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Bascom Palmer Eye Institute

Gulf Coast Reflection, Sept. 18, 2005

Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, Commander of Joint Task Force Katrina, expressing gratitude to Dr. Carmen Puliafito for Bascom Palmer’s efforts
Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, Commander of Joint Task Force Katrina, expressing gratitude to Dr. Carmen Puliafito for Bascom Palmer’s efforts in New Orleans.

We saw more than 100 patients again today. Most are emergency first responders. Many are also storm victims. We have seen scores of New Orleans police officers who have lost everything material in their lives: their homes, cars, possessions. Many lost their glasses in the haste of evacuation and the storm related chaos. Most are living on the Carnival cruise ship “Ectasy” anchored on the Riverwalk. Many are making plans for starting their lives and careers elsewhere. Emergency response is a nightmare when so many first responders are displaced victims themselves.

We saw a steady stream of National Guardsmen. They are exhausted after three weeks in the field. The ones from outside the state were frequently deployed in a matter of hours: getting a spare set of contacts was not an option. They speak of the horrors that they seen in search and rescue operations.

We saw a number of the crew from Iwo Jima, referred by their medical staff there. The Iwo Jima is serving as the critical care emergency room for New Orleans. They used landing craft to reach Biloxi and offer hurricane relief there.

Iwo Jima crewWhen we planned the vision van, we really hadn’t imagined using it is this situation. Because of the extraordinary extent of Katrina’s destruction, we are playing a very useful role in New Orleans. The New Orleans Police Department are begging us to stay a day or two longer before we go back to help evacuees in Baton Rouge and other small towns.

There is tremendous value to having a self-contained mobile medical capability in the setting of this emergency. Not only do we bring our own instrumentation (we are superbly equipped with a full examining lane, autorefractor, lensometer, fundus camera, laser photocoagulator, and a full range of ophthalmic trauma management supplies), but our own staff, our electricity and our own air conditioning. The van has functioned flawlessly. We have a 14 kilowatt diesel generator which is highly efficient. (It turns out that failure of hospital power generation systems was the key factor in the many deaths of patients in hospitals after the storm. The temperature rose to 106 degrees in some facilities. Maintenance of air conditioning in a critical care facility after a hurricane is of utmost importance). The van has also served as our staff housing. We designed the tables so that they can be folded up, leaving a large amount of available floor space. Six staff members can sleep in air conditioned comfort on air mattresses. We ate with other first responders in outside tent dining halls provided by FEMA and by charitable organizations. Showers were available in portable shower trucks——in this case provided by an organization that usually services forest firefighters. With the re-arrival of Dr. Couvillion, our van was not able to accommodate all of us, so Mike Kelley and I spent the nights sleeping in cots in a tent city set up by FEMA.

Today we had a chance to inspect the damage wrought to the New Orleans hospital system. Charity, University, Tulane, and Memorial are all out service. There is very little evidence of active cleanup — National Guardsmen and 82nd Airborne stand guard. It will be many months for before these hospitals will up and running. The health care infrastructure in New Orleans is severely injured and hundreds of millions of dollars will be necessary to get it up and running again.

Despite the mayor’s invitation for inhabitants to return, much of New Orleans remains a ghost town. Without running water and electricity, and with so much water damage, much of the city is simply uninhabitable.

I had an opportunity to meet with Lt. General Russel Honoré, Commander of Joint Task Force Katrina today, who expressed appreciated the efforts that Bascom Palmer has made in supporting his troops as well as the Community. Representative Kendrick Meek, who represents the community immediately adjacent to the Anne Bates Leach Eye came and toured the van.

Carmen A. Puliafito M.D.