The First Responders

'I Don't Think I've Ever Had A More Surreal Experience'

By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 12, 2005

NEW ORLEANS -- This wrecked city's nickname now mocks emergency workers as they comb its flooded streets. Nothing here is easy, not even for some of the nation's most experienced first responders.

Collectively, they have seen it all: car wrecks, chemical spills and the truly devastating -- California wildfires, hurricanes Andrew and Camille, and, of course, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when many pulled comrades from the rubble of the World Trade Center.

Yet Hurricane Katrina has presented even the most seasoned search and rescue workers with logistical, medical and safety challenges that far surpass those of any U.S. disaster the veterans here can recall. The sheer geographic extent of the calamity, covering 90,000 square miles of Gulf Coast, with floodwaters containing gasoline, chemicals and human and animal waste, and a complete meltdown of the region's communications networks are only the most obvious difficulties in a search and rescue effort now nearing two weeks.

"I don't think I've ever had a more surreal experience in my life," said Michael Enright, first deputy mayor of Baltimore, who led a contingent of 150 responders to the devastated St. Bernard Parish, east of New Orleans. "It's just post-apocalyptic."

The toxic stew surrounding New Orleans has made decontamination a top priority and a major hurdle in the rescue and recovery operation, Enright said. The water is so polluted that the team decided not to use its inflatable Zodiac boats for fear "it would corrode the rubber," he said. And after he learned that four search and rescue dogs had died, Enright kept his out of the field.

There has not been enough equipment -- boats, helicopters, satellite phones -- to locate, retrieve and evacuate hundreds of people holed up in attics, bars and other dry urban islands.

Members of Colorado's search and rescue team desperately hunted for hip waders, which were in short supply and critical for the murky waters.

A pair of National Guardsmen from bone-dry Arizona said they were flummoxed by three people with snakebites they feared might have come from deadly water moccasins.

If the rescuers manage to navigate those roadblocks, they must still find a way to persuade people to leave where they have been staying.

"I tell them, 'You're welcome in New Mexico,' " said Paul Holcombe, a Farmington, N.M., firefighter who has been plucking out survivors since Aug. 31. On Wednesday, under Mayor Paul Nagin's orders to add muscle to the evacuation, Holcombe's message became more ominous: "No more water, no more MREs," or meals ready to eat.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has deployed 7,500 people to the Gulf Coast to perform rescue missions, triage and treat patients, and help victims begin to rebuild their lives. With fewer than 2,500 permanent FEMA employees nationwide, most of the response corps is a phalanx of highly trained emergency workers such as Holcombe, who spend their careers surrounded by injury and suffering. The contingent, known as FEMA reservists, includes Baltimore paramedics, Colorado firefighters, emergency room doctors from Illinois and swift-water rescue teams from California.

For more than 10 days, officials in Baton Rouge and Washington have derided FEMA's seemingly slow and spotty response to Katrina. But on the ground here, in the blistering heat, with no water, power or hospital for perhaps 35 miles, rescue workers describe an overwhelming variety of unusual, even unique, conditions.

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