Ecumenical Team Evacuates Hundreds from New Orleans Airport

Baton Rouge, LA. (September 6, 2005) — An ecumenical response team made up of personnel from International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC), Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services (CRS) negotiated their way from Baton Rouge, La. to the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport during the early hours of Sunday morning to evacuate 340 people in need of urgent medical care.

Along the way, the group described the heroic efforts of countless people — from the bus drivers who made the journey to medical personnel at the airport — and the frayed nerves of people doing their best to cope and survive.

The airport’s baggage claim area, serving as a triage facility where hundreds of people were receiving attention from medical personnel, was crowded with stretchers on carousels, the wheelchair bound, and people with broken limbs and other ailments.

Medical staff at the airport expressed relief at the sight of buses which took those in need of medical attention to the Louisiana State University Field Hospital in Baton Rouge, La. Physicians at the airport recounted the 36 hour period prior to their arrival when attempts made by other buses to access the facility had been turned away.

Traveling in a convoy of ten school buses provided through the Disaster Recovery Center and accompanied by students from local universities, the team made its way to the airport through complete darkness and uncertainty during a journey that was at times made tense by the lack of clear communication on the ground — especially at the checkpoints.

“As we approached New Orleans there was a stench in the air,” described Leonidas “Lee” Kapetanakis, an IOCC Emergency Response team member from Houston, Texas. “It was an eerie scene as we negotiated our way through four checkpoints, escorted by military personnel and police officers.”

The operation began as an effort to evacuate a group of 300 Vietnamese who reportedly were stranded at the airport. Based on the information they had, the team met with officials at the Disaster Recovery Center in Baton Rouge to organize their transportation.

When the group arrived at the airport, they found that only 15 Vietnamese remained, but that there was an immense need to relocate more than 2,500 people with medical needs.

As the team returned to Baton Rouge with 340 of the sick and injured, the uncertainty of the journey and concern for the fate of those left behind turned to hope when they passed as many as one hundred buses headed toward the airport. By the next day the impasse had been broken and nearly all of the medical patients had been transported from the make-shift facilities at the baggage terminal to the field hospital.

The group’s efforts were spearheaded by Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans chief executive officer Jim Kelly, who himself was displaced from his home by Hurricane Katrina’s onslaught. Kelly was supported by former CRS executive and IOCC consultant Frank Carlin, Rev. Fr. Peter-Michael Preble of the Romanian Orthodox Archdiocese of America, head of disaster response for CRS Pat Johns, IOCC disaster response team member Leonidas Kapetanakis and Rev. Fr. Pham a Roman Catholic priest and medical doctor.

In addition to the evacuation, the interfaith effort is warehousing and distributing relief arriving to Baton Rouge. Hygiene items, oral electrolyte solutions for children and adults, diapers, water, food, blankets and hygiene kits have been provided by the collective efforts of the group.

“This is an incredibly inspirational ecumenical effort here in Baton Rouge,” said Frank Carlin, a former CRS executive with 37 years of domestic disaster and international relief and development experience who is working with the IOCC Emergency Response Team and Catholic Charities. “In addition to the convoy, we are providing ongoing aid to those who have been displaced from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast and filling gaps in services.”

Contributions to IOCC’s Hurricane Disaster Response Fund may be sent to IOCC, “Hurricane Relief,” P.O. Box 630225, Baltimore, MD 21263-0225. Donations may also be made online at or by calling toll-free 1-877-803-IOCC (4622).

Founded in 1992, IOCC is the official humanitarian aid agency of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA). Catholic Charities in the United States started in New Orleans and has been helping clothe, feed, educate and care for the needy for decades. CRS, founded in 1943 by the Catholic Bishops of the United States, is the official international relief and development agency of the US Catholic community.