Introduction: Remembering Hurricane Camille

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 the worst. 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 Hurricane Camille-- 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 leave period 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 award-winning documentary

My work sometimes brought me in contact with Chalin Perez, and I observed his rapport with his "subjects." He knew many residents, black and white, by 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 fine man, as he had allowed a black person to enter the white shelter during the height 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 billion dollar hurricane") 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 occupants to 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.  According 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.

Commissioned 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 something very 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. Sadly, this 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 examined by 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.

Ken Schneider
July 4, 2006

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