Into the Flood

Flooded highways in Louisiana

Flooded highways in Louisiana

I drove all night and got to the suburbs of New Orleans around 11 AM Monday morning. The hurricane was still blowing and though the winds had slowed somewhat, the rain was sideways and visibility was almost nothing. Interstate 10 was blocked with downed streetlights, the roofs of homes, and every other kind of debris imaginable. It was like driving through a junkyard. Every so often a big piece of steel roofing would go skating across the interstate or down a side road. For the most part I was numb to it, but when the big debris started blowing I would tell myself: “Stay alive, stay alive, stay alive.”

As I got into New Orleans proper, the freeway descended slightly and there was between five and ten feet of water blocking it. At the edge of the flood, there was a full-size pickup sunk to its roof. I turned around and drove back the wrong way on the highway, hoping another car wouldn’t run into me head-on. Finally I noticed a bunch of empty police cars parked on an overpass. I parked behind them and waded toward a building I hoped was the police station. It turned out to be the Kenner Police headquarters. Kenner is a city a few miles west of New Orleans proper, right on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain. Like New Orleans, Kenner is just at or below sea level. The police station itself, though, was built on slightly higher ground than the immediate area. The building was dry and the generators were running.

I was passed up the chain of command until I got to the Captain, who promptly put me on a team that was going out to restart the pumping stations. New Orleans is kept dry by a network of massive pumping stations, and several of them are in Kenner. All were shut down. The conditions were so dangerous and unpredictable that everyone thought someone on the repair team might get seriously injured, so they were happy to have an EMT to go along.

The water in the streets was between three and five feet deep, and the only vehicles that could travel in it were military-style deuce-and-a-half trucks. I rode in one of them with about a dozen police officers and National Guard soldiers. There were downed power lines everywhere, across every block, it seemed. We swerved to avoid them but some were so low that we brushed them anyway. The driver would yell “Duck” as if it mattered. If one of the lines was still energized, we would all be killed instantly.

There were facades ripped off hotels and apartment buildings, beds and furniture visible through the gaping holes, huge trees uprooted and flung down streets. Many of the big billboards were bent double to the ground, smashing whatever was beneath them. Where it was dry, there were bricks, wall sections, pipes and jagged tree limbs everywhere. Then there were the power lines. One was so low that I had to lift it up over the truck as we went under it. Writing about the power lines it sounds like the stupidest thing I ever did, but the electricity was out everywhere, so you just did it and prayed.

We spent all day Monday getting the pumping stations restarted. The regular pump operators were nowhere to be found, so everyone pitched in and tried to figure out how to get the pumps working. The diesel engines that ran the pumps were big enough to power a battleship. Figuring out how to start them was impossible. After several hours, tempers were flaring and some of the police officers and national guardsmen were having heated exchanges about what to do next.

Finally the pump operators showed up and got the pumps online. As it turned out, the stations were soaked but in good shape, so with the exception of wading all day in water and sewage among pieces of sharp debris, it was pretty safe. When we got back to the station, they fed me and bunked me with the officers. I examined my sewage-soaked feet and rubbed them with hand sanitizer. There was no running water anywhere.

The next morning they sent me out on one of the deuce-and-a-halfs to respond to emergency calls. The area hospitals were completely overflowing and the city had set up a temporary clinic/hospital/triage center on the second floor of the airport. With the pumps running, the water levels had gone down a few inches overnight, but there was still three or four feet of water in the streets. Stores were already being looted—every store I saw had its door kicked in or ripped off and a line of people going in and out of it. People were floating merchandise out of Walmart on boats. The police tried to stop it but were completely overwhelmed.

By Tuesday morning, basic transportation was still a major problem. The Kenner Police Department’s functional vehicles consisted of its own two deuce-and-a-halfs, one National Guard deuce and a half (under loan and command of the National Guardsmen), and one swamp boat (also on loan). Two of the deuce-and-a-halfs were assigned to drop officers at strategic locations where they would keep the peace. I was assigned to the third deuce and a half, with three officers going along with me as escorts. Folks in the street were already getting pretty desperate, most of them were running out of food and water, so while some were respectful, many others yelled profanities at us as we went by. Luckily the three officers I was with were pretty experienced—one of them was a long-time narcotics officer, another was on the SWAT team—so I felt relatively safe. Later, we found out that in New Orleans, people were beginning to shoot at the police.

But, at the time, we didn’t know it.

All of the patients I saw were trapped and had no way out. They were all living on the second and third floors of motels and apartment buildings. The first call was for a lady who was six months pregnant and thought she was going to deliver her baby right then (her other four children all were born at seven months). All I had was a blood pressure cuff and stethoscope and a couple of bandages. I tried to remember the section of the EMT textbook that talked about delivering babies. I thought I could do it if it was a normal birth but otherwise I was scared shitless.

She was shouting at me, “I have to go to the bathroom, I have to push it out,” and I was shouting at her, “Don’t push, don’t push, don’t push.” I slipped aside her underwear and saw that she wasn’t crowning, but I didn’t know how far the airport clinic was. On the inside, I was thinking, “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.”

There was a downed power line blocking the road and we had to park far from the complex and wade a long way because of it. I yelled at the officers to get the truck right up to the complex. Somehow, they did it. Right then, an EMT from the fire department showed up and he had a bunch of experience delivering babies and then everything seemed much easier. We got the lady to the airport triage center with no trouble.

