After 45 years of service, Acadian Ambulance is no stranger to responding to natural or man-made disasters. However, the physical and emotional toll brought on by these disasters never lessens. The public relies on first responders more than ever; the job must always go on.
When the rain began early on Friday, Aug. 12, we quickly realized this was not just another summer storm. Within a few hours, we began activating extra ambulance crews to assist with heavy emergency call loads. Boat rescues were already underway by residents who would become known nationally as the Cajun Navy.
Within 24 hours, Acadian was operating in full disaster mode, eventually activating as many as 64 extra crews.
The flood waters spread across a large part of our Louisiana service area, from Acadia Parish to the west, to Ascension Parish to the east. The hardest-hit areas were East Baton Rouge and Livingston parishes, with almost 90% of homes underwater.
More than 100 Acadian employees were directly impacted by the rising flood waters, whether their homes and cars flooded, or they became trapped in their home from roads that became rivers. Acadian chairman and CEO Richard Zuschlag’s own daughter Beth LeBlanc and infant granddaughter Audrey had to be rescued by Beth’s brother, Blair, as waters threatened her family’s home along the Vermilion River in Lafayette, La.
Behind the dramatic aerial photos of neighborhoods, city roads and interstates underwater are individual stories of loss, rescue and help. Inside flooded homes are treasured memories and belongings.
Capital District Operations Manager Justin Cox recounted how social media helped facilitate communication with stranded employees: “The gravity of the situation really showed when I began to realize how many of our Acadian family members were affected by the flood and could not get to work. Because most cellphone towers in the Baton Rouge area were out or overloaded, we turned to using Facebook to communicate where employees needed to report, to give each other moral support, and to hear from employees who could not come to work. Through this, we learned their homes were flooded, up to the ceilings on some.”
One Lafayette-based dispatcher was trapped in his neighborhood, so he put on hip boots (a popular wardrobe staple here in south Louisiana) and walked through the water to the nearest town. From there, he walked almost six miles to our Lafayette Communications Center so he could report to work. We provided lodging for him and a few other dispatchers so they could stay on duty and avoid being trapped at home.
“Their dedication to the job and to the community was heartwarming, and I have a lot of pride for each of them,” said Clay Henry, Acadian’s vice president of operations, who was part of key management during the flood response.
Other members of key management were unable to report for the disaster response due to home damage or rising floodwaters trapping them in their homes. Acadian Total Security President Blane Comeaux suffered extensive damage to his home in Abbeville and was unable to leave, but he still assisted in coordinating the evacuation of a local assisted living facility.
As Cox oversaw the evacuation of nursing home patients in Baton Rouge on Saturday night, he experienced the full force of flash flooding. “As we were waiting for the military high water carriers to bring the patients to us, we had to move our ambulances further west down Florida Boulevard twice because of the rising water.”
By Sunday morning, Ochsner Medical Center in Baton Rouge made the call to evacuate their patients. The hospital was not accessible by regular vehicle, so Acadian Ambulance Director of Operations Porter Taylor relied on the Cajun Navy to transport him to the hospital’s campus. All ambulances were staged on I-12 almost one mile away. Acadian, along with New Orleans EMS and Baton Rouge EMS, worked with the National Guard’s high water rescue vehicles, and after 12 hours we had successfully evacuated 72 patients.
“There were additional challenges during this evacuation as our radio channels were continuously busy and cell service was out. We did our best to overcome these issues in order to get these patients to safety,” Taylor said.
Acadian’s Air Med operations were also affected. During periods of intense, heavy rain, we were not able to take to the skies to perform emergency transports. Our Baton Rouge Air Med station was in danger of flooding itself. Once the rain subsided, we were able to get back in action. Our flight paramedics stepped in where they could by working with the National Guard and treating patients on Blackhawk helicopters.
“The determination by all departments to get the job done was enormous. Whether it was when we were called to evacuate Ochsner in Baton Rouge, or if it was our fleet maintenance crews working to get these resources available, from top to bottom everyone worked around the clock to get the mission completed. And the mission was always a moving target. As waters rose each day, the target would move to another community and we would have to repeat the previous mission, just in another location,” Henry said.
Taylor echoes this sentiment. “At the end of the day, it was an incredible depiction of a team approach. It was amazing to watch everyone come in and get it done,” he said.
After some of the longest days of their careers, many of our medics and employees still had to go home to damage. They worked to gut walls and throw out contaminated debris. They have families to take care of and children to send to school. They missed work in the first few days because of the high water.
“Many of our fellow employees face months of recovery and rebuilding. Acadian is a family and we will continue to love and support each other. We are working with our employees to help them meet their immediate needs and are developing other methods of support to help them through what will be a long and tedious recovery and rebuilding process,” Zuschlag said.
Acadian has set up an Employee Flood Relief Fund, which will be administered through the Community Foundation of Acadiana, a 501(c)(3) organization. Donations to the fund are tax deductible, and will be collected and distributed to Acadian employees throughout Louisiana who have been affected. If you’d like to contribute, please visit www.AcadianGiving.com.
Our first responders spend every shift saving lives and taking care of their fellow residents, even when they may be facing the same struggles at home.