A letter from New Orleans
By Robert Sargent, Jr.
Are all my millions of conservative readers sick of hearing President Bush "blamed" for what went wrong with the relief effort in New Orleans? Are all my millions of liberal readers sick of hearing Mayor Nagin, Gov. Blanco and Senator Landriau "blamed" for what went wrong with the first response? Read on.
A friend of mine forwarded an email sent to him and some other friends from a James O'Brien, an active duty Air Force pilot assigned to the Tennessee Air National Guard. Mr. O'Brien has returned from duty in Iraq, and when his squadron (105th AS) was asked to aid in the relief effort, "we gladly accepted." A native of San Antonio, TX, and a graduate from the Air Force Academy, Mr. O'Brien has written an eloquent, and inspiring account of the relief effort, an account that should be read by everyone. I present it here in its entirety:
I just returned from New Orleans on a hurricane relief mission in the C-130. Let me just start by saying I was awed. Not in what I saw in destruction and devastation because I had/have already seen enough of that on TV. What really hit me hard was the absolute determination and willingness of all those involved in the relief effort. I just want to quickly tell you what I was a part of and what I witnessed as it just really filled me with pride and reminded me again why we are such an amazing and successful country.
It started when I showed up for the flight in Nashville. Instead of the flight planning I would normally do (the other pilot did it), I was tasked to call all 60 or so of the pilots from the 105th Airlift Squadron (my squadron) and find out their availability to fly hurricane relief missions. Now, don't forget these are all Air National Guard men and women and most all have full time jobs outside of flying for the Guard. Almost without exception, every pilot offered whatever assistance was needed. No surprise.
I then jumped in the airplane and flew directly to New Orleans Int'l, which was and is only open to relief efforts. We had on board with us an aero medical evacuation team. They are a group of highly trained nurses and med techs that are qualified in evacuating wounded and sick soldiers from the battlefield and keeping them alive enroute to a medical facility.
One of the many missions of the C-130 is basically a flying hospital. We can literally set up an intensive care unit in the back if needed. So, with our team of aero meds and flight crew on board, we set course for New Orleans with the rough idea that we would transport injured and sick people to Elington Field, TX (Houston, TX). From there we would fly to Alexandria, LA, Charlotte, and then back to Nashville. Our mission ended up evacuating one of the VA hospitals' patients as well as several civilians.
The weather was not great once we neared New Orleans. We made it in and were met by an airport SUV that led us to what is normally an airline passenger gate. The difference was the gates housed medical teams (mainly military that had just arrived) and scores of sick refugees (for lack of better term). We squeezed ourselves into a parking spot perpendicular to a C-141 and next to two C-17's. There were other Air Force planes on the ground as well. By the time we finally left, five other C-130's and another C-17 had joined us.
What happened next just really made my heart swell with pride. From every direction and in about 15 to 45 second intervals, helicopter after helicopter continued to land right next to us. It was a mix of Army Blackhawks, Coast Guard helicopters as well as Marine and Army. They were joined by what must have been 15 "Flight for Life" helicopters from hospitals all around the Southeast. I saw Miami, Arkansas, and many other names painted on the sides. This was not normal operations. These pilots were practically landing and taxing on top of each other. They came in fully loaded with sick personnel. Many right from the rooftops. One New Orleans Airport fireman took on the duty of aircraft marshaller and marshaled in choppers left and right. The helos would unload and then take right back off. It was not uncommon for a helicopter to be on the ground less than two to three minutes and then blast back off.
We were basically parked in the triage area. These helicopters were immediately met by ground personnel who helped the people off the helos and if they couldn't walk, they put them on a stretcher or just flat carried them. What makes it so extraordinary is when I realize that these ground personnel were just the airport workers, airline employees, cart drivers, fireman, and then the staff of all the emergency teams. It was amazing. They were not necessarily trained for the jobs they were/are undertaking. They just stepped up to the plate and did it.
The tower and ground controllers were coordinating airplanes and helicopters like they had never imagined in their most terrible nightmares and were doing a very good job of it. There were literally so many helicopters coming in and out of the triage area that I do not understand how the tower guy could see through them all to control the planes once they landed.
The little baggage trailers and tugs that you normally see zipping around the airport were being used to move survivors out to the airplanes. They can best be described as mini ambulances. The terminals at the airport were triage and staging areas. The airport vehicles that are usually operated by airport managers and security were leading airplanes and helicopters to newly created parking spaces. Then the huge thunderstorm hit to make matters even worse. Thunder, lightening, and driving rain pounded the airport and surrounding area for over 1.5 hours.
