Hundreds of sick and stranded patients who endured four nights in abandoned and flooded downtown New Orleans hospitals were rescued by military helicopters yesterday and moved to Louis Armstrong International Airport, where they had food and water but faced a new kind of misery: waiting in an overcrowded and understaffed terminal for transfers to medical centers around the country.
Two military C-130 planes flew about 200 patients to hospitals in Atlanta but did not immediately return for more, emergency medical staff said. With patients and storm victims numbering in the thousands at the airport, and the heat exceeding 90 degrees, doctors rushed between the sick and the weak, helping many but losing some whose illnesses overcame them.
Ross Judice of Acadian Ambulance Services sent out an urgent plea for help at dawn yesterday, when he said a meager staff was trying to care for more than 2,000 sick and injured patients, and eight to 10 patients an hour were dying. By late afternoon, airport officials said 3,000 people at the airport were receiving medical attention in the terminal and on the tarmac, including some suffering from dehydration and exposure.
Officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who had set up the makeshift hospital to handle hundreds — not thousands — of patients, said they needed to move people out before more could be accommodated at the airport.
Rep. Charles W. Boustany Jr. (R-La.) said he spent hours on the phone yesterday at Acadian's headquarters in nearby Lafayette pleading with the Pentagon to send more C-130s. By evening, after a short break to tour a center for storm victims with first lady Laura Bush, he still had not received an answer.
"Getting places to evacuate them to is becoming a challenge," Boustany said. "We filled up our capacity in Louisiana. The Houston area is saturated, and so is Dallas."
Jack Evans of the Air Transport Association, which represents most major commercial carriers, said that between six and 12 commercial flights took about 600 people away from the devastation yesterday.
FEMA directed all of the flights to Lackland Air Force Base outside of San Antonio, Evans said. He said that 11 U.S. airlines and Air Canada had offered to help but that constraints at the airfields severely limited the number of flights. "It's a very fluid situation out there, and we're hoping to ramp up quickly," Evans said. "But New Orleans is not running like a normal metropolitan airport right now."
The day began with National Guard troops carrying stretchers and oxygen tanks rushing to meet helicopters landing nearly every minute with hospital patients in need of immediate care. By noon, the military teams had picked up the remaining patients at Tulane University Medical Center, University Hospital and Charity Hospital. Hundreds of medical staff members stayed behind for several more hours before being rescued and reunited with their patients.
Roy Williams, the director of the airport, said the neediest patients were evacuated first to regional hospitals on buses, helicopters and military flights.
Private hospitals arranged transportation for their patients to sister hospitals in Texas and Georgia.
Don Smithburg, chief executive of the Louisiana State University hospital system, which runs two public hospitals in New Orleans, said that help simply came too late for dozens of patients who died in the hospitals awaiting rescue.
Smithburg said that the evacuation from Charity Hospital, which was quickly surrounded by deep water, was especially difficult because patients had to be carried to another building where a helicopter could land. He said that staff members carried patients on stretchers and on their backs through the water, and then up eight flights of stairs to the waiting helicopter.
To complicate the evacuation, he said, some people who were homeless but not patients also made their way up to the eighth-floor roof and had to be restrained from rushing into the helicopter. "Some of the staff didn't eat or drink for days so the patients could survive," he said. "Then they carried people to safety again and again. There was real heroism here."
With the major hospitals nearly emptied, emergency services turned their attention to nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and other critically stranded facilities. But the news was not good. Dispatchers at Acadian received word from Coast Guard divers that there were no survivors at a nursing home in St. Bernard Parish. Rescue workers found only bodies.
"We got another nursing home call, in New Orleans, where we were told there were 30 patients, and when we got there, there were 30 in body bags lined up outside," said Kevin Smith, spokesman for Acadian in Lafayette.
Slevin reported from New Orleans. Staff writers Ceci Connolly in New Orleans and Marc Kaufman in Washington contributed to this report.