and made my way
downstairs. At the same time the previous night, the
bunkroom had been full of exhausted officers trying to
sleep. That night, it was empty. When I went to the
briefing room, it was packed with every officer in the
building. They were listening to the news about the
coming flood—about the annihilation of their town. I
said quick goodbyes and felt incredibly guilty. The
meeting ended and dozens of officers rushed by me, all
talking about how to save their family members who had
been safe that day, but might be in danger now that
the levees had broken.

Outside, I ran into the SWAT team officer who’d been
one of my escorts. He was compassionate and tried to
reassure me that people were extremely thankful I’d
showed up at all. I shook his hand. I felt like the
worst human being on earth.

When I got to my car, I realized it was facing the
wrong way on the highway. I drove for several miles,
toward New Orleans, toward the coming flood. I
couldn’t find a place to turn around. Finally I saw an
opening in the guardrail and wrenched my car into the
grassy sinkhole between the two sides of the highway.
The mud was a foot deep and the car bogged down and
for a second I was sure I would be stuck there. Then
the tires caught and I lurched back onto the highway.
I slipped in with the convoy of ambulances and police
cars leaving the city.

As everyone can see now, the situation in New Orleans
is only getting worse. People inside have been out of
food and water for days. The million or so people who
used to live in and around New Orleans now have no
homes, no jobs, and no paychecks. I was in New York
during September 11 and the weeks that followed and I
say the following with complete certainty: this
disaster is so much worse than September 11 that they
are not even comparable. Maybe people are already
saying this, or maybe it's not a fashionable
sentiment. Either way, it's true.

Like to end this by talking about the police officers.
All of them had lost everything—their homes were
destroyed, their families scattered far and wide and
out of communication. Despite all of it, every one of
the officers kept working to save their town and the
citizens who’d been trapped there. They are all
heroes. It was an honor to know them.

Thanks for reading, and do what you can.

If one of the lines was still energized, we
would all be killed instantly.

besides the point, isn't this untrue? I thought electricity travelled along the outside surface of a conductor. Anyway I'm pretty sure you can drive into downed power lines and be OK - it's when you touch the outside of the car that you get hurt.