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Disaster Preparadness - What We Can Learn in Iowa from the Hurricane Katrina Disaster on the Gulf Coast
I recently returned from the 2007 SILC Congress in New Orleans, Louisiana. One of the main topics at this conference was disaster preparadness. Here are some things I learned about what happened in New Orleans...
In the case of most disasters, the plan is to have a place to temporarily shelter people for 24-48 hours. In the case of Katrina, no one had any idea that the shelters would need to be in place for weeks.
The majority of shelters would not accept people with disabilities who had service animals. The Super Dome, where thousands upon thousands of people ended up, had no power. Because the Dome is in a low lying area, sewage had to be pumped out or it backed up. With no electricity, the sewage from the toilets backed up all over the Dome and the adjoining stadium. During the first two days, the fire alarms and flashing lights, powered by back up systems, were going off constantly until the back up generators died. Once it was dark outside, there were no lights for people to see if they needed to go to the bathroom or get water.
The medical teams from California had to drive in the wrong way on the Interstate to get to the Dome and stadium. Hundreds of people were lined up on these Interstate bridges, pounding on these vehicles to get them to stop and help... but the teams were there to go to the Dome to help only the severely medically needy. Someone pushed a gurney in front of the caravan with a man strapped onto the gurney. The caravan had to stop... someone ran out from the caravan and grabbed the man off the gurney and into the car, and then they proceeded, while someone was also shooting a gun at them.
There were not nearly enough National Guard members there in the first 4 days to maintain order. The medical team set up in the stadium, while most of the hurricane survivors were housed in the actual Dome. They had to stabilize people for transport, and would then carry them to the roof of the parking garage where helicopters were landing to transport the medically needy. Family members were NOT allowed to go on the helicopters with their sick family member, as this would take up space for another medically needy person. So children were airlifted without parents, severely disabled were airlifted without their family or caretaker.
People began coming over to the stadium for treatment for assaults and rapes that were occuring in the Dome. Some even came over to try and steal the supplies of the medical team. The helicopters could only land and take off in daylight because there was no power to light the landing strip, so this cut down on the amount of people they were able to move out.
When the snipers started shooting in the Dome, the helicopters could no longer land to transport people. The National Guard who were guarding the medical team and patients in the stadium had to leave to go over and help in the Dome. The medical team had to make the decision to leave as there was nothing more they could do until the National Guard regained control of the situation.
The medical team left, and was not replaced by another team for at least 24 hours until order was restored. That same medical team ended up at the New Orleans airport, where they worked to stabilize patients and fly them out to hospitals. Because their resources were so very limited, people were no longer considered "people" but rather "cargo", and the goal was to move out as much cargo as possible. People were stacked on racks on top of each other in the helicopters, which were landing about 14 at once every 10 minutes.
Since the medical resources were limited, the medical team had to categorize people. Those they could not get stabilized were categorized as "nonsalvageable", and were kept in one area of the airport, where they died.
This is only a part of the horrendous things that happened to people during Hurricane Katrina. It is my hope that we can learn from this, and make sure the state of Iowa and communities in Iowa have a disaster preparadness plan that includes specific plans and resources for people with disabilities.
Please return to this website in the future as we will be posting information on Iowa disaster preparadness plans.