Thanks to reader Paul DiGiovanni, who put me in contact with his acquaintance Dr. Gene Parrino, a cardiothoracic surgeon based in New Orleans. Dr. Parrino authorized me to post the following story:
For what its worth, here is what I did/saw.
We found out about the storm on Saturday morning. We were at a downtown hotel for a meeting, and our babysitter called and said she needed to evacuate, and when were we coming home. We left the meeting and went to our house. We had some friends leaving for Mobile (I know, still close but the baby can’t deal with the car for long), so Charlotte and Heyward left Saturday afternoon. They went to Lee and Libby Thompson’s house. I went to the grocery store and bought water and ice. Saturday night, I moved a lot of furniture around, tied all of the patio furniture together, and ate dinner. Sunday, I boarded up the windows on the house. My neighbors had been offered a flight on a private plane out of town. They planned to take their car to the airport, and to expect it to be lost. I offered to drive them there so their car wouldn’t be destroyed. It turned out that I had to pick up an Irish widow, her two cats, and a birthday cake also. Anyway, we got her, her stuff, and my neighbors in the car and went downtown to put their cars in a deck. As we left downtown, the airport was closed due to high winds. The cats were going crazy. So, we headed back to the deck, they and the Irish widow got in their car, and they headed for Monroe, LA. I went back home, threw some clothes in a bag, and went to the hospital. Sunday afternoon was one of odd nervous excitement, kind of like pregame jitters in high school.
Monday morning we were all up early. I had slept in my office in a recliner. At sunrise, the wind was really whipping. Through the morning, it just got worse. Big sheets of metal were getting pulled off of the roof of the hospital, and the building was leaking from odd places due to the force of the wind. Power went out sometime around 7 or 8 am. My office faces the Mississippi river, and I could barely see it for most of the morning. It is only about 300 yards away. When I could see it, it had 4-5 foot waves on it, whitecaps, and it was even with the river levee behind the hospital. It didn’t come over, though. The river was not in flood, the wind was just pushing the water that hard. The eye went by around 10:30 am, and then it got nasty again for a while. Around 2:30 I left the hospital. There were still tropical force winds, but I went over to the levee with my mountain bike and walked down it towards the city. It was blowing too hard to ride, and raining. Once I got to St. Charles/Carrollton intersection, I was able to ride mostly, but there were HUGE oaks down everywhere, so despite riding on both sides of the street and in the neutral ground, I had to get off and push some. I swung by some friends houses to check on them, and they were mostly ok. No roofs sucked off, but many, many trees down on houses and lots of broken windows. I got to my house, and it was pretty ok. Two broken windows (sucked out, not blown in), lots of trees down, and some roof damage. I rode around my neighborhood some, and it was tough going with all the trees. I went back home, texted with some friends out of town, and went to bed.
Tuesday, I rode down to the garden district to check on a friends parents. Cell service had been weak Mon afternoon, and by Mon night all that worked was data (text, Blackberry email). By Tues am that was dead too. My friends parents weren’t at home, so I went to the hospital. It was like a Dutch oven, hot as hell and so humid the floors were slick. We had power for lights and elevators, but no A/C. The patients were being well cared for, but the nurses and staff were all drenched in sweat. Most were wearing shorts or cut-off scrubs. There were fans around, but they were just pushing hot humid air. I hung out at the hospital, but there really wasn’t much for me to do. I had expected some sort of mass casualty incident, but at that stage no one could get anywhere, and with the temp and humidity changes in the hospital, the sterility of our gear was in question. Clearly, no heart surgery was going to happen, but I still remember how to pulse irrigate a leg wound. Any way, it was hot as hell and there were lots of surgeons standing around, so I got back on my bike. I later found out that they did three cases that day. So, Tuesday afternoon I went back into the city. I did find my friends parents then, and they were fine on 4th street in the garden district. They had communicated with their daughter. It was then that we heard about the levee breech, and the city flooding. So, I rode further downtown to check it out. The intelligence of this decision is debatable, I know. So, I rode down St Charles. Along the way, I saw people looting every rite-aid and store. They were stealing tv’s, and one lady was pushing a grocery cart filled