Tom Fox/Dallas Morning News/Corbis
Medical tech Sr. Airman Portia Payton, center, comforts hurricane evacuee Betty Porter, right, of New Orleans, at Gate D1 of New Orleans International Airport, Sept. 4, 2005.
Medical tech Sr. Airman Portia Payton, center, comforts hurricane evacuee Betty Porter, right, of New Orleans, at Gate D1 of New Orleans International Airport, Sept. 4, 2005. Tom Fox/Dallas Morning News/Corbis
NPR producer Anna Vigran spent six days at the New Orleans airport in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The airport served as a hospital for the sick and frail, a jumping off point for rescue teams, and a place of refuge for thousands of hurricane survivors.
The Airport Hospital
Pulling up to Terminal D at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport on Thursday, Sept. 1, the third day after Hurricane Katrina hit, isn't like arriving at the airport on a normal day.
I arrive with a FEMA convoy of disaster medical teams who are here to provide support for the teams that have been here since early Tuesday, Aug. 30. The place is populated by people who would never be at an airport if it weren't for the hurricane. Ambulances are lined up where cabs usually wait. Security forces armed with automatic weapons have replaced airport traffic cops. Thousands of people arrive by bus, ambulance and helicopter with little or no baggage. One man clings to what appears to be a photo album, wrapped in a plastic bag to protect it. That was all.
Stepping inside, the first impression is the distinctive smell of a hospital. It is the smell of illness, of urine and blood and unwashed, sweaty people. The power is out. The air is warm and humid.
In the center of the terminal, frantic doctors move constantly from patient to patient. The entire scene is illuminated by an octagonal skylight that usually highlights a large sculpture surrounded by palm trees. The trees have been pushed out off to one side, but the sculpture remains, an enormous cascade of silver curves, now surrounded by medical tents and patients.
The power comes back on Thursday afternoon, and a cheer goes up as the lights and air-conditioning kick in. But the lights show the enormity of the situation. Hundreds of patients are on army-green litters lined up all across the terminal. People are in wheelchairs, on airport benches, and resting on the floor. The terminal is overflowing with the sick, the elderly, the disabled — people who are chronically ill, or near death. People who are usually out of view in hospitals, nursing homes, or private homes where a family can protect and care for them. They're now in the most public place imaginable. And each hour more arrive in helicopters and ambulances.
Patients in the Chaos
Remarkably, some survivors seem ready to appear in public. One woman has her fingernails beautifully painted a bright red, carefully done. The color contrasts sharply with her pale, almost translucent, skin. She looks too frail to have done such meticulous work herself. Who loves her enough to do it for her? Where is that person now while this woman is lying on a litter on the floor of the terminal D at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, in line to be airlifted away from the city to who knows where?
A little girl is shrieking, calling for her dad. Eventually she can run to him, but he is on a stretcher, seemingly asleep. A nurse holds onto her T-shirt but the girl lunges away, leaning over her father, hitting him on the head to get his attention. Eventually he turns towards her and opens his eyes a bit, but he looks far from well. He hasn't had dialysis for days, and the medical teams at the airport don't have the equipment for that procedure. The nurses have figured out that the girl has psychiatric problems, but in this situation her behavior looks completely understandable.
I make another turn and see a pale, thin man strapped to his litter. He moans and cries incessantly... filling the terminal with what sounds like a mourner's wailing. He repeatedly throws back his head towards the cold tile floor. His eyes are wide open, but don't seem to see much. His mouth is open and he has a look of both confusion and agony.
Medical workers are receiving patients from hospitals or nursing homes, sometimes without any identifying information. Some come with their medical charts tucked under their heads. One chart reads: "vital signs stable, flood waters rising, nurses scared, vital signs stable, must leave, winds getting high, must evacuate, vital signs stable..."
What are usually the most private moments of human suffering and pain are laid out in the middle of the terminal. There are people with very little clothing, or with clothing that has been soiled by urine, feces, or blood. Health care workers don't have time or supplies to dress these people or clean them up. They do what they can... resuscitating some people after heart attacks, delivering babies, rehydrating people who had been without water for too many days. But usually the best they can do is try to make sure a patient survives to be airlifted to a hospital as soon as possible. The line to be loaded on a military aircraft is long, and the situation desperate.
The best thing you can hope for for these people is that they will get out. That is what everyone says... hope you get out soon... we'll get you on the next flight... But it is unknown where these people will be sent... it could be a hospital anywhere in the country. Sometime families are together, and sometimes they aren't. Some patients, who arrive alone, are sent to a far-off city for medical care. But anywhere is better than here.
An elderly woman is pushed in a wheelchair, and she keeps scolding her caretaker, "Take me out of here, I don't remember this place!" Nobody does. Even the medical workers who specialize in disasters and the military personnel who work in war zones are overwhelmed. They keep shaking their heads and saying, I've never seen anything like this.
The Crisis at the Airport Ends
By Sunday, Sept. 5, six days after the hurricane, most of the hospitals and nursing homes finally appear to have been evacuated. For the first time, patients are being flown out faster than they were arriving at the airport. Medical workers now actually have time to provide care, and are able to get their patients on a flight out the same day.
Workers are clearing the rows of litters, and soaking the floor in bleach. It blends with the lingering odor of illness but doesn't cover it entirely. The walls are lined with abandoned wheelchairs and walkers, equipment that patients couldn't take with them on the evacuation flights. The crisis at the airport has passed. But across the country it continues for many of the patients and their families.