The helicopter pilots and crews never stopped. Everyone was so determined and working with such purpose. I literally watched this one helicopter bring people in and then leave again for another load four times in the 1.5 hour long torrential rain storm. This pace was not uncommon.
Another thing that exemplified the unselfishness of the rescuers was this one old and worn out red and white helicopter. It looked like something that does heavy lifting for construction up on mountains. Basically, it did not look like one that was designed to carry people and conduct search and rescue. From all I can tell, it was just a privately owned helicopter that the two pilots decided they were going to make work for this. I still remember the pilot in the left seat. He just had on jeans, tennis shoes and some kind of old shirt. He was a little overweight, but you could just see the determination and purpose on his face as he brought that big helo in run after run after run.
Don't misinterpret what I am describing. The military guys were doing this too, but I did not expect this from some private company or individual.
It just was incredible. Absolutely incredible. There is no way the helos should have been flying in this weather. If this was just some regular mission or training flight, you can bet your kids Super Play Station that they would not have been flying. It would have been easier and probably safer to floss a shark's teeth them to have gotten these guys to stop flying.
The same thing went for everyone working to organize and evacuate the sick, hurt, and elderly inside the airport. The process was a little slower than ideal, but it is a massive undertaking not ever encountered by the agencies initially put in charge. Long story short, the Air Force medical teams got in there and got the ball rolling. As we left, a medical evacuation command post was coming on line, which will significantly speed up the process of bringing people into the airport and then putting them on planes to fly out.
Another one of our Nashville C-130's was on the ground with us. They received their patients first. Once they could not physically fit anymore on their plane, they left and we took the next group. Our aero med team and flight crew just started helping the people who could barely walk onto the plane and assisted in the loading of stretchers.
Back to selflessness, we were also joined by two doctors who had been assisting in all the relief efforts at Tulane Hospital. They decided to go on the flight with us. One was an MD in his 7th year of surgery residency and the other was an MD who worked full time at Tulane hospital. They had been working nonstop since the hurricane. Another resident MD told me how after the hurricane hit he had to go home and get some sleep. He awoke to rising water at his place, so he got in his kayak and paddled down the street, past looting, which he said was very unnerving, and into Tulane hospital where he has been working ever since. The great American spirit is indeed alive and well.
We ended up taking 20 patients on litters (military for stretcher) and 31 people (not healthy at all) that could sit up for a total of 51 to Elington Field, TX. We arrived there and were met by what can only be described as an eye watering reception. We called the field 20 minutes out and let them know we would be landing shortly and passed on our patient information.
Well, let me tell you something. As we taxied in I looked towards our parking spot and I must have counted 30 ambulances and a line of hospital workers/volunteers with wheelchairs at the ready lined up 50 deep. There was another equally long line of paramedics with gurneys. These people had it together. We shut down engines and then watched as Elington's smooth operation kicked into gear. The sickest of the sick were rushed to hospitals. Everyone else was given food, cold drinks, seen by a social worker, doctor, and other specialists. Then, one of the head NASA people there gave me his car to go to Jack in the Box to get food for the crew.
By this time we were running out of our 16 hour crew day and we still had two more stops. Unfortunately, we couldn't get to it all as we had to head right back to Nashville, but another crew picked up the mission.
I will be doing missions similar to this one tomorrow (Fri) and Saturday. Our Guard Base (TN Air National Guard) is flying six of our eight or nine airplanes out tomorrow in direct support of rescue operations. We plan on doing this for the foreseeable future.
Overall, I cannot do justice to all the good I saw today just by writing. I wanted to try though. Basically, the operation set up down there at the New Orleans Airport is one eerily similar to that of Baghdad Int'l airport when I was there for over eight months. Just a hive of activity with people pushing their bodies and aircraft to the max. No one complains, they just get the job done and worry about the rest later. Every citizen of this country should be so proud of what their fellow citizens are doing for each other. The pressure they are working under knowing these sick and stranded people do not have time on their side is unexplainable. Our country is one of great strength and determination. It is evident in all the rescue and relief efforts that are taking place down there. If the hard work and pure grit of all the rescue and medical personnel I witnessed today are of any indication of the eventual outcome of this indescribable tragedy, then we are on the absolute fast track to victory.
I just want to add one more thing. I did not write this all out to highlight myself. In fact it is quite the contrary. I want all of you to know the efforts that are being made from the individual level to the highest level of government. Nothing is being held back. I just happen to fly an airplane from one field to another and am very happy to do it.
Please say some extra prayers for all of those suffering due to hurricane Katrina and for all of those working to save lives and rebuild a city. Talk to ya'll soon and have a great day.
Robert S. Sargent, Jr. is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right and can be reached at
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