Lending a helping hand

Former Soldotna resident tells story of Katrina survival

Posted: Thursday, September 15, 2005

Hurricane Katrina's 175 mph winds were whipping at the sides of the 18-story Charity Hospital in downtown New Orleans.

People inside felt safe because Charity was a formidable building built in the mid-1930s, and it had withstood hurricane forces before. But this time, things would be different.

The intense winds swirled around the building forming a vortex and mini tornadoes outside the hospital. Windows were being blown out on every floor.

The rain was coming in, and flooding was being reported throughout the building.

In Chief Finance Officer Edward Burke's office, three windows blew out and he pushed file cabinets against the openings to keep out the rest of the storm's fury as best he could.

Little did Burke know when he left the same executive position at Central Peninsula General Hospital just ahead of last year's Alaska winter weather that he would wind up in charge of New Orleans' sole trauma hospital during one of the most severe weather events ever to hit this country.

Burke and his wife, Judy, who served at CPGH as director of critical care services before the couple moved away last November, were given the option to voluntarily evacuate ahead of Katrina's rage or ride out the storm.

By 7 a.m. on Aug. 28, the emergency activation team had been summoned to Charity Hospital and Burke joined other senior management and senior medical staff members who were divided between the two hospitals of the Louisiana State University system.

The chief executive officer, Dr. Dwayne Thomas, stationed himself at University Hospital, also in downtown New Orleans, and Burke was positioned at Charity, several blocks away.

By 10 a.m., Judy Burke decided to flee to safety in Baton Rouge, some 75 miles northwest of New Orleans.

Charity had a patient census that morning of 347, including 46 in intensive care, 19 who were on ventilators.

By 3 p.m., ambulances started bringing in hurricane victims to the facility's emergency room, and continued until about 11 p.m. until the winds became too strong for the ambulances to travel.

Between 50 and 75 emergency patients were brought in as well as 20 people from nursing homes, Burke said in a phone interview Wednesday.

Including staff and family members of staff, who had also sought shelter in the hospital, between 1,100 and 1,200 people were inside Charity by the night of the 28th.

As Katrina pounded the building and caused flooding on nearly every floor, electrical power went out, but backup generators kept halls and stairwells lighted.

That changed the next morning, when the storm surge flooded the basement, taking out the generators.

Some staff members waded across the street to the hospital's warehouse and brought back gas-powered generators, giving the hospital enough power to keep the ICU ventilators functioning.

No help came from outside.

By Aug. 31, Burke and the hospital's incident team learned that an ICU resident physician had placed a call to CNN news reporters with a plea for help for dying patients.

Eventually Charity lost four patients during the storm.

The call for help was answered by an offer to fly out four critical ICU patients by private helicopter.

Burke and the ICU medical director, Dr. Ben DeBoisblanc, salvaged a kayak from a resident's room and paddled their way to nearby Tulane Hospital, where they received consent to have the critical patients airlifted from that facility's garage roof.

The much older Charity Hospital did not have a rooftop helipad.

Burke also managed to contact an emergency command center at the New Orleans Superdome, and four National Guard trucks were dispatched to Charity to begin evacuation of everyone else from the hospital.

Burke said the scene ap-peared like something out of a war movie, with patients who were being manually ventilated being carried down 12 flights of stairs attended by a half dozen nurses and doctors.

The hallway and stairwells were dark and hot, he said.

Officials at Tulane, however, ordered a stop to Charity patients being airlifted from there as they had not yet completed evacuating their own staff.

"I had sent a boat to University Hospital to pick up some premature babies who were in critical condition, and Tulane turned the boat away at gunpoint," Burke said.

"It was disgraceful."

While the National Guard trucks waited with staff and patients at Charity's Emergency Room, the trucks came under sniper fire.

The guard commander abandoned the effort, Burke said.

Hospital police, armed with M16 automatic rifles, then set up guard positions, and an hour later civilians in four 18-foot aluminum boats arrived asking how they could help, according to Burke.

"I told them about the snipers and they said, 'So what. We've got guns, too,'" Burke said.

He learned a section of Interstate 10, Louisiana's main east-west corridor, was above flood waters and a medical team was sent there to establish a receiving station for evacuees.

The civilian boats began carrying patients there.

By Sept. 1, publicity on CNN, National Public Radio and ABC told of Charity's plight, Burke said, and Louis-iana and Texas Fish and Wildlife officers swarmed the hospital in swamp boats, carrying out remaining patients and staff members.

An employee of Arcadian Ambulance also showed up with an 18-wheel semi-tractor truck that carried 50 staffers and ambulatory patients at a time to dry land.

Water outside the hospital had reached four feet deep.

By 6 p.m. Sept. 2, Burke and three other staffers stepped onto boats for the ride out.

Burke had learned of the harrowing adventure wife Judy also endured as she fled the storm with the couple's two golden retrievers, Maggie Burke and Suzie.

State police had turned her back from her Baton Rouge goal, instructing her instead to head east to Florida.

By the time she made it back toward the coast, however, the skies had blackened from the storm and torrential rains made visibility near zero.

Judy Burke was resourceful enough to contact a daughter and son-in-law in Colorado who guided her via GPS satellite on the drive to Fort Walton Beach, Fla.

"I would tell them where I was and they would tell me to turn left in one mile, or turn right at the next junction," she said Wednesday.

"The normal five-hour drive took me 16 hours," she said.

For now the Burkes are camped at a Sheraton Hotel and hope to return soon to their home in New Orleans, fortunately built in a part of town that escaped the record flooding.

Ed Burke said LSU hospital officials plan to set up a temporary facility in Baton Rouge with 200 medical directors and administrators in hopes of reopening University Hospital.

"At the end of the day, there has to be an emergency medical facility in (New Orleans)," Burke said.

"We had 600 residents in various training programs at the LSU facilities ... radiology, nursing, physicians," he said.

The two LSU hospitals were the largest teaching facilities in the area.

As an epilogue to his story, Burke notes one more connection to the Kenai Peninsula.

"I was unable to get travel arrangements out of Baton Rouge," he said.

"I got in touch with Elaine Cowans at Easy Travel in Kenai.

"She made all my travel arrangements during the eight years I lived up there, and she was able to get me out of Baton Rouge by (Sept. 3)," Burke said.

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