Saturday, September 10, 2005

Why I Loved Living in Knoxville!

From 1990 to 1996 I was a resident of Tennessee - I was attending UT. I formed quite an attachment to Knoxville (has one of the best used book stores) and only moved back to St. Louis out of economic necessity. Here is an example of why.

More on this story can be found here. I'll quote some of the interesting bits picking up the story were snags start appearing:

We were now desperate to find a contact on the ground at the New Orleans airport to help triage ambulatory medical patients into these planes. FEMA in Washington was non responsive. We spoke to the aide to one of the deputies at FEMA and was told they did not need or want our help since the hospital evacuation was going fine. We looked at the reports from CNN about the conditions at the field hospital at the airport and discounted that opinion immediately.


Around 8 pm this was the situation: We had planes for two flights at least. We had hospitals in Tennessee and Chicago for 290 and 200 patients respectively. We had two doctors for the plane. We needed landing slots at the airport and patients for the planes. We needed a contact on the ground.

Gore called Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta and obtained two landing slots for Saturday. All we needed now was a medical contact at the airport. I contacted Casey Decker at the HHS Command Center, a highly advanced, high tech center for tracking and dealing with public health crises of all kinds. I asked Decker for help contacting TRANSCOM, which was running operations at the airport, as well as a medical coordinator on the ground. Decker explained they had not been able to maintain communications with TRANSCOM on the ground or the medical staff. That was troubling.


Starting right after midnight I began receiving calls from FEMA, HHS, TRANSCOM and other groups whose acronyms I still cannot explain. LCDR Kennedy from FEMA called to understand what I was trying to do. I told him. Fifteen minutes later Mimi Riley, Deputy Director from NDMS called to beg me in a plaintive and exhausted voice not to carry out this mission. She had many reasons – you need doctors on the plane, Chicago is too far from their home, how will we track the patients, this is a military operation and we were not military.

I explained to her that we had two doctors on the plane one of whom was a retired Air Force Doctor who had run the military hospital in Baghdad after the invasion. I thought we could trust him to run an airplane of people from New Orleans to Knoxville. We were working with NDMS hospitals in Tennessee and Chicago so they would have a good tracking system. (I guess Mimi never heard of the Great Migration of African Americans from New Orleans and the south to Chicago after the flood of 1927 and during the Depression. Many people from New Orleans are more at home in Chicago than Houston. )

Mimi was unmovable. We were not military and that was that. She tried to sound grateful for our intentions but she was not going to have outsiders help. I even offered to GIVE her the planes and the crews and the hospitals and let her run it through her NDMS system but she would have none of it. She asked me at least to delay until noon the next day and I said I would try.


Over the next three hours (from 2a.m. to 5 a.m.) I was called by an array of Majors and Lieutenant Commanders telling me to stop. (“I don’t mean to be rude, sir, but you must not do this. You must stop this now.”) Major Webb from GPMRC (don’t ask), Grant Meade from ESF. Major Lindquist from TRANSCOM (at last!) all telling me they would not cooperate and they did not know how we had gotten permission to land. I never mentioned Gore’s name because no one ever asked me who was paying for the flights or how we had come so far.

Finally at 5 a.m. Major Lindquist said if we landed he would not put any patients on the plane and we should expect no cooperation and there was no place to store the plane so we would have to leave.


At 7 a.m. on Saturday September 3rd, the American Airlines plane with Gore and the doctors and Gore’s son Albert left Dallas for New Orleans. They landed at 8:30, got off the plane and Col LaFon immediately established contact with the Colonels running the operation on the ground, most of whom he had served with. He had trained many of the doctors on the scene. He explained why they were there and the doctors began a triage process to fill the plane. Two hours later the plane was loaded and headed to Knoxville.


By now, it was too late to return to New Orleans, load up and leave before dark and American Airlines refused to have its personnel stay in New Orleans after dark. Gore and the team headed to Dallas for the night. Around midnight Saturday night, the FAA called American airlines and pulled their landing slots for Sunday saying only FEMA planes could fly in. Gore called Mineta again who promised to honor our initial agreement for two landing slots.

On Sunday morning Gore and the team landed in New Orleans to a much improved scene. Many more patients had been airlifted out after our flight and there were only ten ambulatory patients for our plane so we took 120 evacuees with us to Chattanooga. The welcoming reception in Chattanooga was so large that Gore said it looked like there was an ambulance for everybody on the plane.

We decided not to return to New Orleans because the medical patients we could take had been helped. (We could not take bedridden patients on stretchers on this plane.) Gore said that on the second trip to New Orleans, the doctors at the airport told him that the evacuation of the first 90 ambulatory patients had been the tipping point in their ability to adequately care for the other bedridden patients. They also noted that the military evacuations did not really pick up steam until after we “motivated” them with our private effort.

Of note:
Throughout the entire operation in Tennessee, EMS operations in Chicago had stayed prepared to handle patients or evacuees. None ever arrived because the military did not want us to use Chicago. The volunteers in Chicago were amazing in their desire to help. Mayor Daly had been rebuffed earlier when he offered a complete mobile hospital unit for the airport and a tent city as well. Sen. Barack Obama called Gore and asked how had Gore managed to land in New Orleans when the Senator had been refused landing rights to help.

Several things stand out that reinforce the pattern we have seen in the response to hurrican Katrina. First, the complete disconnect between what was happening in the devastated areas and what FEMA knew (The hospital evac for example). I have to wonder... Chertoff denies people are in the convention center, the FEMA officials mentioned above say the Charity Hospital evacuation was going fine. The question is, was there really a disconnect or were they simply covering for lack of response? Second the complete refusal of help. Here we have Daley offering a complete mobile hospital and being refused? Third, it took a private effort - by a Democrat - before the military evacuation picked up steam?

Added later: I added the pictures of Al Gore a few days later - should have done it when I first posted this.
P.S. I liked the beard - made him look like Will Ryker.