Operation Assist, responding to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, was a collaboration of medical personnel from the Children’s Health Fund (CHF), the National Center for Disaster Preparedness (NCDP) of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and the New York Presbyterian Hospital. The New York Presbyterian Hospital EMS and Emergency Department compiled a group of personnel that consisted of six paramedics, one EMT and four physicians. The group was designated Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) 1.
The primary objective for DART-1 was to provide public health assistance in the devastated areas of Gulfport, Biloxi, Pearlington, Moss Point and Pass Christian, Miss. During the team’s 10-day operation, we treated nearly 500 patients. Throughout the operation, the team saw a wide variety of injuries and illnesses, including minor soft tissue injuries and heatstroke. In addition, our team provided such primary care as administering tetanus and hepatitis A vaccinations to area residents who had no medical care during this disaster.
The biggest assistance the team provided to residents of Mississippi was a helping hand. This came in the way of handing out Gatorade and water, or providing area residents a moment to vent their frustrations and tell their stories. Many residents said it was nice to see New Yorkers helping them.
We were told some amazing tales, like one from a middle-age man who told us he rode the storm out with his elderly father and younger brother on the roof of his house. During his story, he invited us into his destroyed home and pointed to where he broke a hole in the roof to escape the flooding in his home just two hours into the hurricane storm surge. He rode out the entire storm holding onto the hole in the roof with his father and brother, not knowing if they would survive. The thing that broke all of our hearts was his hospitality, even though he was down on his luck and had lost everything he had worked for. He was thankful to God we were there to help. It was the same feeling I think we all felt during the aftermath of Sept. 11.
All of the team members who responded can tell story after horrific story about how people clutched on to whatever they could to survive. What was unbelievable was how little assistance was available to residents who survived the storm. The areas of Pass Christian, Pearlington and Gulfport/Biloxi were devastated beyond words. Residents we spoke to and assisted stated that we were the first medical personnel they’d seen since the storm.
A day into our operation, we changed our response and started roving medical units to go through the map grid by grid, making sure people knew the location of established medical tents for needed treatment. These units consisted of two ALS ambulances and two EMS command cars. We kept in constant communication with our field communications unit. We tracked our units via GPS and established areas that were in dire need of medical help.
While in operation in Pass Christian, we linked up with crews from Virginia Tech, who had an impressive medical tent staged in a main location. They were seeing approximately 100 patients a day and needed some relief. We offered assistance, and they were very appreciative. We ultimately staged a physician and an ALS ambulance at this location to ease the patient load they were seeing. Eventually, we downsized and closed this medical tent because of the ongoing threat of Hurricane Rita.