Allen Smith and Mark Stansberry were not prepared for what they saw in New Orleans.
As paramedics with North Ambulance in Brainerd, Smith and Stansberry were part of a contingent of eight North Memorial Medical Center paramedics who traveled in four ambulances to Louisiana to provide emergency medical services to the survivors of Hurricane Katrina.
"We got there and we were awestruck by the massive amount of destruction," Stansberry said. "Until you actually drive by it you have no idea."
"With the photos they show and the news coverage it's hard to put it into context. The camera angles you see are narrow. It looks bad on TV, but it's much worse in reality," added Smith. "It's sensory overload."
Smith and Stansberry spent eight days in New Orleans starting Sept. 6. The pictures they brought back tell the story of the devastation wrought by the massive hurricane, which swept into the Gulf Coast states Aug. 29 -- houses covered in water, debris and garbage piled along streets, buildings destroyed and an entire metropolitan population left homeless in the wake of the storm.
About 24 hours after receiving notice that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had contracted with North Memorial for emergency medical services for two months, Smith and Stansberry left Brainerd Sept. 4, driving for 23 hours to Baton Rouge, La., where they spent one day at the rear staging area for disaster relief. The next day they were immunized and started on their way to New Orleans.
Their first lesson upon arriving in New Orleans: Don't touch the water and don't touch anyone who had been in the water. The flood waters covered 80 percent of the city when Smith and Stansberry arrived and the water was contaminated with pollutants. Exposure to the water meant risk of contracting diseases, including cholera, Smith said.
"And you wanted to jump in the water and help those people, but if you did you knew you'd be in New Orleans for a while" in quarantine, Stansberry said.
They took two showers a day and had to throw away all the clothing they wore in New Orleans in case it was contaminated.
In New Orleans they worked 18-20 hours a day in 98-degree temperatures. Their mission was threefold: triage at the city's convention center, respond to 911 calls with local emergency medical service personnel and transport rescued survivors. They also helped with rescue missions at an oil refinery and on nearby rivers.
They slept on cots or in ambulances outside the city's convention center, itself surrounded by rubbish from earlier use housing evacuees.
Things didn't get much better at night, Stansberry said, as temperatures only fell to about 82. They were constantly bitten by chiggers.
With the long shifts the days blended into each other, Smith said, and emergency medical crews lost track of time.
"We knew if it was day or night, but after that we couldn't tell you what day it was," he said. "We're still trying to figure out what we did and saw." Because no records were kept, Smith and Stansberry even have trouble figuring the number of people they helped.
Smith said it was interesting to see people refuse to leave their homes, even after they had been ordered to evacuate. "It was all they had," he said.
Though there had been reports of crews being shot at, Smith and Stansberry said they never encountered hostility when they were in New Orleans. However, they said the reports of many bodies in the water were accurate and they witnessed several bodies that had been marked for later retrieval.
The biggest problem they encountered was unsolicited help, Smith said, which often slowed down emergency responses. He noted that at the staging area in New Orleans there were 300 ambulances from across the country when only 50 were needed.
Other obstacles to helping people included a lack of command and communication among the volunteer groups, trouble navigating flooded roadways, not knowing road routes and a shortage of gas in the area. The problem was that no one had ever coordinated a disaster of this magnitude before, Stansberry said.
By their eighth and final day, Smith and Stansberry said they had gotten to know New Orleans. They also were able to see the city recover somewhat as the flood waters receded by half and food services and showers were brought into the city.
Upon returning to Brainerd, both Smith and Stansberry said the first thing they did was catch up on their sleep.
By the time North Ambulance's two-month contract is completed, 32 of its paramedics will have worked in New Orleans. Smith and Stansberry plan to use what they learned in New Orleans in a presentation to state officials. Although the experience was trying, both said they would go back to New Orleans if asked.
"We didn't do it for fame or fortune, it was just our job," Smith said.
"We were just glad we could go down there and provide aid and comfort to the people," Stansberry said.
MATT ERICKSON can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5857.
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