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Hospital evacuations chaotic, some deadly

KENNER, La. — Some were being given water by soldiers. Some had small spasms as they lay on their stretchers. Some psychiatric patients chewed their lower lips or babbled quietly. Some tried to wander out the doors where buses dropped off more patients. Some were dying; one corpse in a wheelchair, not far from the Delta counter, lay covered by a blue blanket.

On the day that a fleet of military helicopters and buses with military escorts finally succeeded in emptying the exhausted and darkened hospitals in the city's flooded zones, the departures concourse of the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport had become the newest and most chaotic hospital in the New Orleans area.

By evening, all the patients in the flooded zone had been moved out, though hundreds of medical personnel and frightened city residents who had sought shelter in hospitals from rising water were still hoping someone would come get them, too. Left behind were an unknown number lying dead in flooded morgues and sometimes in spare corridors.

As the nation watched long lines of obviously fragile patients wheeled down the tarmac, it was clear that some patients had died in transit — the airport hospital had its own morgue — and there were worrying hints that the forgotten nursing homes of New Orleans might ultimately be found to be worse charnel houses than the stranded hospitals.

With hundreds of National Guard troops spreading out in the city streets, it was finally easier for small boats to approach embattled hospitals, some of which were surrounded by 6 feet of floodwater and had little or no electricity and no running water. At the same time, the fleet of helicopters evacuating patients from rooftops had grown from a handful of single-patient civilian ambulances just after the storm to about 100 military medevac choppers.

The evacuations came in the nick of time for several hospitals where doctors had been working by flashlight and helping patients breathe with manual ventilators, waiting helplessly for news from the outside without being able to turn on a TV set or make a phone call.

Richard Zuschlag, president of Acadian Ambulance, described a hellish week for his helicopter and ambulance crews from his command center in Lafayette, La. He said the New Orleans police had "disappeared," the mayor had decamped to Baton Rouge, but the state police had "held out as long as they could." While the Coast Guard and Navy had quickly helped him evacuate patients, he said, Army helicopters from nearby Fort Polk had been delayed 24 hours by red tape, and then would not fly at night. With landline phones and cellphones out and not enough radios or satellite phones, "communication was like in the Civil War," he said. "A tells B tells C and then he drives up to Baton Rouge to tell somebody."

"FEMA is good people," he continued. "They're professional after the disaster. But I don't think they're really good in the middle of a disaster, and that's where we are now."

At University Hospital, a public institution with many patients on welfare, Dr. Joan James, said in an interview early Friday that only four of the eight floors were usable, the water outside was so deep that fish were cruising past, and trucks could not get through. The hospital was out of running water, had no ventilation and food that had been had been airlifted in was limited. Backup generators powered only the operating rooms a few other areas, so the staff was using flashlights and stethoscopes to diagnose patient problems.

At Touro Infirmary Hospital, two private buses hired from Texas were able to get the last of its 2,000 employees and patients out of the hospital by late Thursday, Stephen Kupperman, the hospital's chairman, said. The hospital also hired private air ambulances to transfer patients.

"We could not get any assistance from the government at first," said Kupperman, who said about 80 of the 240 patients transferred from the hospital were moved by government helicopters the last day.

Hospitals and public officials now face the daunting task of trying to locate where patients sent to the airport were taken. "Our patients are scattered," said Kupperman. " We don't really know where they are."