Thursday, August 26, 2010

My Time on the USS Comfort – Katrina Disaster 2005

I’ve worked for FEMA for 7 years now and I seem to have a psychic connection to US disasters. Also, I’m usually drawn to unusual things, like I’ll show up at the gas station at the very moment it catches on fire. Or I’ll arrive at the mall while its being robbed. I think of these things as “adventures” and even during big disasters, I seem to work the most dangerous areas.

Such was the case in 2005 during the Katrina disaster. I could have been assigned to many areas to work…the entire Gulf Coast from Texas to Alabama was affected…but NO! I got assigned to a coastal area of New Orleans….a little town called Chalmette, St. Bernards Parish.

You’ll probably recall this town from the news. There was a big oil spill there. Besides all the regular dangers of excessive debris, structures that were unsound, the break down of all law enforcement, we also had the added concern of poisonous snakes (there were marshes and wetlands there) and toxic mud.

The Murphy oil spill dumped tons of benzene, cyanide, oil and other chemicals into the water, soil and air. The EPA tests were rumored to be coming back 300,000 times the acceptable levels in St. Bernards Parish.

Trust me…I went to my superiors and said, “Are you sure its safe for us to be out there 7 days a week, 12 hours a day?” And of course they reassured me that the govt would NEVER send people into an unsafe area.

Okay, I’ll give everyone a few moments to roll in the floor laughing!

I was inspecting a broken down mobile home one day. One of the things we have to do during our inspection is get interior and exterior photos. But the little porch was mostly collapsed. It looked dangerous but I whispered a prayer and tried to make my way up on it anyhow so I could get my pics. I had laid my Panasonic Toughbook down on the ground away from the porch. Even though they are said to be indestructible, they cost $1700 and I didn’t want to take any chances.

I carefully climbed the steps and almost got to the top. This guy had a metal gate across the top of the stairs. I tugged at it gently and then a little more firmly. In a split second, the gate came loose and flew to the right landing right on top of my computer. The whole screen cracked. Our IT people said they’d never seen one break before so they thought it was pretty cool.

I flew off the porch as well and landed on the ground amidst tree limbs and wet furniture. When I got up, I checked for blood and didn’t find any. But my right wrist was aching. I fractured it.

The high school in Chalmette, which had been mostly destroyed, had been turned into a Red Cross Clinic where anyone could be treated. All the hospitals in New Orleans had been destroyed. I drove myself up there and they checked it out for me and said it needed to be X-rayed. Cool! Whatever!

The problem was that the only X-ray equipment within a hundred miles was on board the USS Comfort, which is a medical naval vessel out of Maryland which had come to help with the Katrina disaster. I told them “nevermind, I didn’t think it was that bad”…and wanted to just leave and get back to work. But they insisted. They also insisted that an ambulance take me out there.

The ambulance drivers had never been on board a medical naval vessel either so they were very hyped about getting to drive me out there. I was the only one who didn’t really want to go.

It was a long drive. Many roads had been severely damaged by the storm and some others had been cordoned off by the army and we were not allowed to use them.

But we finally arrived and they wheeled me on a stretcher (how embarrassing!) into the ship. The ambulance drivers hung around and got a tour of the huge ship and seemed really excited. I got seen by a doctor right away. They X-rayed my wrist and said it was sure enough fractured.

An orderly came over soon and put a cast on it. Then they sent me down to the infirmary where I got not one, but THREE prescriptions for pain killers. These really helped a lot over the next few weeks. My body was worn out and aching most days from the 100 hours of hard labor each week.

It was around 5 pm by the time I was all done and they came and said, “You can spend the night on the ship for free if you like. There’s really not any way to get you back to your car this late in the day.” (There was a strictly enforced curfew.)

I said, “Thanks for the offer but I left all my equipment and my car at the high school in Chalmette.” They said, “Don’t worry! The most highly skilled security force on the planet, Blackwater, is guarding that school.”

I said, “Yeah, I know. They’re guarding our compound up in Jensenville, La. I know a few of those guys personally, but I’d still love to get back to my car tonight if at all possible.”

They were so nice! They started calling around and finally found one guy who was operating an independent taxi service in the New Orleans area. They called him for me and I explained to him that I needed him to pick me up at the Port of New Orleans and take me to Chalmette as soon as possible.

He said, “I ain’t going to Chalmette. There was an oil spill out there. The whole area has been cordoned off by the EPA because it’s toxic.”

I said, “I know that! But my car is there. I work out there every day and so far I haven’t turned purple or anything.”

He said, “There’s an army checkpoint going into the city. They won’t let me in there.”

I said, “They will let us in. I’ve got a federal badge.”

Finally, I was able to talk him into helping me. He really didn’t want to at all but I promised I’d pay him well for the trip. It cost me a hundred bucks to get back to my car that day and I barely made it out of the city before dark and back to the compound north of New Orleans. But I was soooo grateful to get back to my car and my stuff.

Here’s the link to the USS Comfort website in case you’d like to check it out. It’s a beautiful ship whose mission is to help people in times of major disaster.