Project HOPE Mission – September 25, 2005
There are 2 things I can count on: uncertainty and change. On this ship, and in life. Most definitely on this ship.
The intended mission for the USNS Comfort was to go to NO and for military and civilian health professionals to provide medical care. When I arrived Saturday, September 10 in Pensacola, Florida I learned plans had changed and the Comfort was re-directed from NO to Mississippi because the ship was too wide, and/or had too large a “draft”, which thwarted its mobility through already congested waters, so it went where it could: Bayou Casotte, Pascagoula, Mississippi. All told on Saturday ~28 Project HOPE volunteers arrived. On Sunday we toured the wards which were cleaned and stocked and ready for patients. (The hospital ship has 1,000-bed capacity; several ORs, ICUs, an L & D ward and many units for inpatient care.) By Monday, ‘Casualty Receiving’ (aka ER) was operational, though curiously no patients were being admitted despite the fact that Tuesday, 50 more HOPE doctors and nurses came on board. There was murmuring about a disgruntled state health department asserting that its own hospitals were fully functional and wanting them to be used; so uncertainty about the purpose and utility of the Comfort was brewing. It seemed the preferred message was to direct residents to local hospitals and clinics for medical care, where I was told they would be charged; (on the Comfort care was free). Wednesday the revised plan was that there would be few, if any, admitted patients, which meant little or no work for HOPE doctors and nurses on board. Our mission turned into helping local organizations and residents however we could; many of us were assigned various tasks to fill in needs and gaps of shortages in communities. On Friday another plan: The Comfort was leaving port, next destination uncertain. Because the exceptional time and talent of HOPE volunteers were not, and may not be, fully utilized, Project HOPE offered to return volunteers home. Many agreed, considering that work and patients were in need in their home states and they were not guaranteed to be able to provide medical care on the ship in the remaining days of the mission. By Sunday 06:00, within a week after arriving, more than half of our volunteer HOPE team was gone.
Monday morning, NO Mayor Nagin announced a plan to return NO residents to dry areas: the French Quarter, parts of the Garden District, and Algiers. E. Coli counts were exponentially higher than what is acceptable; and remaining waters contain contaminants from industry, creosote and oil from refineries, and various chemicals from people’s cleaning supplies that spilled into water as homes flooded – all in a cesspool of standing water enveloping homes and parts of the city. There was no potable water; scant electricity; and few operational hospitals. Understandably scientists and federal officials objected to evacuees’ return. But it appeared the Mayor was defiant and steadfast, and residents began going home. The USNS Comfort was requested to be in NO port to assist in providing medical care to returnees, so we were once again going to NO. By Monday afternoon, Nagin not only rescinded the offer but ordered an evacuation to those there and a retreat to those on their way. Another Hurricane (Rita) had surfaced and was headed for the Gulf. This ship couldn’t withstand a hurricane in the port it was docked, so we headed out to sea at 07:00 Tuesday. Tuesday afternoon, the new news was that the ship would remain at sea a few days to avoid the hurricane then follow the storm (a safer course) and once again head for NO. The Comfort would serve in its intended manner as a hospital ship. Though this is uncertain, and the plan could change.
Although there is frustration at changing courses and altered missions, the fault lies no where in particular. In fact, even by military standards this state of flux seems unique. This was evidenced by an occasional Navy personnel asking civilians, “What have you heard?” – referring to the mercurial plans that were revised and re-revised by the hour.
It is ironic how the storms brought us all here to help, now keep us keep us from doing so. And complicating factors of politics, bureaucracies, logistical issues, territorial battles, or whatever else may have thwarted our efforts earlier, we are now at the mercy of nature – a more formidable and omnipotent force.
As for my work in Pascagoula, I had different assignments. I spent 2 days giving Tetanus shots to employees of a huge ship building company called Northrup Grumman, apparently the largest employer in Mississippi. All told we gave >360 shots in 2 days from a tent in a parking lot adjacent to the shipbuilding facility; their on-site clinic was destroyed in the hurricane. One day was spent at a medical center in Gulfport, Mississippi assisting nurses on a telemetry floor with patient care. It was not terribly busy as the floor was sufficiently staffed with nurses. But it was useful to note though how progressive their small hospital was in comparison to the hospitals in which I work.
The most rewarding experience was working with the American Red Cross, which I did for 3 days delivering meals to people impacted by the hurricane. The organization coordinated an elaborate effort outside the First Baptist Church in Pascagoula and each day 30 volunteers prepared thousands of meals for distribution to residents. I was told that ~8,400 meals had been prepared at that one location a few days earlier for residents, rescue/relief workers, and volunteers. Emergency Response Vehicle’s (ERV’s) were driven by ARC volunteers around the country and used to distribute the meals. They held up to 200 meals for one route and delivered twice a day. We served ~300 meals each day from the ERVs I worked in. There were at least a dozen more ERV’s doing the same in other designated routes. And there were hundreds of similar constructed facilities around the Gulf Coast that were replicating the work to feed and shelter hurricane victims. It was an impressive display.
