It has been more than eight weeks since Hurricane Isaac came ashore in the Gulf Coast; but the storm’s aftermath is not yet over for the people of Louisiana. Hurricane Isaac dumped more total rainfall in and around New Orleans than Hurricane Katrina did in 2005. While levies built after Hurricane Katrina spared New Orleans from the same level of damage, the outer parishes sustained enough destruction for President Obama to declare a major disaster area around the Gulf in Louisiana and Mississippi. As of September 12th, 14 of New Orleans’ parishes have been deemed eligible for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance, with thousands of individuals applying for federal aid.
Commissioned Corps officers running the RDF-5 relief operations center in New Orleans.
Among federal and local emergency responders deployed to assist the people and communities of Louisiana was a team of dedicated Commissioned Corps officers. The Commissioned Corps’ Rapid Deployment Force (RDF) 5 in Louisiana operated two Federal Medical Stations, one in Baton Rouge (“Gold Team”) and the other in New Orleans (“Blue Team”). A number of the rural parishes outside of New Orleans were flooded and without power, and the Blue Team’s responsibility was caring for patients that were displaced from these areas. Located at the New Orleans Convention Center, the relief center run by the 61 Corps officers on the “Blue Team” was in full operation 24 hours a day.
Patient beds set up at the New Orleans Convention Center, the location of the RDF-5 Blue Team.
Despite limited rest, Commissioned Corps officers met the medical needs of the patients at the shelters. In addition to immediate injuries sustained as part of the storm, breathing, respiratory and other secondary health issues related to the power outages and lack of air conditioning were prevalent. With limited access to medication due to the power outages and flooding that caused many pharmacies to remain closed in the days following the storm, many residents also sought assistance as their daily medicine supplies ran low.
Changing conditions, while a challenge, are exactly the reason trained Commissioned Corps officers are vital to the success of these operations. Corps officers receive training to help them adapt and react in situations like this one in New Orleans. According to LT Holly Sebastian, a Commissioned Corps officer serving on the Blue Team in New Orleans, “because we have little idea of what will happen next, we do our best to plan for what will happen, but the situation, especially during a disaster, can always change.” Despite constant situational challenges, LT Sebastian called the operation a “success,” as more than 100 patients and 30 caregivers received the attention they needed. The community’s response to the operation was also positive, according to LT Sebastian. She recalled that “those [civilians] that we encountered in the hotels and in the shelter were very appreciative of our presence.”
Commissioned Officers of the RDF-5 “Blue Team” at the New Orleans relief center.
For Commissioned Corps officers, deployments are much more than just work obligations, they are the essence of why they wear a U.S. Public Health Service uniform. The ability to assist those in need during their most vulnerable time is invaluable. Officers also site deployments as unique in their development as Corps officers. Since the Corps is a small service (approximately 6,700) that serves in many duty stations (approximately 800), deployments also provide opportunities to form networks, forge friendships and gain valuable skills all while serving the needs of others. Also, a critically important aspect of deployments is the opportunity to apply classroom/simulated training to a real life situation; this aspect has had the strongest effect on LT Sebastian. For LT Sebastian, “being a Corps officer in a situation like this [Isaac] means being a part of something bigger, doing what is right and helping people. Being a part of this deployment and part of this team will not only make me a better Officer, but also a better person.”