Leaving hell behind in Louisiana, New Orleans paramedic Keeley Williams has five days to lose herself in the whir of this city’s slot machines.
Williams, who lost everything to Hurricane Katrina, is one of 44 first responders granted a reprieve here this week, all expenses paid by local businesses and the Red Cross.
Williams, 39, stepped off an airplane into the desert heat and relaxed for the first time in more than a week.
“It’s like taking a big, deep breath and being able to exhale,” she said.
Surrounded by devastation back home, the stress has become too much for some on the front lines. At least two New Orleans police officers have committed suicide. Hundreds of others are unaccounted for, with some simply abandoning their posts.
Hoping to help the city’s exhausted civil servants, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin called up the mayors of cities with large numbers of hotel rooms, including Las Vegas and Atlanta, and asked for help.
Williams’ group of paramedics and firefighters is the first of several hundred first responders and their families from New Orleans expected to arrive in the next few weeks. Several hotels, including the Palms and the Hard Rock, have promised to set aside rooms.
The first group arrived in Las Vegas late Tuesday. Many received checkups and counseling at the Emergency Management Services compound in New Orleans before heading out.
A few normal days
“We’re just relieved to be away and have a sense of normalcy for a few days,” said Chris Keller, a paramedic with New Orleans EMS.
Nothing has been routine for these men and women since Aug. 29, when Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and subsequent flooding destroyed a large swath of New Orleans.
Williams’ family, with the exception of an uncle, fled the city. The uncle survived by clinging to the roof of his house and later swam by Williams’ home in St. Bernard Parish. He said it was destroyed.
“The material stuff doesn’t matter,” said Williams, still wearing her New Orleans EMS shirt Wednesday. “The family is safe.”
Riding out the storm while assigned to a commercial building in east New Orleans, Williams said she saw water rise 20 feet and heard gunfire erupt outside. She joined a group of firefighters who commandeered a boat to help a woman in labor.
Finally evacuated by helicopter Wednesday, Williams had her first opportunity to see what had happened to her city. “Everyone started to cry,” she said. “It was just unreal.”
For the time being, the firefighters, paramedics and family members are sleeping in soft beds, taking hot showers and shopping for clothes.
Keller spent his first night touring the Las Vegas Strip, having a few drinks and playing blackjack with his partner of more than a year, Topher Cummings.
“My mind is all Las Vegas,” said Cummings, a 21-year-old college student. “I just want to get drunk, see some shows and eat some good food.”
A chance to recharge
Keller said he remembers searching the French Quarter for his partner, knocking on every door of a hotel where Cummings said he would be.
But Cummings had left the hotel after watching a man beat a preacher there. What he found outside was no better.
“I saw dead bodies, I heard gunshots,” Cummings said. “It just kills me to see what’s happened to my city.”
By chance, Keller saw Cummings sitting in a truck parked outside a restaurant in the French Quarter.
Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman said he hoped the free vacation will allow the first responders and their families to recharge and prepare for the return home.
“They just need to be able to recover so they can go back and do what the Lord has entrusted them to do,” Goodman said.
But the future looms. Williams already is steeling herself for the horrors that await her and her colleagues at home.
“I’m trying to prepare myself for the smell,” she said.