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Demands swamp makeshift hospital

A Tampa doctor who helped in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks says nothing compares with New Orleans.

Published September 3, 2005

NEW ORLEANS - Black Hawks lined the pavement. People were pulled off the helicopters like luggage and loaded onto cargo transporters. One stretcher. Two stretchers. Three stretchers.

Elderly women were wrapped in blankets under the hot Louisiana sun.

Louis Armstrong International Airport became the center of the effort Friday to evacuate men and women, alive or dead.

School buses lined up at the entrance of the airport, stretching for miles as they shuttled evacuees out of the chaotic city for the journey to the safety of another.

One helicopter landed every two minutes delivering evacuees from area hospitals, shelters and other rescue staging areas. Healthy people crammed the ticketing area, waiting to get a pass to somewhere. Anywhere.

"Anywhere they will bring us," 81-year-old Camille Tuckson said, seated in her wheelchair.

Sick people lined the floor of the baggage claim area. Sad, lonely, pained, bewildered faces stared up from stretchers, the thunder of helicopters filling the makeshift emergency room with urgency.

"We're getting clobbered by the buses at the front door, and we're getting clobbered by the copters at the back door," said Ron Wegner, a Tampa physician, who led the Federal Medical Team coordinating the triage.

While evacuees on the highways and streets of the city complained rescue efforts were coming too slowly, emergency officials at the airport said this evacuation effort is the biggest, fastest response in American history.

"Nobody has moved patients this fast, not Vietnam, not anyone," Wegner yelled over the helicopters.

Inside, people were jammed into every hot crevice of the generator-powered airport. In one quiet, clean area, the dead and dying were shuttered from public view by a white curtain. Many left their lives separated from their loved ones, not knowing what became of their children, siblings or parents in the wake of one of the worst natural disasters to hit the United States.

"I would ask the American people to pray for the city of New Orleans," said chaplain and morgue manager Mark Reeves, "because what you see is a city that is drowning - I mean that physically, I mean that emotionally and, in some respects, I mean that spiritually."

Father Jose Lavastida of New Orleans administered last rites to patient after patient. As many as 50 filled the critical needs area. Then he held two weeping parishioners close as they prayed for the future and safety of their city and loved ones.

For Mary Moises, 54, and daughter Sarah, just spotting their priest in the sea of chaos and strangers brought the tiniest bit of comfort.

Wegner, a Hudson resident who practices anesthesiology in Tampa, estimated the makeshift hospital and evacuation site would likely be operating for another two to three months.

Thirty-eight Tampa Bay area nurses and doctors are working on the effort. But medical and emergency staff came from Texas, Hawaii, California, Washington and more.

Wegner was unwilling to give estimates for how many hundreds were coming through the airport each day since they arrived Tuesday. But he said there is no other recent domestic crisis that compares, even the terrorist attacks of 2001 because virtually all of those victims died.

"Hurricane Charlie: piece of cake. Hurricane Ivan: piece of cake. 9/11: piece of cake," said Wegner, who worked at them all. "We are overwhelmed, we are overridden with patients. There are too many patients."

Sixty ambulances waited outside to unload more.

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