Volunteers worked tirelessly. Dehydration and heat exhaustion were not uncommon, especially for those unacclimated and unaccustomed to the volume of water necessary to drink in hot temperatures. I was stopped often in the church to assist someone who was weak, flushed, and exhausted. I helped people rehydrate, and talked about dehydration and its warning signs which required attention. Most people were orally rehydrated, but a couple were more severe and received HOPE’s assistance with transport to a hospital for more extensive care.
When riding the ERV’s, our presence in a neighborhood was made known by way of a distinct horn and announcement from the ERV that we were there with “Hot meals and cold drinks”. We strolled through narrow streets lined with debris on curbsides until residents emerged from homes to receive food and drinks. Despite their losses, which were vast, residents were hospitable and kind. As I handed out meals, no one hesitated to pause and say “thank you” with sincerity and meaning. They were glad they weren’t forgotten; appreciative their neighborhood was found; and grateful they were alive. We asked people how they were doing; they would often say “I’m Just fine.” And they would walk back to a home that was ravaged by the storm with their possessions saturated and worthless or entirely gone. Many in the neighborhoods we visited had little before the hurricane; now they had less. But there weren’t many complaints. Some people expressed hope of having a job to return to; some talked about the frustration about not getting through to Helplines for assistance; some shared stories, and we listened.
Going through communities and seeing the damage was appalling. Furniture was toppled on lawns, sometimes with dresser drawers open and sofas and cushions spread out in an attempt to dry them in the sun. Destroyed appliances littered the curbs, as well as mounds of personal possessions waiting for trash pick-up. Scattered were toys and stuffed animals that assuredly had meaning and comfort at one time to a child. Tents pitched in backyards and side grassy spaces served as intermittent shelters for those whose homes were uninhabitable. Cars were in ditches far from their parking spaces, dented, torn, or crushed. A rooftop lying askance and peculiarly in front of a home was apparently lifted off of its original base and carried and dropped by the tidal surge to another resident’s lawn. People said that 200 miles of the Gulf Coast were hit. And Katrina was non-discriminatory: the opulent beachfront houses were swept away along with the walls and roofs of modest homes a few blocks inland. I visited Ocean Springs, Mississippi waterfront – an area heavily hit. With homes closest to the shore, only foundations remained, a couple of blocks inward sometimes a frame or staircase stood. Cars rode on sand deposited by the waters completely covering the pavement beneath. Clothes dangled and swayed from tree branches. It was eerily quiet.
In the areas we visited, neighbors looked out for one another – telling us what streets to go through where residents needed assistance, and what people were homebound so needed home delivery, which we did. The ARC driver would diligently note suggestions and instructions and change routes as needed. Residents also joined forces to clean areas and homes. One woman told me that while she was gone from evacuation, her neighbor who was spared much damage wanted to help so he cut and cleared a tree that had struck her house, though not without first taking pictures for her to file a claim with her insurance company. On another occasion, our ERV got stuck in mud. A group of nearby residents and workers who were clearing the area came and within minutes they had set a truck in front of the van with a chain attaching each vehicle, revved the truck’s engine and pulled the van out of its decline. I don’t know how we would have gotten out otherwise, or how long we would have been there. I witnessed the best in people, and that has been inspiring. I just wish I had the opportunity to give more in return.
It was also strange and coincidental having been to a couple of these towns before. Ten years ago, Ocean Springs served as a viable destination from NO for a bicycle trip for Andrea and me. We followed a map drawn on a bar napkin; toured Ocean Springs a couple of days then met friends in Moss Point and went skydiving (Both of these towns were hit hard by Hurricane Katrina.) The trip was during Thanksgiving and Andrea and I passed some free time one afternoon by listing the things we were thankful for. I had come upon the photo album from that trip not long ago and noted our List and the basic items for which we were grateful: a job, a bicycle, our health, friends, family, flushable toilets, ATM machines, open restaurants, books to read and music to listen to; courtesy of strangers who helped us when we needed assistance, and sundry seemingly little things we saw as significant. The list still applies. It’s the basics that victims of the hurricane lack. Homes torn apart and uninhabitable; personal possessions gone or ruined; employment uncertain; no potable water; electricity out (no ATMSs); no phone service; hospitals, restaurants, public offices closed. It’s a stark realization how fragile things are, how penetrable our perceptions of safety and comfort, how unpredictable life is, and how valuable it is to be thankful for the basics in life.
After leaving Pascagoula, we spent 3 days rocking through the Gulf of Mexico on the tail of Hurricane Rita. The waters were rough (considering we were literally riding the waves of the storm) and the ship swayed heavily. It is now Sunday, September 25th, our 6th day at sea; waters have calmed and the ship is riding relatively smoothly again. But we don’t seem to have a definitive plan or order. Most recent word is that the ship is going to NO Tuesday Sept 28th; volunteers will disembark there and return home.
It has been increasingly frustrating to be on the ship, with skilled medical professionals eager and waiting, but no plans yet for patients, despite the need for care and assistance along the Gulf Coast. But we have no choice, no control, and can only wait. Things remain uncertain; change is inevitable.