As senior Marc Berenson toured a New Orleans Wal-Mart last week – the same one that Hurricane Katrina survivors looted in the wake of the storm – a smell somewhere between human feces and rotting food permeated the store.
“The stench was horrific,” said Berenson, a paramedic and supervisor with EMeRG who spent last week in the flood-ravaged city. “It was probably the worst smell I’ve smelled in my life. One of the doctors almost vomited a few times.”
Berenson realized the magnitude of the devastation when he saw metal billboards that had been twisted and torn from the sheer force of Katrina’s rain and winds. Senior Billy Fritz, an EMT who is an EMeRG supervisor, was in New Orleans Sept. 3 to Sept. 13 with a team deployed by the Maryland Emergency Management Agency. From the roof of his hotel, he could see smoke billowing from a Saks Fifth Avenue store that had been looted and torched. During his first nights in the city, Fritz could hear the sounds of gunfire.
“Car dealerships were flooded, so cars were just piled on top of one another,” Fritz said. “An Infiniti dealership we went through was trashed. It was serious … people were just standing there, looking at houses they once lived in, covered in water.”
Fritz, who traveled with a convoy of 58 vehicles from Maryland, made the grueling 34-hour drive into the city to help with search and rescue operations and provided medical treatment from a hospital in Jefferson Parish. He said he would never forget the stories he heard from victims.
He said, “(One woman) had two dead grandchildren, a dead mother, and her two children were missing. She was in need of medical care … your heart went out to her to do everything you possibly could. Everyone has their own story. To listen to some of them talk – there’s not even a word that can describe how you can feel. Their lives are just gone.”
Navigating roads that were blocked by floodwaters and riddled with downed electrical lines, Berenson and his team traveled from Baton Rouge, La., to New Orleans every day for a week to help in the relief effort.
In a city where hundreds of thousands are now homeless and healthcare is essentially nonexistent, people with chronic conditions are in particular need of aid, Berenson explained. He and his group, organized by GW’s Center for Emergency Preparedness, helped treat residents suffering from ailments such as high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma and emphysema.
“Quite a number just needed to get back on their meds and be managed like that,” Berenson said.
Additionally, Berenson helped treat lacerations and abrasions residents suffered in the storm, as well as one of the most prevalent health conditions affecting New Orleans: foot fungus, the result of mold that has covered the city.
Despite his paramedic experience, Berenson said, nothing could have prepared him for the quietness and emptiness of the city once famous for its parties.
“It’s very eerie,” Berenson said. “You expect people there. You expect things to be happening. You expect pharmacies to be open. You expect people in the street.”
Echoing Berenson, Fritz said the city and its surroundings were disturbingly barren.
“It’s surreal driving down there – the highway was empty except emergency vehicles and military vehicles,” Fritz said. “You had to have credentials to get in. Once you went into downtown New Orleans to get into Jefferson Parish, you could see the flood waters, the debris … gas stations just gone.”
Fritz’s team coordinated with fire departments so that once victims were rescued from floodwaters, they could either be treated or released by the Maryland group. By the time he left, Fritz said, his team has seen more than 1,500 patients. Berenson said that despite a couple of incidents he and his team received and overwhelming positive response from residents.
“People would come out of the blue and say, ‘thanks for so much for helping us.'”
Berenson said the city was not in total ruins, and some parts such as French Quarter are still “fairly intact.” He said he returned from his weeklong stay in New Orleans Monday with a “healthy dose of perspective”
“You’ll never forget some of the things that have happened,” Berenson said. “You see people who’ve lost everything, who have nothing, who don’t know what their future holds, and it reminds you of the things you consider to be important, or things you consider worrisome to you, don’t matter so much.”