“EMS did function [in New Orleans],” says City of New Orleans Director of EMS Jullette Saussy, “just not in a traditional fashion. New Orleans EMS helped thousands of people on foot and in the MASH unit and during the evac. We just did not have our ambulances, a CAD system and 10-97 time. We never quit functioning. We were just temporarily forced to improvise—what we do best!”
Saussy and Deputy Director Mark Reis were forced to operate in a non-existent incident command environment and without communications with their personnel throughout the first four days of the incident. When communication was available, it was spotty at best, and Saussy and Reis were forced to leave their vehicle and wade through contaminated, chest-deep water to reach people who could rescue her trapped crews and get to the Superdome to orchestrate the evacuations of the 50,000 people trapped in the dome and the convention center.
New Orleans EMS crews, understandably frustrated by the lack of communications with their superiors, occasionally lashed out at Saussy and Reis when they arrived at the various sites, often forgetting that Saussy and Reis were also victims of Katrina, trapped without food, electricity, toilet facilities and operating radio frequencies. Saussy explains, “Each employee dealt with this catastrophe with their own set of coping skills, and displaced anger was on the top of the list. It was not pleasant, but very, very human. … I would never want to burden one of my folks with guilt or bad feelings or regrets about statements made while we were all struggling to cope with Katrina.”
After reading the personal accounts of other EMS victims and survivors of this event, Saussy is philosophical in her response. “I am convinced that we all have our versions. There are a few facts and many, many perceptions. Mark and I have our own survivor chapter in addition to the awesome task of accounting for each human that we employ. We did that, and we did it without traditional communications. It was not a job, but a labor of love, courage, integrity and perseverance.”
But Saussy, who lost her home in the storm and feared for the safety of her children as she remained in the city while they were evacuated to another region, offers an important perspective that EMS managers can learn from the aftermath of Katrina. “The one thing I know for sure is that this nation is lacking leaders,” she says. “We have plenty of politicians, very few of whom possess leadership qualities. Leaders are not afraid to surround themselves with experts, men and women much smarter than themselves in their given disciplines. Leaders make decisions. They make decisions that make sense even when the repercussions may be unpopular. Leaders earn respect and are effective because of this. Our nation is in desperate need of men and women who fit this description.”
Saussy and Reis were doing what was necessary to stay alive, making sure to the best of their ability that their employees were alive and finding help for the “50,000 people that help forgot during Hurricane Katrina,” she says. “Mark and I did that, and I could not be more proud of any group of people (other than my beautiful children) than I am of NOEMS.”
The EMS community needs to know that New Orleans EMS, like all of the city’s public safety agencies, was incapacitated and victimized by Hurricane Katrina and physically unable to respond to emergencies in their normal fashion. Saussy is thankful for the EMS mutual aid response that New Orleans and the entire Gulf region received, and continues to receive, post Katrina and Rita. She hopes that New Orleans EMS will someday be able to assist them in return.