Just got back. It's terrible. Worse than it looks on the news. We flew to Birmingham to tanker up on fuel so that we wouldn't have to get fuel in New Orleans (MSY) besides which I couldn't get a hold of anyone on the ground there to see if fuel was even available.
On approach into MSY the sky was extremely hazy with smoke drifting into the air from the city. Apparently overnight the approach control got power because they did have radar coverage. The airport is still daytime VFR only though..no approaches and no runway lights so it is day-light only operations. There is also a Customs and Border Patrol P-3 Orion providing air traffic advisories in the area "Omaha-44".
I didn't think we'd get the visual approach but at about 5 miles just as they were going to start a GCA approach for us (something I've done about 1 time in the past 7 years) we spotted the airfield through the murk. At about 1000' above the ground the smell started to seep in through the bleed system...I can't describe it other than to say it smelled like decay.
Everywhere you looked there were helicopters scooting around the skies: Blackhawks, Coast Guard Dauphines, Hueys, news helicopters, EMS, etc... The approach controller and tower controllers sounded tired. As a matter of fact when we were leaving they cleared us into position and hold for a minute or two to wait for crossing helicopters and I think they forget they had a heavy FedEx plane on final because he queried if he was cleared to land and the controller quickly gave us our takeoff clearance with an "immediate" phrase...
We taxied to the General Aviation ramp which is a combination Signature/Atlantic but the only thing there were a couple helicopters that were hot refueling and a pretty busy Signature guy that was doing all the fueling. He said all he had was what was in the trucks so I was glad we didn't have to use his fuel so he could save it for the helos.
The airport was in surprisingly good condition and pretty much dry. All of the serious flooding occured on the east side of the Mississippi and we were on the west side. Buildings were obviously wrecked, airplanes twisted, other signs that the storm was there...but the basic infrastructure (runways, taxiways) were solid.
Opening the door the first thing that hit me was the heat..oppressive heat and humidity, haze and obscured visibility. There was nobody there to meet us and we had no communications with our dispatch. No land lines or cell phones worked. In Birmingham our dispatch had indicated to us that they had lost all contact with the hospital we were supposed to be transporting for so we may or may not have a patient. I had the additional problem of being on the margin of my duty time. I was paged to fly at 11:30PM last night but since we couldn't get in until the sun came up we didn't depart for New Orleans until about 7AM. I only have 14 hours of duty time..we arrived in New Orleans at 10AM so I had to be airborne by noon to make it back in my 14 hour duty day.
A few minutes after we got out a helicopter landed next to us and this guy hopped out and asked if we could take his patients. He was desperate to offload them and with our flight nurses and us (plus our other airplane which had arrived a few minutes after us) he figured we were a good mark. Our nurses explained to him that we were there for two specific critical vented patients and he said: "Great..I can be airborne and get you all the vented patients you want in a few minutes.." He didn't get that we were there for specific people...lottery winners if you will...and we all felt horrible that we couldn't take these other people.
The three people he was carrying were very elderly, immobile old women. We carried them under an awning at Atlantic's ramp and gave them most of our water, Gatorade and some snacks...they hadn't had a drink of water in 2 days. They were on the margin...and everyone was just going to leave them there...out on this concrete ramp with nobody around..because everyone had something else to do..other victims to get. It was heartbreaking. Finally we convinced the Signature guy to call the other side of the airfield where there was a field hospital set up I think..and they came over and took them away. They were sweet old ladies..in obvious shock. I felt so guilty..so ashamed that I could not help them. Had my duty time been very close I had told the flight nurses we were going to put them on our airplane and fly them to Birmingham even if I ended up getting reprimanded (or fired). It was that bad.
Then, to my great surprise, two pick-up trucks came through the gate of the airport with our actual patients in the beds. Each was attended by 4 nurses because they were intubated and they had to manually "bag" them all the way from the hospital in New Orleans (40 minutes or so drive). Just patients laying in the back of pick-up trucks with all manner of tubes and equipment.
We transfered them to our equipment and I'll never forget the look of despair and exhaustion in those nurses eyes. They were dealing with gun wielding looters, druggies, sick people, their own personal crisis, and a million other things. One of the nurses looked at us (the pilots and flight nurses) and started crying. She was weeping and saying she didn't think anyone was going to come. We gave them the last of our water and Gatorade bottles and told them we would definitely be back. They were extremely grateful..in tears again.
I've been doing this for 7 years..I've seen all manner of accidents, traumas, limbs torn loose, gunshot wounds to the head, amputations, burns, cancer, AIDS, Hepatitis..you name it, I've seen it. I've never seen anything like this. Helicopters shuttling back and forth constantly, just dropping people off to a completely overwhelmed field hospital. Very sick people that would be lucky to live through the heat of the day. And the despair of the people working the disaster...they are on the edge...walking zombies almost. I can't describe my feelings...I felt helpless.
And I felt angry too. The airport is in very good condition. There was only one C-141 on the ramp. I saw no heavy lift helicopters like CH-47s or 53s...a few Blackhawks..but mostly civil EMS and news helicopters. I know this is going to press slightly into WCE but it is my firm belief, sitting there looking at the airport and the operations that are going on there, that the federal government effort on this catastrophy is not a very committed one. And I hazard to say that if this had happened in Naples, Florida or Hilton Head, SC that the full force and effect of the federal government would swing into action. Where this happened, and who it happened to are defining the response...and it is sorely lacking. This needs to be a full on military operation. It is sad and it is terrible. The conditions are truly terrible...and I only witnessed a slice of it.
As soon as we landed we swapped crews and sent out our two airplanes again, this time loaded with cases of Gatorade and water as well. I'm going on my 10 hours of duty rest and I'm sure we'll swap out again at midnight..although we might have to way until dawn for our crack at it again.
Anyway..that is what I saw. After watching the looting and crazy activity on the news (shooting at helicopters trying to move people from the roof of the hospital!!??) the past few days I can now discount those people as truly low-life scum..wheras the majority of the people in that city are just plain suffering. Proof that nature's wrath knows no difference between super-power and the 3rd world...
Wow. Keep in mind it's just his view of things, and he may not have felt the effort was there to help, when indeed it was. Either way, just another picture being painted by those around the chaos.