Airport Becomes Staging Area for Ill

Helicopters hover over Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport to drop off evacuees. Inside, hundreds of sick and infirm people await medical care at a makeshift facility.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Over the past three days, helicopters have lined up in the sky over the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport to drop off evacuees. At least 125,000 have received medical care there, usually just a little. Then they're put in line for hours, sometimes more than a day, to wait for a military airplane that will take them to some other city where they can get the health care they need. NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO reporting:

On the hard airport floor, a thin old woman bind strapped to a litter; she's confused, scared and her whole body shivers. There are hundreds and hundreds of people, mostly elderly, in litters on the floor throughout the airport. But this woman is near the front of the line; she'll get the next medical evacuation plane out of New Orleans.

A man with a buzz cut and powerful arms bends down close to her face.

Captain EDWARD GREER(ph) (Air Force Reserve): Do you understand? OK. So do you have...

SHAPIRO: Captain Edward Greer is a flight nurse, with the Air Force Reserve.

Capt. GREER: Honey, do you have any questions? We're going to put you on that aircraft, all right?

Unidentified Woman: Going by airplane.

Capt. GREER: Yeah, it's the airplane. We're going to take you to a hospital right now. OK?

Unidentified Woman: Now you're not going to scare an 89-year-old sister, would you?

Capt. GREER: No, we don't want to scare you. We want you to get back so you can get treatment. All right?

Unidentified Woman: Oh, OK.

Capt. GREER: OK, hon.

SHAPIRO: Greer is part of an air medical evacuation squadron; flight nurses, flight medics, people trained to stabilize a patient for air transportation.

Capt. GREER: What we're doing here is we're staging patients, loading them up, treating them and then moving them out to the flight line so they can get moved out to medical facilities. We basically configured the airport as a hospital.

SHAPIRO: The ticket counters and newsstands are closed, hospital tents are set up, but the doctors see few people injured in Hurricane Katrina. Instead, these patients were already elderly, frail, confused or disabled. Now they're at more risk because they wait a day or more in the hot airport.

Mr. EDDIE LaMOINE(ph): They want us to leave our walker. She's got a $400 walker I just bought not too long ago. She can't do without.

SHAPIRO: Eddie LaMoine's wife is also about to be evacuated. She keeps her eyes closed and says nothing.

Mr. LaMOINE: We had a bag of all her medicines. She's got a whole bunch of medicines that she's got to take. She's out of B-12 shots she's got to take. I give it to her, but they made us leave all of that behind. The would not allow me to bring that on the helicopter.

SHAPIRO: LaMoine has no shoes; his wife wears borrowed clothes. They've waited in the airport for two days. Now they're about to leave, but they haven't been told where they're going.

Unidentified Man #1: All right. Prepare to lift. Lift.

SHAPIRO: The evacuation begins and 25 men and women strapped to litters are carried out to the tarmac. Down the hall, a tiny woman named Carmen Vidaurre stands by her son, Joseph, who's in a wheelchair. He's 24 and has muscular dystrophy. They've been waiting in the airport for more than three days.

Ms. CARMEN VIDAURRE: The people that are, you know, incapable of doing for themselves, you know, they should be treated better.

SHAPIRO: Mother and son have been promised they'll fly soon, but now a doctor tells the mother...

Unidentified Man #2: We're taking 60 people back with us to get treatment and medicines and that kind of thing. The problem is we're on a passenger plane, and I can't put people that are wheelchair-bound or need wheelchair assistance.

SHAPIRO: Joseph weighs less than 80 pounds. The problem is his big motorized wheelchair. It took four men to pull it out of his apartment when the flood came. Now he'll have to wait even longer. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News, New Orleans.

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