On September 3rd and 4th, FasterCures worked with a small dedicated group of people to airlift approximately 270 medical patients and evacuees from the New Orleans airport to hospitals and shelters in Knoxville and Chattanooga, Tennessee. This is the story of how it happened.
On Thursday, September 1st, my friend Jill Chozen of San Francisco called to ask if I could put someone in touch with Al Gore. Dr. David Kline, the father in law of Jill’s friend Denise Kline, was stranded in Charity hospital in New Orleans. The situation was dire and becoming worse by the minute – food and water running out, no power, four feet of water surrounding the hospital and alligators eating corpses outside. David is a neurosurgeon and needed to take his patients out of the hospital as soon as possible. David asked Denise to find Al Gore for help because David knew Gore from operating on Gore’s son after a life threatening auto accident nearly 16 years ago.
I emailed Gore with Denise Kline’s number after speaking to Jill and got an answer immediately. Gore had phoned David in the hospital several times and ascertained that he was now on the way to an Apache Helicopter landing site with his patients. Things were looking up.
The next day, Friday September 2nd, I heard an NPR story that things were getting worse at Charity hospital – they were actually taking in more patients because the other nearby hospital -Tulane-was closed. When I arrived at work, I knew what we had to do -we had to evacuate medical patients from Charity to safety.
My first idea was to find helicopters, trucks, planes and a hospital. I called a friend at FedEx but their planes are not good for carrying people. I called my friend Steve Davison who charters planes for a living – he felt he could help. I called Skila Harris, former Chief of Staff to Tipper Gore and a director of TVA. TVA had trucks going to New Orleans with water that might be good for evacuating the patients on their return trips. I emailed Gore for ideas, he suggested St. Jude’s in Memphis as a hospital to receive the patients.
Meanwhile, Catherine Berger at FasterCures had contacted Charity Hospital and was told that most of the patients had now been evacuated to the airport field hospital but were still in dire straits. Skila reported that the Coast Guard had helicopters that could help but need coordinates for landing. She also reported that the University of Tennessee hospital system might be willing to take the patients under the supervision of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.
Steve called back. He had found one, possibly two planes. It would cost $50,000 per flight. FasterCures would have to be prepared to sign contracts that day. I called my home office and got permission to do that. I emailed Gore and asked for his help in raising the money. He committed to paying for the planes and urged us to move forward. He also offered to bring two doctors, his cousin Col. Dar LaFon, USAF Ret’d, who served in Somalia and ran the military hospital in Baghdad after the invasion. He was board certified in Altitude Physiology and Internal Medicine. He also brought a Doctor from Vanderbilt, Dr. Anderson Spickard.
At this point Catherine Berger pulled up a story from the DOD saying they had two medical teams evacuating people from the hospitals and the airport and that the ship COMFORT was sailing to New Orleans from Baltimore. That did not sound like it was going to help that many people for at least another day or two. We carried on. (As it happens, the COMFORT never reached New Orleans).
Skila confirmed that TEMA would find hospitals for the patients. And then things got complicated. TEMA required a FEMA “Mission Assignment” that would follow the patients and allow the funding for those patients to follow them into whatever hospital they ended up in. Skila contacted FEMA and people with the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS) who told her we could not get a mission assignment because it is a “closed loop “ system only for the military and private help was not allowed or wanted. (The NDMS system is the same system DOD uses for distributing soldiers wounded in Iraq to U.S. hospitals.)
We were at an impasse.
I called Gore and explained the situation. He called Gov. Bredesen of Tennessee who put us in touch with the Tennessee FEMA people. After a brief interval, Jim Bassham and Eddie Boatwright of the Tennessee FEMA office reported back that all was clear and the TEMA people could carry out the relocation in Tennessee.
