We moved from New Mexico to Miramar in South Florida early in the
summer of 2004, and
within the next 15 months we were threatened by several hurricanes.
Four caused us relatively minor property losses. Hurricane Wilma was
Before it, Katrina loomed in from the Atlantic and veered southward at
the last moment, sparing us major damage. Of course, Katrina went on to
devastate New Orleans.
As Katrina approached the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coast, we
recalled our experience with
-- the horror we felt back in August of 1969, a family
of six crouching in our home, below sea level on the West Bank of New
Orleans, hearing the windows rattle and tree limbs shatter. A physician
and Commissioned Officer in the Public Health Service, I then held the
rank of Commander (O5). Luckily,
that morning I had finished a long shift as Officer of the Day at the
New Orleans Public Health Hospital, and was able to return home Sunday
morning, aware that we were facing the threat of a mighty storm.
A portable radio was our only contact with the outside world. We
stayed awake all night as reports of the storm’s position and the
status of the storm drainage pumps were relayed to us by
Mayor Victor Schiro. We felt relief that the storm was quite compact
and that the eye had passed some 35 miles to our east, but we were
alarmed when we heard that major flooding had occurred within a couple
of miles of our home, and that thousands had lost their homes and were
crowded into nearby hurricane shelters.
The next morning, responding to calls for medical volunteers, I called
my program director to request annual leave, and appeared at Belle
Chasse High School to offer assistance. There was an outpouring of
volunteers. High school students helped mind and care for the children,
and several doctors, nurses and pharmacists responded. I extended my
another day, as there was quite a demand for medical services. Again I
was in luck, when the Louisiana State Heath Officer, Dr. Andrew Hedmeg,
visited the shelter and saw me working. He asked why I had taken leave.
Since he supervised the public health portion of my Preventive Medicine
residency training, he immediately assigned me to hurricane relief.
This substituted for my scheduled rotation to a rural Parish Health
Unit. I submitted a lengthy and very detailed report on my experience,
which was the basis for my presentation at a national public health
conference, summarized here
Professional volunteers rapidly decreased in number as the days passed,
and public health personnel took over most of the duties. By virtue of
my being detailed to the health department, I was able to work in
Plaquemines Parish, which was in open rebellion against the Federal
government over civil rights issues. Chalin Perez, President of the
Parish Council, had asserted that he rejected all forms of Federal
assistance. Chalin was the son of notorious segregationist Judge Leander Perez
who presided over "the last political kingdom in America..."
"...Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, a
racial and ethnic gumbo in the swamps ruled for over 60 years by the
all-powerful Perez family. From the time Judge Leander Perez came to
power in 1919, he made headlines across Louisiana and throughout the
country. The Judge and his two sons clamped down on all political
opposition, restricted free elections, disenfranchised black citizens,
and made millions of dollars from oil. In the 50s and 60s Judge Perez
became a national spokesman for racial segregation, bankrolling George
Wallace and going so far as to outfit an old Civil War fort as a high
security prison for any civil rights demonstrators who dared to venture
into his county.
"When the Judge died in 1969, Perez power was secure. But by 1980 his
two sons began to feud with each other over their empire, and
long-simmering democratic forces came to a boil. This was the exciting
atmosphere that filmmakers Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker capture in
The Ends of The Earth, as the first free elections in Plaquemines were
held and the long-oppressed Blacks of the parish organized to get the
basic services which had been denied to them for so long."
From: Center for New American Media: The Ends of The Earth,
produced and Directed by Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker, an
My work sometimes brought me in contact with Chalin Perez, and I
rapport with his "subjects." He knew many residents, black and white,
name, and as he walked through the shelters he often inquired about the
safety of relatives whom he noticed were not present. While working in
one of the black shelters I heard several black
occupants repeat an "epic" story to the effect that Mr. Perez was a
as he had allowed a black person to enter the white shelter during the
of the storm! I could not verify whether he himself had indeed occupied
one of the shelters, but it was true that Camille was no respecter of
status, and the Sheriff and members of the Parish Council were among
those whose homes were destroyed.
My paper mentions some of the issues we encountered in the shelters. Of
interest is the fact that the people of Plaquemines Parish were quite
accustomed to evacuating in advance of hurricanes. Almost always it
turned out to be a false alarm, but Hurricane Betsy (the "first
") that hit New Orleans in 1965 was a very sobering
experience. People took the evacuation very seriously, but most
expected that they would be safely back home within a day or so.
Therefore, many did not take their medication supplies. Birth control
pills were left behind, causing a large number of women to begin
withdrawal menstrual bleeding at once. Pads were quickly in short
supply! After the move south, the stench of rotting fish eminated from
a flooded menhaden processing plant near Empire, bringing some shelter
near rebellion. The large number of pet dogs presented problems of
hygiene and logistics. The possible reason why blacks had fewer dogs
was that they were more likely to have been evacuated on school buses,
limiting the possessions they could bring with them to the shelters.
I was one of the few, perhaps the only, US Public Health Service
Commissioned Officer to have been extensively involved in Hurrican
Camille medical relief efforts. Much has changed since then.
to a January
18, 2006 press release
The USPHS is one of
the seven uniformed services and is dedicated to
protecting, promoting, and advancing health and safety. USPHS officers
work around the world to help in times of disaster and to provide
day-to-day health care for underserved populations in the United States.
Corps officers have been deeply involved in responding
to recent public health emergencies. More than 2,000 Commissioned Corps
officers were deployed to the Gulf region before, during, and after
hurricanes Katrina and Rita. They set up and staffed field hospitals
and emergency medical clinics, treated sick and injured evacuees,
ensured hospital structures, food supplies, and water supplies were
safe, conducted disease surveillance, and worked closely with local and
state health authorities to address other immediate and long-term
public health needs.
As bad as Camille was, we were all thankful that it was not the “big
one” that everyone talked about, the hurricane that would slosh water
up into Lake Pontchartrain and force water over the levees into the
East Bank of New Orleans. Of course, Hurricane Katrina was to do
similar. During my years in New Orleans, one of my projects was to
institute a medical clinic in the Lower Ninth Ward. This was
accomplished with much help from local citizens (notably Mrs. Allie Mae
Williams and Mrs. Morrice Johnson) and medical students from Tulane.
old neighborhood was devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
One of my memorable experiences was on Friday, April 5, 1968, the day
after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. I had to park quite a
distance from the shotgun frame house that served as our Lower Ninth
Ward free clinic. Parked cars had already taken up both sides of the
shell road for more than a block. People were out on their front
porches. Usually, we exchanged cheerful waves to the sounds of jazz
music as I trudged along with my white coat and little black bag. That
evening there was silence. There seemed to be agony oozing out of the
houses, and it was so hard just to look up.
When I entered the waiting room I saw that the power had failed, not an
uncommon occurrence. In the gathering darkness, I could hardly see all
the people who were silently awaiting my arrival. A couple of Tulane
medical students had arrived before me, and they were already busy
triaging the patients and getting them ready for the physician. We
candlelight and flashlight. Gloom pervaded the day and then, the night.
The next week pain had turned to tension, and as I walked to the clinic
I encountered a gang who had surrounded two fighting men. One had a
knife, and the other wielded a baseball bat. As they scurried about,
the crowd ran along with them and pressed around them. Did I ever feel
silly, standing there in my white coat like the ringside doctor waiting
for my victim! Luckily, both were simultaneously restrained without
signs of major injuries.
Read my report on medical care in the
shelters following Hurricane Camille.
July 4, 2006