New Orleans Airport as Field Hospital New Orleans's Louis Armstrong Airport reopens to commercial air traffic, after serving for two weeks as a makeshift hospital. Medical teams said there were many heroic efforts and few deaths. But they criticized FEMA and the American Red Cross for bureaucratic delays that affected their ability to care properly for patients.
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New Orleans Airport as Field Hospital

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New Orleans Airport as Field Hospital

New Orleans Airport as Field Hospital

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport has been turned back into a commercial airport after more than two weeks as a field hospital. As part of the national disaster medical system, civilian doctors, nurses and paramedics from across the country converged on the city after Hurricane Katrina to care for the sick and injured. NPR's Richard Knox reports that the medical teams were proud of their work but critical of the federal managers who sometimes got in the way of medical rescue.

Unidentified Woman: Please, somebody help me! Please!

RICHARD KNOX reporting:

At its peak last week, thousands of people, many as desperate as this woman, came through the makeshift hospital every day. It was the largest medical disaster relief effort in the nation's history. Even veterans of 9/11 and other hurricanes say there's never been anything like it. After 9/11, there were few survivors to save, no city was evacuated and no city's health system was swept away, but in the aftermath of Katrina, nurse Donna Magoon(ph) from Pennsylvania says the numbers and needs were sometimes overwhelming.

Ms. DONNA MAGOON (Nurse): You were just busting butt to get the worst ones where they could get taken care of, and I felt like I was letting some of them down.

KNOX: No official figures are available on how many people died at the airport, but Magoon and other medical people on the scene say it may have been as few as 15 or 20 people.

Ms. MAGOON: I think it's awesome that we had that few of deaths because these people were debilitated without food and water in conditions leading to all kinds of bacterial infections. I just can't believe that we had that few of deaths.

KNOX: It's all the more remarkable some say in light of the snags that arose. For instance, a 35-member team from Oregon had to leave behind its 4,300-pound cache of equipment and supplies. It arrived by truck five days later. FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, controls the nation's system of 40 medical disaster relief teams. Dr. Jonathan Jui of Oregon Health Sciences University says he doesn't know why FEMA couldn't airlift his team's supplies to Louisiana.

Dr. JONATHAN JUI (Oregon Health Sciences University): We nearly ran out of a lot of necessary pharmacy--our pharmacist has put in requests on four consecutive days to FEMA logistics to fulfill the pharmacy supplies. They were unable to do that.

KNOX: Dr. Jake Jacoby leads a California medical team. He says FEMA officials insisted on properly filled out requisition forms before it would replenish supplies of pain medications, IV lines, urinary catheters and other supplies, but the medical teams at the airport had no way to fax the necessary paperwork to headquarters in Baton Rouge.

Dr. JAKE JACOBY: The best thing that happened to us is that we got reinforced by the United States Air Force, whereas our normal resupply system was hindered by poor communication, lack of a fax machine and an inability to get the right forms in to FEMA logistics to get resupplied.

KNOX: When Congress passed the Homeland Security Act three years ago, it moved the disaster medical teams from the Department of Health and Human Services to FEMA. Jacoby says FEMA doesn't understand the need for speed in medical disaster relief. Colonel H. James Young is the FEMA official who oversaw the disaster medical assistance teams at the airport and elsewhere in New Orleans.

Colonel H. JAMES YOUNG (FEMA Official): Supplies showed up. We had what we needed to do what we needed to do.

KNOX: Young addressed the doctors' criticism this week as the patient flow slowed to a trickle. Nearby, orphaned and stray dogs and cats were still finding their way to a veterinary station over by the Continental ticket counter.

Col. YOUNG: These doctors, they work in these ERs and these big hospitals or wherever it might be, and they may not have certain procedures they have to go through. They can say, `I want this right now,' and they have it. Well, this is the federal government and it has procedures that we go through.

KNOX: The doctors don't limit their criticism to resupply delays. Many expressed special anger at the way FEMA dispatched some medical teams downtown to the Superdome with inadequate resources to cope with tens of thousands of desperate evacuees. Dr. Eric Larson of New York, the chief medical officer at the airport hospital, says security for the Superdome teams was dangerously inadequate.

Dr. ERIC LARSON: There was absolutely no order or control there and their lives were threatened, their entire cache of medical supplies was lost there, and they had to escape essentially with their lives.

KNOX: Young's command included a team sent to the Superdome. He says he doesn't know what the critics are talking about.

Col. YOUNG: I can't speak for what happened at the dome. I didn't physically see that. I wasn't physically there. But, you know, what the report is is what the report is. You know, what is valid or not, there was protection there to do what they had to do.

KNOX: FEMA will soon hear a lot more criticism from the medical teams. This week, they're starting to write what the agency calls after-event reports that will detail what went wrong. Meanwhile, Jake Jacoby, the California emergency doctor, urges colleagues who say they may be ready to resign from the national medical disaster system not to give up hope yet.

Richard Knox, NPR News, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

MONTAGNE: A doctor's dispatch describing the first days at the airport hospital is at npr.org.

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