In the eye of Katrina's aftermath
By Becky Barclay
Published in News on October 12, 2005 1:48 PM
Steve Harrison and Cheryl McAlphin saw the good and the bad while they were in Gulfport, Miss., helping victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Neighbors risked their own safety to dig neighbors out of sludge and rubble, while others fought each other to keep what little they had left.
The Wayne County residents are members of the North Carolina 1 Disaster Medical Assistance Team, a federal assistance team based out of Winston-Salem. They were sent to the Gulf Coast for two weeks to help people who needed medical attention and mental health services. Harrison, 43, is employed with Nortel Networks and Wayne County EMS. Ms. McAlphin, 46, works at 3HC.
The pair flew to Memphis, Tenn., Aug. 28 for two days waiting for Katrina to pass. Then, they drove a DMAT truck to Gulfport.
Once there, they helped set up a mobile hospital. Ms. McAlphin likened it to a mobile army surgical hospital unit. Tents were set up in the parking lot of the local hospital, which had become a temporary home for many of the volunteers there.
About 400 people working at the facility had lost their homes.
Harrison worked 12-hour shifts suturing wounds, fixing broken bones and putting dislocated shoulders back into place. Both volunteers saw about 200 patients a day at first.
Many of those patients had puncture wounds or had been cut by steel or other debris, Harrison said. Many were rescuers themselves or concerned neighbors.
"We had people who had heard people calling for help from inside their houses and went to try and get them out," he said. "They weren't going to stop just because they got a nail puncture, so they would come in a day or two later, and it's all swollen up and infected."
Many patients had to come back two or three times to have their wounds recleaned and treated, Harrison added.
He treated one lady in her 30s with several cuts on her feet and hands.
"She had finally gone to visit with her sister-in-law who had a beautiful two-story house," Harrison said. "It was about six inches deep in solid feces where the sewer and everything had backed up. They were walking around in that house like it was nothing. Her sister-in-law had just put it out of her mind."
Harrison said he asked her to have her sister-in-law come in and get some mental health help.
"She said her sister-in-law was just out of it and was acting normal like everything was clean," he recalled. "She just didn't know where to start. No one's ever taught us how to shovel feces out of a house."
There was also the 92-year-old man whose family had gotten him out of New Orleans and taken him to Gulfport. He had a badly infected ankle.
"He lost probably two or three inches of skin to get it cleaned out enough to get the infection gone," Harrison said.
But not all of his experience was about heroes and families struggling to survive, Harrison said. Drug addicts tried to take advantage of the situation.
"They'd know exactly what symptoms to give to tell us to get drugs from us," he said. "But most of the time, the doctors recognized they were drug addicts and just gave them 800 milligrams of Motrin."
After being in Gulfport for a while, the team began seeing victims coming in with broken hands from fighting off criminals who were stealing their gas or looting their homes.
They were defending all they had left, Harrison said.
He said one gentleman's house had been washed out into the middle of the road and was pretty much in shambles. But he and his son were still sleeping there.
"He had a gun and told me so far he'd shot eight times," Harrison said. "He said he hoped he hadn't hit anyone."
The man had a story like many of the middle class people who tried to survive after the devastation of Katrina -- and fight off potential looters.
"One day, he told a man that this was his and his son's house and the man couldn't come in," Harrison said. "The guy turned around and looked at him and said he had always wished that something like Katrina would happen because the guy lived in a nice house. But this man and his son weren't rich. They were just regular people."
Ms. McAlphin saw a different type of injury -- an emotional one. She provided mental health services, debriefing team members who were trying to deal with their own trauma while helping others.
She saw a number of young men who were local fire and rescue personnel who had joined search and recovery teams doing body recovery.
Loss was everywhere, Ms. McAlphin added.
"The hardest thing was that not only did people lose their homes, but many people in Gulfport had relatives in New Orleans and, at that time, there was no communications," she said. "They didn't know if their families were OK. They didn't even know if their neighbors were OK or had gotten out and left. They lost their homes. They lost their businesses."
She also noted that Gulfport was not a big community, so most of the people knew about the deaths and people who had not made it out.
"Sometimes rescuers would find bodies with neighbors," Ms. McAlphin said. "Some people who had stayed behind were pulling out their neighbors. That was very devastating because it made it more real to people."
And then there were the personal losses.
"There were a lot of animal rescues. People had to leave their dog behind, or sometimes had to let go while they were floating."
Ms. McAlphin also saw some good in people. For example, she said one Hispanic man would take carloads of injured people to the makeshift hospital.
"He did that several days and kept telling us he needed to go back and get more injured people," she said. "We felt so strong about it that we got some money together and gave it to him. We knew he'd use it for gas to help people."
She also noticed that some people were very close to giving up on life altogether.
"They were in too much pain," she said. "They had nowhere to go. It was too hard."
But even with all the heartache, sometimes a little bit of everyday life would creep back into the tragedy, Harrison and McAlphin said.
One day a mother with a baby came in to have his rash treated. Distraught, the mother said it was the little boy's birthday.
"We put some things together and had a little birthday party," Ms. McAlphin said. "Everybody was excited because it felt normal when things weren't. We knew we were where we needed to be."
Ms. McAlphin said she had a lot of emotions to deal with while in Gulfport, so surveying the damage done by Katrina had to wait until Sept. 12, when she was scheduled to return home.
"I did not want to see the coastline until I was done," she said. "The last night I was there, they took me to the coast. I stood in the middle of what looked like a bomb had gone off. It looked like war, not like a hurricane. There were papers everywhere and hymnbooks and Bibles from a church."
Ms. McAlphin was in New York shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, and said the scene in Gulfport reminded her of being at Ground Zero.
Harrison also returned Sept. 12, but was back on the road Sept. 22 to go to Livingston, Texas, following Hurricane Rita.
He took care of nursing home residents who had been evacuated to Livingston from other places that had been hit harder by Rita.
"The temperature in midday in that building was 130 F because there was no power," he said.
"We took the worst cases over to the hospital. We turned the hospital waiting area into basically a special needs area and had 30 people in there at one time."
After four days there, he traveled to Newton, Texas, where he treated about 40 patients a day.
Harrison returned to Goldsboro Oct. 3.
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