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Inside CSULB
Vol 57 No. 19 : December, 2005
Vol 57 No. 19 | December, 2005
Johnson Sees Katrina Up Close

Richard Johnson

A year and a half ago, Richard Johnson was looking to volunteer where his skills as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) could best be utilized. This past August and September, he put them to use in a way he only could have imagined.

An associate director in the Office of Safety and Risk Management, a department he has been with since May 1989, he spent Sept. 1-13 in Biloxi, Miss., as part of a California emergency team providing assistance to victims of Hurricane Katrina.

“We received a page on Aug. 28 that we might be called; got the call on Aug. 29; and on Aug. 30 we were on our way to Mississippi,” said Johnson, who was certified as Los Angeles County EMT in February 1990 and was one of 31 individuals deployed as part of DMAT CA-1 (Disaster Medical Assistance Team - California One).

According to Johnson, being a level one team means once activated, within eight hours you are mobilized, at which time you are a completely self-contained unit with tents, treating tents, medical and surgical equipment, generators, water purification equipment, lighting, and food and water for three days.

“I know there has been an awful lot of press about how unreactive or how lethargic the response was to Hurricane Katrina,” said Johnson, “but from my point of view all I can say is that on Aug. 29 we were mobilized and part of our team was flown to Memphis, Tenn. Then, six of us, with our cache of medical supplies in three large FEMA trucks, drove from Tustin all the way to Biloxi.”

How many hours did it take to get there? “A lot,” he chuckled. “It took us two and a half days.”

DMAT California 1 is the first team from California authorized as a level one team and can be activated by FEMA, which then decides when a disaster or pending disaster might require a team’s mobilization.

“It was apparent this was going to be huge, so DMAT teams from California, North Carolina, Minnesota, Ohio, Texas, and Alaska were activated and sent to Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama,” said Johnson. “On our team we had two doctors, a wound care specialist, four mobile intensive care nurses, two paramedics and the rest of us were EMTs.”

When his three-truck convoy first reached Mississippi the destruction was unnoticeable. “We didn’t really see any kind of artifacts of the storm until we got into Jackson, which is in the center of the state,” said Johnson. “Then we were seeing 70- and 80-foot tall pine trees snapped off 40 feet up. There are estimates of 90,000 square miles of what used to be towns that are now just garbage. It just can’t be described.”

When Johnson’s group reached Mississippi, it reported to Camp Shelby. Just a day or so earlier the hurricane went directly over the camp. “I wasn’t there for it, but my teammates who were said it sounded like a jet engine with debris banging off everything.” An old, beat-up World War II Army base normally used to house the Mississippi National Guard, Camp Shelby served as a temporary home until Sept. 1, when CA-1 was detailed to Biloxi High School.

“Calling it comfortable would be an exaggeration,” said Johnson. “It was hot and muggy with no air conditioning and no power. The only power there was generator-powered and that was noisy.”

Of course, who had time to really sleep? Like most of those assisting, DMAT California 1 was going 24/7 in split shifts. Johnson’s team reported to the shelter at nearby Biloxi High School and within the first 30 minutes there were 1,900 people in either dire medical need or in need of shelter.

“Within 30 minutes of us getting there we had a critical care surgery set up, an urgent care clinic set up, a pharmacy and a triage intake and we began treating patients,” said Johnson, stating that the facility handled more than 500 patients on a daily basis. Also, he pointed out that Biloxi High School is brand new and was built specifically to serve as a shelter in case of a disaster.

“Biloxi High School is just 18 months old and it has a million-dollar football field,” said Johnson, noting it was used as a landing pad for helicopters over some objection from local law officials. “The eye of the hurricane just missed it, but it sustained winds of over 160-170 miles an hour and it was fine mainly because it was designed as a shelter.”

Also early upon DMAT California 1’s arrival, it did a needs assessment as to what supplies were lacking. What they found was needed most was ice and diapers.

“The problem making your needs known is if you don’t follow it up with the message, ‘we’ve got enough.’” said Johnson, relaying the story of an individual from Oregon who somehow heard the request, went out to the stores, bought diapers and bottled water, threw it on a pickup truck and drove straight through.
“We’re all dead tired and about to go to sleep when this guy shows up at about 11 o’clock at night. Are you going to tell that guy to come back in the morning? No, you’re going unload it and you are going to thank him for it and that’s what we did. But at that point we already had more than we needed.”

Does this experience make him better prepared in his everyday job in Safety and Risk Management as well as his position as a key member of the university’s Emergency Operations Center?

“Definitely, because I got a chance to see what worked and what didn’t work for the largest national disaster the United States has ever seen,” he said. “You can never be prepared enough, but nobody could have been prepared for this. We made some mistakes and in some instances we worked a lot longer and a lot harder than we needed to, but overall it was a learning experience I will never forget.”

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