Some Md. volunteers feeling sidelined during relief efforts

Rescue workers expected more challenging tasks to help Katrina victims

Katrina's Wake

September 07, 2005|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

GRETNA, La. - Scores of Baltimore firefighters, police and other workers, as well as doctors and nurses from across Maryland, started relief operations yesterday in two hurricane-swept suburban areas along the Mississippi River, both a few minutes' drive south of New Orleans. But several volunteers said they were frustrated that they weren't given more challenging tasks.

Specially trained and equipped urban search-and-rescue teams sent by the Baltimore Fire Department were asked by the city of Gretna to relieve local volunteer firefighters who were tired and understaffed after almost 11 days on the job.

After watching heart-wrenching images on television of storm victims suffering and dying, physicians, nurses and other health care workers from Maryland had expected to treat the seriously ill and wounded. Instead, they were asked by officials in Jefferson Parish to set up walk-in clinics in schools in neighborhoods that are still mostly vacant and wait for evacuees to return.

Many of the region's critical security, search-and-rescue and other disaster recovery tasks are being performed by the military by city, federal and state workers, or by contractors hired by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That has left lower-profile jobs for many of the volunteers flocking here from around the country.

Some of the Marylanders took the assignments, far from the flooded streets of east New Orleans, hard.

"I'm pretty much speaking for all of us when I say we want to get out to where things are happening rather than be stuck around here," said Carlos Simmons, 31, a Baltimore police officer.

Clay B. Stamp, deputy director of the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems, said Maryland's physicians, nurses and other medical specialists initially flew in to the aid one of the three New Orleans metropolitan-area hospitals that remained open.

Nine of the region's 12 hospitals are closed. But most of the area's population has been evacuated. And there are enough doctors and nurses left to serve the diminished patient load.

"As it worked out, the hospitals are actually doing quite well," Stamp said. So yesterday, the 108 Maryland medical volunteers were asked to help set up community health clinics. Some said they were unhappy about the assignment. Yet when Stamp asked during a meeting if anyone wanted to return to Maryland yesterday, no one raised his or her hand.

Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans, told New York's Daily News yesterday, "Today, I have all the resources I could possibly imagine. Now, we may be over-resourced.

Volunteers such as Dr. Suzanne Sysko, however, said she was less worried about her role than in being able to help in any capacity. The 34-year-old physician at the University of Maryland said she volunteered in the first place, because "I had no excuse not to be able to go. Hearing people say, `Help me,' in a place a two-hour plane ride away, and to see that devastation? You just had to go."

Dr. Albert Aboulafia, a 46-year-old orthopedic surgeon at the University of Maryland and Sinai Hospital, said he had tried to help New Yorkers in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, but was frustrated then to find his skills weren't needed. "That's when I signed up for a disaster team," he said.

"Even if it is just talking to people, even if I am just a voice for people to listen to," he said, he feels he can help. When the Maryland physicians landed at nearby Callender Field Naval Air Station on Monday, he said, the bus driver was so grateful he was on the verge of tears.

Dr. Glenn W. Geelhoed, a Maryland surgeon who works at George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, has volunteered for a number of humanitarian relief missions, to places such as Darfur, Pakistan and Eritrea. The greatest contribution that physicians often make in these situations is psychological, he said.

"The one thing that we transplant is hope," he said. "We're not here on a white horse to solve somebody else's problems. We're here to give them a boost, to let them go home and get a hot shower."

Louisianans say they are happy to see volunteers from Maryland and elsewhere.

"I think they need all the help they can get here," said Greg Chiasson, 27, who was helping a friend repair her storm-damaged cottage in Gretna.

Baltimore City workers raised the purple-and-gold Baltimore City Fire Department flag over Mel Ott Park in Gretna yesterday. Their 50-vehicle convoy spent 30 hours on the road before arriving Monday.

They quickly turned a wind-battered, waterlogged community recreation center into their dormitory and operations center. Besides police and firefighters, the city's hurricane recovery task force includes structural engineers, physicians, mechanics, truck drivers and equipment operators. They brought everything from dump trucks to backhoes and skid-loaders to help clear roads and debris.

At first, the city planned to send only four urban search-and-rescue teams.

"This started out as an urban search-and-rescue mission, but it expanded to humanitarian relief and support for the city of Gretna," said Battalion Chief Joseph Brocato, leader of the search-and-rescue specialists.

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