Writer’s mom tells about life near eye of the storm

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 14, 2005

As told to David Phelps by his mother, Betsy Peabody Miles

On Saturday Patti (Menesses), my nurse manager, called me and said to be ready to come in for noon on Sunday. I battened down the house and went to Memorial with a bag of clothes and food &045; essentials like peanut butter, chocolate, wine and lots of crackers and Powerbars, things like that. I brought enough for a week.

The weekend crew was still working on Sunday, so we were extra. At 7 p.m. we ate dinner, watched the weather on TV and went to bed about 9 or 9:30. Some private rooms had become semi-private, and the nurses slept five to a room. All told, we were about 30 staff on my floor. I don’t know how they roped the doctors in, but there was one assigned to each unit.

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We were sleeping and we could hear the wind howling. I’d get up every hour and look out the window and see the trees bent parallel to the ground and lots of wind and rain. Around 5 a.m. we heard a loud boom. I thought maybe it was a tornado because they always talk about the freight train noise. Turns out it was some windows in the gym blowing out.

The electricity went out at the same time. The generators came on, so each patient’s room had bathroom lights and two red plugs, which were plugged into the generator. There were some lights in the hall and at the nurses’ station, but that was it.

There was water coming in from the windows and we were trying to sop it up. There were lots of visitors (relatives of patients) in the waiting area, so we moved them into an interior space away from the windows.

About seven o’clock, the windows were rattling and water was coming in through the roof down the walls into the patients’ rooms, so we moved all of their beds into the hall. They were out there until the worst of it had passed. We went out on Napoleon Avenue that afternoon to look around. We dragged some branches out of the street to make it safe for ambulances and police cars.

The levees hadn’t broken yet, so those family members who could, left. They were able to take River Road to the Huey. P. Long Bridge and get out.

It must have been Monday night that the water started coming up. Then the next morning we saw it coming from Claiborne Avenue. People started panicking because they heard that the levee had broken. It was already up to the tops of the cars, and they said it was going to come up 12 more feet because they’d turned the pumps off.

We woke up on Tuesday morning and it was a little deeper, but not much. Still, we were an island at this point. We were out of touch because all the 504 (area code) numbers were out. I think someone said they had dropped satellite phones in. I don’t know why &045; those didn’t work. Finally, Dr. (Bill) Armington (a radiologist) was walking along and saw a nurse talking on a phone and said, &uot;Who are you talking Š where did you get Š how are you Š give me that phone!&uot;

She was from Mississippi and didn’t have a 504 number, so her phone worked. And he called corporate and told them what we needed and what was going on.

We began evacuating on Tuesday, first by boat and then by both boat and helicopter. We probably had about 250 patients in the hospital, maybe 200 staff, around 400 people in all. We evacuated the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) patients first and their mothers, then new babies and their mothers, ICU patients and then the ventilator patients. Then the critical patients went next. The National Guard sent helicopters in to get them.

The problem with the helicopters was that we never knew when they were coming. They would promise a helicopter and then it would never come because they had to be pulled somewhere else. There didn’t seem to be anyone really in charge. Tenet Corporation had hired three or four helicopters, but they weren’t big enough. And because they weren’t military, they didn’t have priority and had to wait for the military to get out of the way.

Everybody kept saying, &uot;Don’t worry, FEMA’s in charge. FEMA’s going to evacuate everybody.&uot; But nobody really seemed to be in charge. No one knew what was going on Š They’d take off and they didn’t know when they’d be back.

When a helicopter came, we had to be ready with patients; we had to shove them in. We put patients in a bed, in the hall, in a line waiting to go. They were loaded up Tuesday morning and (some) spent three days waiting for evacuation.

That was the hard part for them. They kept saying, ‘where am I going, when am I going,’ and we had no answer for them. A lot of them thought they were going to be abandoned because they were too sick. I saw a couple of them crying. We assured them that they were not going to be left behind.

