When The Levee Breaks
Air Force medical teams pluck families from chaos
By Michael Cary
SAN ANTONIO -- New Orleans native Robert Danfield stared balefully out of the airplane's small porthole, a row of parachutes hanging above on the bulkhead, and glimpsed a final view of his hometown. As a 9-year-old in 1965, he had lived through Hurricane Betsy; 40 years later, he and his family barely survived Hurricane Katrina. "The grace of God is what got us out."
As the passengers boarded the airplane, the air overhead buzzed with rescue helicopters that landed by the twos and threes every 30 seconds at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, unloading hundreds of people who were plucked out of their attics, from rooftops, and hard-to-reach high ground in the Crescent City.
The C-130's engines roared and the aircraft vibrated underfoot. A medical technician distributed earplugs to weary residents who had only hours earlier been rescued. The plane smelled metallic, like a set of keys held too long in a sweaty palm.
The 25 passengers who could walk were strapped into red, webbed seats designed to carry paratroopers, and they sat subdued. Air Force medical crews hooked up intravenous saline pouches and attached blood pressure monitors to the critically ill patients - those with tuberculosis, kidney failure, or sickle cell anemia - who were strapped into 20 stretchers rigged along the spine of the plane.
Danfield patted his nervous wife on the knee as if to reassure her that they were leaving the chaos of New Orleans, where thousands were still being rescued from their attics and rooftops. Although the death toll hasn't been calculated, city officials estimate thousands of people died during the week that passed since Katrina stopped the heartbeat of the city.
Nine months ago, Danfield, 50, moved into a newly mortgaged home near Franklin Avenue with his wife, Deborah Glenn, and his stepdaughter, Heather. Their three-bedroom home in the New Orleans' 8th Ward is located about midway between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River.
When Hurricane Katrina bore down on the Gulf Coast on August 28, Danfield's family was among the 20 percent of New Orleans' 480,000 residents who did not evacuate. Relieved that the eye had veered to the east of the city, they went to bed feeling safe in their home.
But, Danfield, says, about 6 a.m. Monday, Heather awoke from a dream that her family was in danger. Later that morning, floodwaters breached a levee on the 17th Street Canal, and Lake Pontchatrain flowed into the 8th Ward, engulfing most of the homes.
Like scores of residents, the family became trapped in the attic by the rapidly rising floodwaters. To escape, Danfield knocked a ventilation fan out of the roof. He broke off a PVC pipe and used it to fly a white T-shirt through the hole to signal any would-be rescuers. But the disaster had just struck New Orleans, and few had arrived to rescue the thousands who were suddenly stranded.
Fortunately, Danfield had a flashlight, and that night he used it to send signals into the darkness with the thin hope that help would come. On the afternoon of August 30, rescue workers from Coast Guard and National Guard units pulled the family to safety and delivered them to the New Orleans Convention Center, where, Danfield says, they stayed in "pure hell" for the next three days. Thousands were stranded at the facility without food, water, electricity, medical care, or law enforcement.
Now Danfield confronted a bigger problem. Glenn suffers from kidney disease, and without crucial dialysis treatment, her health was rapidly deteriorating. Danfield decided he needed to move his family to the Superdome, where he thought his wife would more likely receive medical care or be evacuated.
So, on Sept. 2, the family traversed the one-and-a quarter miles from the Convention Center to the Superdome. "We waded through water up to our waists, past dead bodies, to get to the Superdome," Danfield says. There the waiting began anew.
As the Danfields were settling into the Superdome hoping to find medical help for the ailing Glenn, in San Antonio, aircraft were departing Lackland Air Force Base every 45 minutes to rescue sick and injured New Orleans residents who had been transferred from the Superdome to Louis Armstrong International Airport, where military forces had set up the largest triage center in United States history.
At 4 a.m. on Sept. 3, a five-person medical crew at Lackland Air Force Base with the 452nd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron joined an Air Force flight crew from Arkansas, which had been put on alert Thursday night. The crew loaded medical gear onto the C-130 cargo plane. The crew included nurses, technicians, and an additional three-member Critical Care Air Transport Team, including Maj. (Dr.) James Johnson, a cardio-thoracic anesthesiologist, Captain William Wolfe, a critical-care nurse, and Staff Sgt. Sybyl Thibodaux, a critical-care technician, all from Lackland's 59th Medical Wing.
At 6 a.m., the pilot lifted the aircraft off the runway and sped into the pre-dawn, set to arrive at Armstrong Airport less than two hours later. The seven-person flight crew and the medical teams were taking help and hope to thousands of severely traumatized New Orleans residents.
The crew landed at 7:50 a.m. and taxied to the D gates, where people lay on stretchers in the middle of the airport concourse. They had been rescued, processed through triage, and were queued up for the many medical evacuation flights that would occur until everybody was in medical facilities in Texas or other states. Complicating matters, rescue airplanes and evacuation helicopters had to share one runway, because the remaining tarmac at Armstrong Airport were eroded by floodwaters.
"We're going to Ellington," said Maj. Stacia Belyeu, the nurse in charge of the aeromedical evacuation team. Ellington Field is a former military airport that Houston now maintains, 15 miles south of downtown.
Chief Master Sgt. Rodney Christa of San Antonio was in charge of evaluating patients, many of which were rescued from nursing homes and hospices. He is assigned to the 433rd Airlift Wing at Lackland. Since Aug. 31, he said, "we worked until we couldn't, 16 hours on duty, four hours to sleep."
Christa said his airport troops were dealing with people whose needs differed from the wounded who arrive from Iraq and other battle zones. "There are things we haven't seen before. If I don't move fast enough, people will die. If mom is sick or injured, we're moving the whole family."
The scene inside Armstrong Airport resembled a hospital critical-care unit, except that uniformed troops stood guard, lounged in airport gate waiting areas, or slept on the floor during off-times. Other troops helped with patients, patrolled the concourse and entrances, or prepared MREs, the military's prepackaged meals.
The airport terminal was littered with duffel bags, and other troop gear. The building was lit and air-conditioned by a generator with air blowing through ducts in the entryway. Foodstuffs and other relief supplies sat in stacks adjacent to medical triage areas roped off to keep TV camera crews away from the patients that lined the passageways. Outside the airport terminal, misery and chaos reigned among the young and old who squatted among the refuse, trying to get into the airport and out of New Orleans.
On the tarmac, the flight team revved the motors of the C-130. The evacuation crews had loaded the 20 patients on stretchers and 25 more who could walk.
"Tell CNN these people are not refugees," said Belyeu. "They are Internally Displaced People, or IDPs. Refugees leave the country."
In Houston around noon on Saturday, Danfield and Heather walked off the airplane alongside Glenn, who was pushed in a wheelchair across the tarmac to a terminal where hundreds of relief workers and medical personnel had set up an intake area. Glenn soon received her life-saving dialysis.
The C-130's four powerful engines revved again, and the airlift crews boarded the cargo plane for another flight to New Orleans to pick up 40 patients who would be evacuated to Lackland. Johnson, Williams, and Thibodaux lay back in the webbed seating in the aircraft's cargo hold for some much-needed rest before they landed again in New Orleans.
"We'll go back to New Orleans, but not to live there again," Danfield said as he smoked a cigarette and pondered his family's future. He dialed numbers on his cell phone, trying to reach relatives in Houston. "I have no identification, no credit card; not a nickel in my pocket. We've just got to start over ... we're thinking about staying in Texas."