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Volume 9, No. 1SPRING 2006

Midnight run to New Orleans; The airport evacuation

Evacuees, including many who required medical attention, share floor space at the New Orleans Airport following Hurricane Katrina. More than 300 of the sick were taken to Baton Rouge, La. by an IOCC team. Photo by Michael Rieger-FEMA

Baltimore, Md (IOCC) — “Probably the most gratifying thing about bringing out the 300 critically-ill patients from the New Orleans airport that unforgettable evening,” recalled IOCC Board Member Lee Kapetanakis, “was pulling back into Baton Rouge just at sunrise and seeing a convoy of more than 100 buses headed the other way to evacuate those we couldn’t. Word had spread that our midnight-run had made it and now the floodgates of evacuation had opened.”

The remarkable story that culminated with the evacuation of 300 patients and 30 Vietnamese evacuees in the early morning of Sept. 11, 2005 actually started ten hours earlier.

A mother and her three children receive medical care at the New Orleans airport where FEMA's D-MATs have set up operations. Photo by Michael Rieger-FEMA

Although the situation in New Orleans had somewhat stabilized with the military taking control, at the city’s airport people with special medical needs had not been evacuated, and the situation was desperate with people dying every day. Frank Carlin, drawing on more than 35 years of disaster response experience, led the IOCC response team and recalled the evening’s events.

“From 9 to midnight we pressed the case at the FEMA command center in Baton Rouge trying — with great difficulty — to get ten school buses to evacuate 300 Vietnamese who had been taken to the New Orleans airport. We were told that no buses had been allowed through for several days, but since we had a Roman Catholic Church willing to house them in Baton Rouge, we were given permission. Our team consisted of Fr. Peter Preble from the Romanian Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Lee Kapetanakis, Pat Johns from Catholic Relief Services, the priest from the Vietnamese Roman Catholic parish (with a few parishioners to translate), Jim Kelley, Executive Director of Catholic Charities New Orleans, and me.

“When the team arrived at the LSU football stadium to pick-up the buses a little after midnight, there was a SWAT team and two sheriff’s cars assigned to escort them. Also present was the head doctor of the LSU Medical Center and a number of medical students. He indicated that there were more than 2,500 people with serious medical conditions at the airport and that he wanted to evacuate as many as possible on our buses. It was agreed that the most critical patients would be taken out with any additional space being used for the Vietnamese evacuees. Finally the ten-bus convoy departed for New Orleans, escorted by the Sheriff’s vehicles, with SWAT members, LSU medical students, and the IOCC/Catholic team members dispersed among the yellow school buses.”

Evacuees from New Orleans at the local airport. Those needing medical attention are treated by members of FEMA's DMAT teams. New Orleans is being evacuated because of flooding caused by hurricane Katrina. Photo by Liz Roll-FEMA

The 75 minute drive from Baton Rouge to the New Orleans airport would take much longer that evening.

“As we got closer we could smell a suffocating stench generated by the floating debris,” Kapetanakis vividly remembered.

“There were no lights visible from a pitch black New Orleans and for a moment I felt as if I were in a bad dream or in a war zone in a foreign land. That feeling was re-enforced as the SWAT team locked and loaded their weapons, guarding against snipers as we got on the long bridge going into the city.”

After stand-offs at each of the six check points between the National Guard and the SWAT team, the convoy was finally allowed through. Upon arrival at the airport only 30 of the stranded Vietnamese evacuees could be located. The LSU medical team was thankful because it would mean more space for the critically ill. One final glitch was the refusal of the FEMA personnel at the airport to allow transportation of critically ill patients claiming that the school buses were not properly equipped for such transport. But, through persuasion by the Sheriff and the SWAT team, as well as prayer and a demonstration by the lead bus driver of how the stretchers could be loaded and situated securely on the buses, the okay was given and the patients and evacuees were loaded.

The midnight run by IOCC, a pan-Orthodox effort in collaboration with our ecumenical partners, started a ripple effect that led to other convoys coming into New Orleans to successfully evacuate the airport. It is a story of perseverance, faith, and God’s grace seared into the hearts of those whose suffering was alleviated by IOCC’s response to Christ’s call to care for our brethren.

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