Meanwhile, back at my day job at FasterCures, Larry Flax, founder of California Pizza Kitchens, called me to discuss his involvement with us. After I explained what we were doing that day, he pledged to pay for one plane with money CPK had raised for New Orleans. Also, Martin Craig called from Chicago to report on his recent successful prostate cancer surgery. He agreed to locate hospitals in Chicago who would take patients.
We were now desperate to find a contact on the ground at the New Orleans airport to help triage ambulatory medical patients into these planes. FEMA in Washington was non responsive. We spoke to the aide to one of the deputies at FEMA and was told they did not need or want our help since the hospital evacuation was going fine. We looked at the reports from CNN about the conditions at the field hospital at the airport and discounted that opinion immediately.
Around 5 pm, we called Howard Zucker, Deputy Assistant Secretary of HHS. He put us in touch with the Public Health Emergency Preparedness office. Lieutenant Commander (LCMDR) Dunaway reported she was discussing our offer of help with her superiors within the hour and would get back to us. We did not hear again until nearly midnight, when she called to say she was going off shift and gave us a number to call at the HHS command center in Washington.
Around 8 pm this was the situation: We had planes for two flights at least. We had hospitals in Tennessee and Chicago for 290 and 200 patients respectively. We had two doctors for the plane. We needed landing slots at the airport and patients for the planes. We needed a contact on the ground.
Gore called Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta and obtained two landing slots for Saturday. All we needed now was a medical contact at the airport. I contacted Casey Decker at the HHS Command Center, a highly advanced, high tech center for tracking and dealing with public health crises of all kinds. I asked Decker for help contacting TRANSCOM, which was running operations at the airport, as well as a medical coordinator on the ground. Decker explained they had not been able to maintain communications with TRANSCOM on the ground or the medical staff. That was troubling.
It was now after midnight early Saturday September 4th. I was home with my laptop and phone and blackberry spread out around me on my bed. My wife, wisely, chose to sleep in the guest bedroom to avoid the phone calls. And then it began.
Starting right after midnight I began receiving calls from FEMA, HHS, TRANSCOM and other groups whose acronyms I still cannot explain. LCDR Kennedy from FEMA called to understand what I was trying to do. I told him. Fifteen minutes later Mimi Riley, Deputy Director from NDMS called to beg me in a plaintive and exhausted voice not to carry out this mission. She had many reasons – you need doctors on the plane, Chicago is too far from their home, how will we track the patients, this is a military operation and we were not military.
I explained to her that we had two doctors on the plane one of whom was a retired Air Force Doctor who had run the military hospital in Baghdad after the invasion. I thought we could trust him to run an airplane of people from New Orleans to Knoxville. We were working with NDMS hospitals in Tennessee and Chicago so they would have a good tracking system. (I guess Mimi never heard of the Great Migration of African Americans from New Orleans and the south to Chicago after the flood of 1927 and during the Depression. Many people from New Orleans are more at home in Chicago than Houston. )
Mimi was unmovable. We were not military and that was that. She tried to sound grateful for our intentions but she was not going to have outsiders help. I even offered to GIVE her the planes and the crews and the hospitals and let her run it through her NDMS system but she would have none of it. She asked me at least to delay until noon the next day and I said I would try.
I called Steve and told him to delay the planes. I called Al. It was 2 a.m. in Nashville. He was planning to leave for Dallas at 4 a.m. to meet the plane. I told Tipper what was going on. She said, “Greg, you can’t delay it now. It’s too late, the doctors are flying in here to fly with Al to Dallas.” Al got on the phone and said we could not delay. I tried to scare him. What if something went wrong with a patient on the plane? What if the military did not cooperate on the ground and no patients got on the plane? He refused to budge. Col. LaFon could handle the patients and Al would trust that when they landed they would break through the resistance and succeed.
I called Mimi back and said we could not delay but we would agree not to fly to Chicago. I called Steve back to re-start the planes.