with bud lite and coors lite. One image that really stuck with me was of crews of young guys in small pickups loaded with stolen stuff, riding in back with the back end almost dragging the ground they were so loaded. It reminded me so much of the pictures of Somalia and of the “technicals” that the dudes there rode around in. The office depot had been cleaned out, and there was a freight palette leaning against the door so people could climb in. I saw one lady with her child in the baby part of a shopping cart loading stuff though the door of a rite aid into the cart. I made it past Poydras almost to Canal, which is where I saw my first police personnel. The water was getting deep, and they were trying to keep people out of that area. They were swamped in every sense of the word. There were dozens of people milling around, going down alleys and side streets. There just wasn’t much they could do. I rode back to the friends parents house. Things were collapsing rapidly. Looters had stolen all of the guns from the wall mart, and were robbing people on Jackson Ave, and shooting at firemen. It was somewhat dicey. I was seeing more and more “technicals”. After conferring with the parents, I rode back to my house. Once there, I moved all of the pictures and chairs from the first floor to the second, and did some other stuff. I hid the silver and the china. I was eating dinner, trying not to use the hospitals resources, and listening to the am radio. It was then, around 8pm, that I heard that the pump that had been helping keep even with the breech had failed, and that they were expecting 9 feet of water on St. Charles in 12-14 hours. My house is 2 blocks from St. Charles. By then, it was dark, and it was a darkness like camping. The only sounds were of incessant helicopters and occasional gunshots. Between overflights, it was dead silent. No background of airconditioners, streetcars, people, cars, nothing. Hanging out there seemed ill advised at that point. I had wanted to remain to protect my house, and had the necessary means, but wading out in the pitch black at 2:30 am in 4 feet of water was not appealing. There was no moon. I did have my waders, but that didn’t exactly make me feel better. So, around 8:30, I left. I took my bike and the pictures off of the refrigerator, and grabbed some few clothes. It was too dark to ride, and I didn’t want to attract attention by using my flashlight, so I walked. It was about 4 or 5 miles. There were some cars driving around, going from one side of the street, down the neutral ground, whatever. When I could see one coming, I slipped off the side of the road and waited for it to go by. Then I kept walking. Sounds tricky, but really no big deal. Afterall, I could see them long before they could see me, and with all of the trees and stuff down there were plenty of places to duck. Anyway, I eventually made it back to the hospital. I slept from about 3:30 til 6, and then got up. It was so freaking hot and humid that sleeping was a joke.
Wednesday morning, I realized that I was accomplishing little. The hospital was evacuating our VAD and vent patients, and we still weren’t seeing an influx of casualties. FEMA was arriving and setting up stuff around town. I went out and got in my car, which was gassed up. I drove to my house (even looters have to sleep, and I figured that they weren’t typically early risers) and checked it out. There was about 6 inches of water in one street next to my house, but the rate of rise was almost imperceptible. I grabbed a couple of things, and left again. I went back to the hospital, and met up with my partner. His sister and mother and a friend needed an escort out of town, and I was leaving. So, they followed me along river road to the Huey P. Long bridge, over it, and onto US 90W. We went to 310 and then on north on I-55. I peeled off and crossed to see about my grandfather. He is 88 and a hardass. He refused to leave his house, which was powerless but otherwise unscathed. He had a generator that his tractor would power. I got some gas from a step cousin, and drove to Mobile. LA was trashed- trees down everywhere, power poles snapped in half. I must have run over hundreds of power lines. Mississippi 30 miles inland was fine, just no power or gas. I made it to Mobile after about 7 hours with the red light on in my gas gauge. Spent the night with lee and libby, and then drove charlotte and Heyward the next day (Thursday) to Charleston. We are putting H in school here, and Charlotte is trying to get a job. I am going back to New Orleans either Saturday or Sunday.
Dr. Parrino adds this post-script in a subesequent e-mail to me:
as a follow-up, i am now back in new orleans and at the hospital. we are
trying to get FEMA to recognize that we are here and ready. Our cath lab is
doing a case today, and i have a lung case tomorrow. i am doing a bypass
operation on tuesday for a guy who has had angina since the storm