The biggest thing that impressed me was how patient, understanding and forbearing the patients were. They knew we were all in danger and that we were doing the best we could. I was real impressed with their attitude. They were like, &uot;Whatever it takes to be safe, that’s what it takes.&uot;

You had to go downstairs to get to either the boats or the helicopters. The helipad was on the ninth floor, but you had to go through a hole in the garage in the second floor before you could go up.

Everybody helped getting patients downstairs. These men, who I’m sure are totally exhausted now, worked 20 out of 24 hours. They were family members and they were hospital workers, anyone who could do it. They would lift the patient out of bed onto a mattress or a blanket or a lifting board and take him downstairs on their shoulders. They’d only stop at night because the lighting made it dangerous.

This went on all day Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. By Thursday night, the last patient was helicoptered out.

The generator and the water went out at the same time on Thursday morning. None of the toilets would flush, so you can imagine the smell. We had plenty of food and water; the helicopters would bring some with them every trip.

It must have been 96 degrees in there. After a few days, we were so desperate for ventilation Patti’s husband took a hammer and tried to break a window in a patient’s room, but it wouldn’t break. Finally he had to use an oxygen tank Š like a baseball bat. It broke on the third whack. He’s a big guy and he was hitting it hard, so that wind must have been really blowing.

So, if you see pictures of Memorial with the windows broken out, it was done by us, not by looters. I’m sure it’s on our tab.

The last patient was brought out about 7 o’clock on Thursday night and we thought we were going to be evacuated, too, but Dr. Armington, who seemed to be the man in charge of helicopters, said we’d have to wait until morning. There was our group of 10 to 12 and a lot of admin nurses there with family, and the administration was still there. We were in the jetway on top of the garage. Rene Goux, the CEO of the hospital, and the director of operations were there and they had guns and they protected us up there that night. We could see the flashlights of looters below in the hospital.

I think they knew where we were. I don’t know if they were looters or if they were just looking for food or comfort and safety. I would prefer to think that. We didn’t hear any glass break or see them running away with anything. I prefer to think they were just looking for food. We saw no violence all week at the hospital.

At first light, we woke up and saw smoke in the air. We heard that a chemical factory had been set on fire. It looked like Beirut. There were no lights. There was this fog of smoke all over the city and there were helicopters everywhere. Every time you looked up, there were five or six helicopters going back and forth.

When our helicopters came, we flew west. It was hard to figure out where you were because there were no landmarks. And to think that uptown was dry was inconceivable. We landed first at the Lakefront Airport and then got another helicopter to Louis Armstrong Airport.

All the people from the convention center and the Superdome were there. There was a lot of murmuring, a lot of looking at us. There was a line coalescing, so we got in it, not knowing what it was about. We figured we’d find out about that later.

Debbie had been evacuated before us and had met up with her husband, who had evacuated the hospital on Tuesday and come back with a truck. They got two more cars from Debbie’s house and came to the airport. Debbie’s sister was a Jefferson Parish deputy and was able to get them in &045; it was closed to traffic. Debbie came in and found us and said &uot;I’ve got a truck. We’re getting out of here.&uot; We cried when we got in that truck.

They dropped people off along the way; I got dropped off in Lafayette. (My husband) Poe picked me up around 8 p.m. We spent the night in Natchez and then drove up to Memphis.

I have to say, as far as I’m concerned, it was exhilarating for me because I got to do basic nursing: giving people water, putting people on bedpans, making them eat, starting IVs. It was really Civil War battlefield kind of stuff. You didn’t have to go back and make nurse’s notes. You just focused on one thing, one problem. You solved that and moved on to the next one. If we stopped ministering to them, they would die. That was a really good feeling to make a difference.

Everybody fell into what they felt most comfortable doing. Everybody did what they could &045; nobody was sitting around sucking their thumb. We were all scared, but we knew we had to rescue those people because they had no way of rescuing themselves. It was a good feeling to help people like that and to see that they were grateful.

There’s a Tenet facility in Memphis. I think I’m going to go over and apply on Tuesday and see if they need help. I’m sure they are going to start getting victims and are going to be overwhelmed. Maybe that’s something I can Š maybe I can see my same patients. That’d be neat.