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Senator Frist becomes Dr. Frist in New Orleans

Majority Leader Bill Frist takes off his senatorial coat and flies to the disaster zone to serve as a medical volunteer.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., volunteers Saturday at a makeshift hospital at the New Orleans airport where many of the victims of Hurricane Katrina were waiting for evacuation.Steve Senne / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Bill Frist took off his senator’s coat on Saturday and flew for New Orleans as a medical volunteer.

But what he found among the thousands needing treatment from Hurricane Katrina was a rescue effort in chaos: patients sleeping on luggage conveyors, teams of nurses who didn’t know each other’s names and a total communication breakdown.

“In the airport right now there is no communication between one unit and another,” said Frist, R-Tenn., the Senate’s majority leader and a surgeon.

“No coordination with how many people will be coming in the door 10 minutes later,” he told The Associated Press. “That’s sort of the most disappointing thing. It’s probably the greatest failure.”

Frist left Washington around 4:30 a.m. Saturday on his private plane. He spent most of the day helping to treat thousands of victims at Louis Armstrong International Airport and the New Orleans Convention Center.

He spoke by phone from a helicopter shuttling him between the two, taking a 45-minute tour above the flooded streets of downtown.

Frist also said the federal government had acted too slowly in dealing with the hurricane’s aftermath.

“Given the escalation of catastrophe that occurred over the first three days, absolutely I would have liked to see the federal government respond quicker, more rapidly, with better command and control centers and much improved communication,” Frist said.

“I’m not going to get into finger-pointing now. I did call for oversight hearings — I wouldn’t have done that if I weren’t concerned. We’ve got to do better.”

The senator spent the day treating diabetics for low blood sugar and dealing with cases of high blood pressure and dehydration. Though he is a surgeon by training, there was no need to perform surgery on Saturday, he said.

After overnighting in Nashville, Tenn., following his day in New Orleans, Frist planned to return to the Gulf Coast on Sunday to work in storm-ravaged areas of Mississippi and Alabama, as well as returning with supplies to New Orleans.

He plans to be back in Washington by the time the Senate reconvenes on Tuesday. He said the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee John Roberts will go forward as planned.