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September 1st, 2008
12:05 PM ET

Gustav: Things are going to be different

By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
Chief Medical Correspondent

Three years ago, I covered Hurricane Katrina. At the time the hurricane made land fall, I was attending a family funeral in Denver. Like many people I watched the reports on television and heard the hospitals had been evacuated. At the same time, however, doctors from Charity hospital were emailing on their dwindling blackberries telling me they were still caring for around 200 patients and they had lost their emergency generator power and were without adequate food and water.

After checking with my wife and kissing my 3 month old daughter good bye, I caught the first flight to Baton Rouge and then a helicopter to the parking deck next to Charity. As a physician, I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were patients as far as my eyes could see on the parking deck. They had been brought by boat across flooded streets, most of the water above my head. They were then carried on stretchers and backboards up 8 flights of stairs to wait in the oppressive southern August heat. For those with breathing tubes, diligent nurses sat there pumping air into the patient’s lungs. Second after second they pumped, for hours, even a full day on end.

So many mistakes were made. The generators failed because they were in the basement and malfunctioned at the first sign of flooding. The attempt at evacuations came too late, and patients were stuck in awful conditions. There is no question, with better planning, some hospital patients who died after Katrina could’ve lived.

Over the past days, I have toured many of the hospitals here in New Orleans in advance of Gustav. One thing is immediately clear. Things are going to be different this time. While in medicine, we can never be over prepared – many of these hospitals seem to be setting a new standard with regard to preparation. Most of the evacuations were done well in advance, with ambulances from several states parked outside Tulane hospital. At East Jefferson in Metairie, decisions were made several days ago to keep the hospital open but to evacuate several tiny babies from the neonatal ICU. Generators are now located in water tight compartments and the hospitals themselves have been fortified with seemingly indestructible steel beams. In the typical ambulance bay, there are now seven ton rescue trucks designed to handle flood waters and street debris. Today, the hospitals may be the safest buildings in all of New Orleans.

During a storm, a hospital is like any other place. With limited communication and running on emergency power, dozens of doctors and nurses hunker down and stand by. They know their calls will likely come in the hours and days after the storm passes. We will be here with them.

My daughter is now 3 years old. Along with her 19 month old sister, they have been sitting with their mom and watching the hurricane. “Oooh, daddy. Stay dry. Lots of rain and wind,” was the message I just received on my cell phone. Many here in New Orleans are hoping that’s all there is.

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soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. Danielle

    Gustav seems to be taking the same direction that Hugo was; well at least thats what my math teacher has been telling us. I'm hoping that Gustav will be different like you say, it brings hope and it actually makes me reasured since I was emotionaly affected by the results of hurricane Katrina.

    Thank you for the information provided, and I know for certain now that Gustav WILL be different and be provided with more help if and when necessary.

    September 8, 2008 at 14:50 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.