Searching for New Orleans
An interview with Diane Rimple, a doctor from the University of New Mexico Hospital who spent 10 days in the aftermath of Katrina
A college professor once told me that in order to write about big ideas, one first had to write about small ones. Everyone wants to tackle love, or life, or the profound influence of one's mother, she said, but hardly anyone can do it well, or in a way that a thousand others haven't done it before. To get there, one has to start with threads, buttons, the way her rosary smelled. The small things paint the scenery. The subject is implied.
The same might be said for Hurricane Katrina, an event so monumental, so profound, one finds it nearly impossible to comprehend. To understand it, to shape the meaning of it, we must first look at the smaller things. The dust on the lens of the cameras that took the photographs that litter our newspapers. The crack in the voice of an evacuee on talk-show radio. The ways people from all over the country have tried, by any means, to help.
Dr. Diane Rimple helped in her own way; and on Aug. 30, the University Hospital doctor left for New Orleans as the medical director with the New Mexico Task Force I Urban Search and Rescue Team (USAR), a group operated by FEMA. The team of 70 packed in a hurry, unaware of what their job would be or where they would do it. Normally relegated to searching for survivors in collapsed buildings in disasters such as 9/11, Katrina was a mission for which no one was prepared.
While rescue workers maneuvered boats to search for survivors, Rimple stayed on land to treat those who needed medical aid and watch over her team.
Here, she talks to the Alibi about her experiences. Let's start with the small things.
How did your team deal with the general atmosphere when you arrived in New Orleans? Were people feeling stunned and shocked by the situation?
Totally. It was chaotic. Just complete chaos. Locals were hopping in boats and rescuing people; it seemed as if every personal fishing craft was lined up on the bridge going into New Orleans waiting for dawn to go into the water. So there were just thousands of people motoring out there and helping people get out along with the more professional teams. And [there was] no electricity. And no running water. And it's 100 degrees. And 99 percent humidity. And still, completely still; there wasn't a breath of wind for the first couple days. And the water stank. It was definitely surreal.
Talk to me about your experience over there. What was it like to go into one of the greatest American cities and see it in that state? I mean, the water was fairly toxic at that point, right?
We had no idea, though. We had no idea, and so there were a lot of rumors, a lot of “what's in there?” talk about refineries and chemicals and, of course, sewage. So there's a whole decontamination process that you would use for any chemical spills or weapons of mass destruction or anything like that, so essentially we were decon-ing anybody who fell in the water. But even if you were out in a boat and got your feet wet, your shoes, anything, was decon-ed.
And what's that process?
It's mostly soap and water. Water is the best decontamination solution there is. Soap, water, bleach and then rinse off. Which is a little difficult when you have no water except for what you bring with you.
How much water could you bring with you?
Palettes and palettes of it. But you're talking about 70-odd people who have to drink a heck of a lot of fluids to maintain hydration in 100-degree heat with 90 to 99 percent humidity. So every bottle you use for decontamination is a bottle you can't drink, or that you can't wash with. FEMA was supposed to have a lot of this stuff set up, but it was so early on and it just is difficult. The roads were in bad condition, it was hard to get things in and out, and it was such a huge area of devastation, you couldn't just say, “Well, we'll call down the road and have them send a truck of water,” because Baton Rouge was inundated with evacuees and so they were going through their own crisis up there. I mean, people talk about not being able to get supplies this side of Baton Rouge. You had to essentially go to the other side of Baton Rouge before you could get anything.
What were some of the most heartening and horrific experiences you had out there?
Well, the team had many true saves. I mean, saves where people were running out of water, they were literally trapped in their houses, and somebody just heard them tap on a window or call out and took the boat across and broke into the house to get them out. There were many cases of people who were in water up to their chest for five days, waiting to get out and were just waterlogged or trapped; sitting on top of refrigerators, that sort of thing. I think they definitely had the ultimate in the agony and the ecstasy in terms of making several really great saves—people who you knew were going to die had they not been rescued very soon; and yet they also had to deal with being up close to death, and to people who had drowned, and bodies; that we, in the medical group, didn't see. Because they weren't doing any body recovery; they were going after survivors. This was early on in the disaster, so they were just going for the people.
I think another thing that made people feel really good was the animals [we rescued]. We were able to get a hold of the local SPCA, who would come in like the cavalry at the end of the day with their trucks and pick up 30, 40 animals at a time and take them to a shelter. And they made the commitment that they would not euthanize any animal that had a tag.
Reading the news, I heard all these fears about being near that stagnant water for so long, about what was in the water; dead bodies and everything. The papers talked about the fears of certain diseases coming back, like typhoid. Was that a reality—the fear of those kinds of diseases taking over?
I think there was concern but not fear. In the sense that we had a couple of people whose boat capsized and they ended up in the water. And we just did really good decon, and we didn't treat them with antibiotics right away and said, “Look, if you develop symptoms you're going to be treated.” The vast majority of the things we ended up seeing were not water-related illnesses. We had to worry about diarrhea, and mostly they're worried about E coli. For our team, we were more worried about upper-respiratory viral sort of infections that get passed around like in daycare centers. So at least at this point we're not seeing serious diseases among the rescuers.
So was there any kind of fear when you were there? I know the newspapers were talking about the looters, and people walking around with guns, and these kinds of things; and not knowing if the situation's going to get worse or if the weather's going to change. What was the mindset there?
To be honest with you, we had no TV, we had no information except what we were getting from the briefings through FEMA, we were totally isolated. So all I know is what I experienced and what I saw, and I never felt threatened in any way by any of the folks who were there, and the vast, vast majority was just happy to be out and happy to see a doctor.
Do you feel like this country is prepared to deal with a big crisis like this? From what we read, it seems like the reaction time to this was slower than it should have been. Do you feel like you're in a position to make comments on that?
I'm not really in a position. But, stepping outside of the FEMA Urban Search and Rescue hat, as a physician in the community, as someone who does emergency medicine and is hyperaware of disaster medicine just through UNM's Center for Disaster Medicine—I mean, we do a lot of this work here at the University and people really are training the rest of the state and country here at UNM—we all know that what we've been told is you can't depend on the federal government in the first two to three days of a natural disaster. Communications are down, transportation is down, it just takes time to fly, drive, boat anywhere, and from a local management standpoint, you have to have your own plans. So from that standpoint, I think it's all about being self-reliant for the first 72 hours.
I think the message has been traditionally to cities and municipalities in the country that you have to start making your own plans. You want to individualize your response based on what you know about your community. And I think that's a legitimate model, and I think that people with far more experience than I have need to figure out whether it's a viable model. I think it's a rational model, but it needs to be determined whether it's one that stands up to reality.
What did you take away from this experience?
I think I took away from it that you have to depend on yourself, and you have to have a personal plan, and you cannot think that anyone else is going to bail you out of a really terrible situation because, regardless of how much manpower and money is thrown at a catastrophe, there is lag time and people with the best of intentions get overwhelmed.
Did this experience change your mind about the government or the American people?
No. I'm just so thankful that I was in the position [to help]. I think so many people wanted to help; and what a fantastic position to be in to be able to help, and to be asked to help. It's the definition of what I have wanted to do with my life, and to be able to do it in my own country and to be able to have a regular job and yet be able to do this as well.