Over the next three hours (from 2a.m. to 5 a.m.) I was called by an array of Majors and Lieutenant Commanders telling me to stop. (“I don’t mean to be rude, sir, but you must not do this. You must stop this now.”) Major Webb from GPMRC (don’t ask), Grant Meade from ESF. Major Lindquist from TRANSCOM (at last!) all telling me they would not cooperate and they did not know how we had gotten permission to land. I never mentioned Gore’s name because no one ever asked me who was paying for the flights or how we had come so far.
Finally at 5 a.m. Major Lindquist said if we landed he would not put any patients on the plane and we should expect no cooperation and there was no place to store the plane so we would have to leave.
Through the night there was one voice supporting me. Julie Soutuyo from FEMA had called around midnight when she came on shift and asked what we were doing because she had seen some report from our earlier calls. I explained the whole thing to her. She tried to put us in touch with TRANSCOM in New Orleans and she checked on me all through the night to see how we were doing. When I told her of the calls from the military to stop us, she mentioned that she had confronted the NDMS people on our behalf and made the case that they should accept our help under these circumstances but had been rebuffed. (The next day she called me from home to see if we had succeeded.)
(Casey Decker at the HHS Command Center also tried to help but he was unable to reach most of the people we needed to speak to despite his best efforts.)
At 7 a.m. on Saturday September 3rd, the American Airlines plane with Gore and the doctors and Gore’s son Albert left Dallas for New Orleans. They landed at 8:30, got off the plane and Col LaFon immediately established contact with the Colonels running the operation on the ground, most of whom he had served with. He had trained many of the doctors on the scene. He explained why they were there and the doctors began a triage process to fill the plane. Two hours later the plane was loaded and headed to Knoxville.
After speaking with Gore, I called ahead to Donna Tidwell of TEMA who was running the operations there and told her what to expect – about 20 patients needing dialysis, many more needing insulin, a burn victim and many people needing to be back on their medications – and one boy with his dog. Forty of the people on the plane were evacuees mistakenly put on the plane by TSA but who might need medical attention nonetheless. Knoxville was prepared to provide shelters for them.
The plane’s arrival in Knoxville was described by the local paper as the “Mercy Plane” and the mayor and many of the citizens turned out to help.
By now, it was too late to return to New Orleans, load up and leave before dark and American Airlines refused to have its personnel stay in New Orleans after dark. Gore and the team headed to Dallas for the night. Around midnight Saturday night, the FAA called American airlines and pulled their landing slots for Sunday saying only FEMA planes could fly in. Gore called Mineta again who promised to honor our initial agreement for two landing slots.
On Sunday morning Gore and the team landed in New Orleans to a much improved scene. Many more patients had been airlifted out after our flight and there were only ten ambulatory patients for our plane so we took 120 evacuees with us to Chattanooga. The welcoming reception in Chattanooga was so large that Gore said it looked like there was an ambulance for everybody on the plane.
We decided not to return to New Orleans because the medical patients we could take had been helped. (We could not take bedridden patients on stretchers on this plane.) Gore said that on the second trip to New Orleans, the doctors at the airport told him that the evacuation of the first 90 ambulatory patients had been the tipping point in their ability to adequately care for the other bedridden patients. They also noted that the military evacuations did not really pick up steam until after we “motivated” them with our private effort.
Throughout the entire operation in Tennessee, EMS operations in Chicago had stayed prepared to handle patients or evacuees. None ever arrived because the military did not want us to use Chicago. The volunteers in Chicago were amazing in their desire to help. Mayor Daly had been rebuffed earlier when he offered a complete mobile hospital unit for the airport and a tent city as well. Sen. Barack Obama called Gore and asked how had Gore managed to land in New Orleans when the Senator had been refused landing rights to help.
None of the airlines involved required a contract or any written guarantee of payment before sending their planes and volunteer crews – the first time Steve Davison had ever witnessed that in 15 years of chartering planes for political campaigns and other events. One official said if Gore promised to pay, that was good enough for them.