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16 years later; A look back at the AFMS response to Hurricane Katrina

  • Published
  • By Dr. Joseph Frechette, Ph.D.
  • Air Force Medical Service History Office
The Air Force Medical Service played a significant role in the federal response to the devastation wrecked upon the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005 and her successor, Rita, three weeks later. On August 26, the AFMS had proactively alerted its Expeditionary Medical Rapid Response Force to be ready to deploy so it could serve as a link to civilian hospitals, and support the Federal Emergency Management Agency with triage and transport of patients to hospitals elsewhere. Beginning the following day, search and rescue, evacuation, logistics, and medical assets poured into the affected areas.

A 25-bed Expeditionary Medical Support facility was quickly established at Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans. Its personnel organized the chaos on the scene sufficiently to permit triage, treatment, and transport of patients. By September 5, the EMEDS had already treated more than 4,500 patients out of an eventual total of 7,674. More than 2,000 people were aeromedically evacuated in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, with an additional 1,200 following with Hurricane Rita. Air National Guard personnel established additional EMEDS at the Naval Air Station New Orleans and Bay St. Louis, which treated nearly 11,000. Meanwhile, additional medical assets organized into Katrina support elements at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida; Camp Shelby, Mississippi; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Kelly Field, Texas with the last serving as the Air Force’s aeromedical evacuation hub.

All of this took place while the AFMS’s own people and facilities in the area were also suffering from hurricane damage. The tidal surge in Biloxi, Mississippi flooded the basement of the Keesler Air Force Base hospital destroying the MRI, radiation oncology department, and emergency room, forcing the evacuation of 1,300 people. A number of patients and pregnant women were transported to Wilford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio by Critical Care Air Transport Teams and an obstetrics team from Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. Others were moved via ground transport to Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. As a stopgap to fill the need created by the disabled hospital, a 10-bed EMEDS was established in a nearby parking lot.

Overall roughly 600 AFMS personnel deployed in September 2005 and treated more than 18,000 patients. The successful joint Department of Homeland Security, Department of Transportation, and Department of Defense airlift of more than 24,000 people was the largest domestic civilian airlift on U.S. soil in history.

Ultimately, the AFMS’s ability to enable rapid patient movement to medical treatment facilities outside the immediately affected area ignited a debate regarding whether the number of beds established in a disaster area is the single most useful metric of success. As former Air Force Surgeon General Lt. Gen. George Taylor put it, “In an era when we have the capability to move large numbers of patients quickly and effectively to higher levels of care, isn’t the flow from a location at least as important as the beds there?”

The lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina have shaped the AFMS’s premier capabilities since then. From evacuating patients ahead of Hurricane Harvey in 2017 to ensuring EMEDS capabilities remain ready to provide critical support amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the AFMS continues to strengthen its airlift and expeditionary medical capabilities.