The rest of the patients that day were people that in any normal situation should have been taken to the emergency room—sick elderly folks, heart patients and diabetics, sick children and infants, people with sky-high blood pressure or fluid in their lungs, a guy with a deep cut in his arm six inches long and three inches wide. All of them were out or nearly out of food and water. Some had had their food and water stolen at gunpoint. All of the people were very, very afraid. One was shaking so hard he couldn’t hold his medicine bottle. It was a hundred degrees out and incredibly humid.

I saw all this and my immediate reaction was get this person out of here right now and then I would remind myself that all over the area, people were dying. I knew that in New Orleans, they were leaving the corpses in the water, tying them down if they had time, hoping they wouldn’t float away. I’d also heard that when the power had gone out at one of the local hospitals, the backup generators didn’t turn on and all the patients on life support died.

In the end, I didn’t take any more patients to the hospital that day. I reassured them, took their vital signs, gave them medical advice, gave away my own food and water, gave away antiseptic wipes and bandages, taped and bandaged their injuries as best as was possible. For the most part, my thinking was: “Okay, this person will survive another few days, and someone else is dying right now.” Definitely some of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made and there is no way to know if they were the right ones.

Tuesday night around dark we got back and had dinner. Someone had donated a bunch of meat and we ate good barbeque. We hadn’t had a patient in an hour or so. The sun was going down and the clouds were beautiful and the air felt dry. Then word started going around about N.O.P.D. officers being shot and there was a feeling in the police station that everything was about to change. I felt sorry for everyone—for the people inside and the people outside. On the most basic level, everyone was just trying to stay alive. I headed up to the command post and waited for my next assignment.

At the time, the pumps were still working and the water was coming down. The previous day, my car had been parked in a foot of water, but now the pavement under it was dry. Most importantly, the lower water level meant that the fire department would be able to get their engines down some of the streets, which meant that other EMTs with real equipment and probably some paramedics would be available in Kenner. As I saw it, it was time to get transferred to New Orleans, where I’d be more useful doing search and rescue.

At 7:45 Tuesday night, I walked into the command post to speak to the Captain about my transfer. In general, it was a very serious place, but I could tell something terrible had just happened. There had been a four-hundred-foot breach in one of the levees that afternoon. Word had just come down that the breach could not be fixed. In a matter of hours, New Orleans would be under an additional ten to fifteen feet of water. The situation was already terrible, but it was about to get much, much worse.

The official estimate was that the town of Kenner was going to get ten more feet of water. The first floor of the police station would be swamped, the generators and radios would be knocked out, and the only transportation would be on the single flatboat. Not to mention the jail, which would be flooded also. The Captain assigned a sergeant to get cheap battery-powered walkie-talkies from Wal-Mart—the kind you use for hunting or skiing and have a range of a few hundred yards—because with the power out, the police radios were going to be useless. A lieutenant was ordered to come up with a simple system of hand communication that the officers could learn in a few minutes. Despite all their preparations, the Kenner police department was headed back to the Stone Age.

I followed the Captain downstairs and asked when he thought the water level would get back to normal.

“Months,” he said. “Maybe never. This is much worse than the worst-case scenario. No one knows how to think about it.”

Outside there was a steady convoy of emergency vehicles, hundreds of them, leaving the city along I-10. I watched them leave. The waters were coming and I had a very short time to make my decision. Stay for the duration—a month, at least—or leave that minute.

The argument in favor of leaving was that every day, thousands more rescuers were arriving with serious equipment and gear (mine was limited to what I’d been able to buy at the Target in Austin). The biggest difference I’d made was that I’d arrived during the hurricane, hours or days ahead of most rescuers—FEMA and all the official agencies had understandably waited at a safe distance. There was also the question of continuing my own life—keeping the fellowship I’d just been awarded, not being kicked out of school, etc. Still, at first, I knew I would stay. Then, a few minutes later, I knew I should leave. It was the hardest decision I’ve made in my life.

I grabbed my gear from the bunkroom and made my way downstairs. At the same time the previous night, the bunkroom had been full of exhausted officers trying to sleep. That night, it was empty. When I went to the briefing room, it was packed with every officer in the building. They were listening to the news about the coming flood—about the annihilation of their town. I said quick goodbyes and felt incredibly guilty. The meeting ended and dozens of officers rushed by me, all talking about how to save their family members who had been safe that day, but might be in danger now that the levees had broken.

Outside, I ran into the SWAT team officer who’d been one of my escorts. He was compassionate and tried to reassure me that people were extremely thankful I’d showed up at all. I shook his hand. I felt like the worst human being on earth.

When I got to my car, I realized it was facing the wrong way on the highway. I drove for several miles, toward New Orleans, toward the coming flood. I couldn’t find a place to turn around. Finally I saw an opening in the guardrail and wrenched my car into the grassy sinkhole between the two sides of the highway. The mud was a foot deep and the car bogged down and for a second I was sure I would be stuck there. Then the tires caught and I lurched back onto the highway. I slipped in with the convoy of ambulances and police cars leaving the city.

As everyone can see now, the situation in New Orleans is only getting worse. People inside have been out of food and water for days. The million or so people who used to live in and around New Orleans now have no homes, no jobs, and no paychecks.

I was in New York during September 11 and the weeks that followed and I say the following with complete certainty: this disaster is so much worse than September 11 that they are not even comparable. Maybe people are already saying this, or maybe it’s not a fashionable sentiment. Either way, it’s true.

Baltimore native Philipp Meyer is currently a student at the Michener Center in Austin, Texas.