Sunday, February 7, 2010

A devastated city's redemption

As trivial as sports may be, I can't help but think that they help people in difficult times. A perfect example of that was the 2001 World Series when the New York Yankees played for a championship just weeks after 9/11.

I think Super Bowl XLIV is the same for New Orleans. The devastation to that city from Hurricane Katrina was/is immense, and the Saints obviously have lifted the spirits there. Less than five years ago, New Orleans was nothing more than a sunken disaster zone. Desperate people did whatever they had to do to survive.

In September 2005, the Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail sent me to New Orleans to report on the evacuations by the West Virginia 130th Airlift Wing. I want to share one of those stories on this blog to remind us how far New Orleans has come from its lowest point to this triumphant moment.

Maj. David Lester carries bags for two evacuees preparing to leave Louis Armstrong International Airport in the aftermarth of Hurricane Katrina

"Our world just changed"

By Michael Jones
Daily Mail Staff
Sept. 4, 2005

NEW ORLEANS – Early Saturday morning, the crew of the 130th Airlift Wing landed in New Orleans and extracted numerous injured and sick patients to Ellington Air Force Base in Houston.

Less than four hours later, they did it again.

The 130th flew into Louis Armstrong International Airport with 10 medical evacuation members and a critical care transport team trained to care for patents while in the air.

The team was able to extricate a total of 48 people, mostly elderly, who were too sick to leave the flooded city on their own.

As the C-130 touched down to begin its first rescue mission at 12:50 a.m. local time, the only lights glimmering in New Orleans were from rescue boats, searching for survivors.

The medical and flight crews were unsure of what they would see upon their arrival at the airport. Maj. Kyle Adams, the flight commander warned the crew that the “terminal is turning into chaos.”

“We don’t know what to expect and that’s the most frustrating thing,” said Capt. Steven Lehr, a member of the critical care team. “We usually get a [casualty] report.”

Because of the unpredictable nature of severe weather and the rescues necessities soon after, decisions are made only hours before the operation begins.

An eerie feeling set over the aircraft as it taxied, most knowing the airport might have little use after the rescue missions are completed. Three C-130s from the 130th sat on the tarmac simultaneously, all shuttling survivors to different cities, including to Charleston. A large red and blue sign reading, “Welcome to New Orleans,” hung over the middle concourse, welcoming tourists before the monstrous Hurricane Katrina ripped through the region.

Just below it sat a luggage conveyor belt leading to a large white moving truck. Instead of transporting baggage, though, it was lowering bodies in white bags to the waiting truck. A temporary morgue was set up in a Continental Airlines gate labeled D1.

Medics moved their patients using baggage carts with two or three stretchers in each compartment. Lehr was taken aback after seeing all the people needing immediate medical attention.

“There’s a lot of sadness, tiredness, and total despair,” he said. “It’s hard to put into words.”

While at least a dozen C-130s from various squads around the country carried people from the New Orleans, thousands waited for commercial jets to shuttle them to various U.S. cities. The airport has become the third major shelter since last Sunday.

City officials originally opened the Superdome for residents to ride out the storm, but unsanitary conditions and lawlessness forced its closure, leaving thousands without a place to stay.

Almost every person in the airport terminal looked tired and dismayed with little hope after a week of searching for food and shelter. They sat in metal chairs just waiting.

Others just slept. Either on the floor or luggage conveyor belts behind check-out counters.

In the morning, after just one day, the terminals were filled with garbage, yet many said it still did not compare to the hell of the Superdome. One man said he spent four days on an I-10 bridge waiting for transport to a shelter. He said he had lost his wife at the airport and believed she had already boarded a plane.

“I didn’t know something like this could happen in America,” the man said, looking at the thousands of people that surrounded him in one of the airport’s concourses. “It’s like a nightmare. I don’t know how to start all over again. Our world just changed.”

A couple looking for a working vending machine said they stayed at the Superdome for four days before conditions became unbearable. They said they witnessed a man commit suicide by throwing himself from the second tier of the sports arena.

Some, though, had harsh words for the federal government for not taking care of their needs sooner.

“They’ve forgot about us,” a woman said as her autistic son slept on the tile floor. “It’s been like this for a week and I’m losing my mind.”

The lack of communication has made it almost impossible for survivors to gather information about the relief effort. One woman blasted the mayor and governor while another woman’s anger was directed at the U.S. government.

While tensions were high, all stayed calm, unlike the riotous behavior by looters and vandals in downtown New Orleans.

After the crew of the C-130 brought their patients to a hangar at Ellington, they immediately prepared for a second trip to New Orleans. They first had to get approval to extend their shift.

Flight crews are only allowed to fly for 16 hours until they must take a break. If they wished to make another rescue mission, they would need to extend that time by two hours. Within minutes, they received approval, but were still racing against the clock to make that deadline.

"At [11 a.m.] we go either with air or butts in the seats,” Adams said, alluding to the time their C-130 and crew must depart New Orleans.

When they landed, it was a much different scene than the five hours earlier. Dozens of helicopters and commercial planes littered the runways and skies, creating a deafening whistle.

With daylight brought more help and that meant less survivors waiting in mile-long lines to leave. The floors were cleaner, spirits were mildly brighter, but the loss from the week still took its toll.

Maj. David Lester, a veteran of the second Iraq war, said what he saw overseas could not compare to the horror he saw at Louis Armstrong International.

Right before the final survivors were loaded on the C-130, a doctor came to Lester, thanking him and his crew for returning. The doctor told him two of the patients would have likely died had they not been airlifted to another city.

Just a day’s work for the crew from West Virginia. This afternoon, the 10 men of Charlie West will fly back to New Orleans and continue their mission.

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