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AFMS and Hurricane Katrina: 10-years later

  • Published
  • By John Heitz
  • Air Force Medical Service Historian’s Office
On Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast region. The Air Force Medical Service (AFMS) provided critical support to the relief efforts before, during, and after the storm. In all, the Air Force deployed over 18,000 active duty and 45,000 Air National Guard (ANG) in response to the emergency.

The hub for Air Force medical support in hard-hit New Orleans was the Louis Armstrong International Airport that had been converted to an evacuation center. On Aug. 31, a 25-bed Expeditionary Medical Support System (EMEDS) from the 375th Medical Group at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., deployed to provide medical operations and augment Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT) personnel at the airport. Air Force mental health and dental teams also supported the mission.

On Sept. 2, the San Antonio, Texas-based 59th Medical Wing deployed a 60-member Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility and arrived to find the terminal crowded with tired and frustrated patients who arrived round-the-clock by bus and ambulance. Every two or three minutes a helicopter delivered another full load of patients. On that first full day, approximately 10,000 evacuees processed through the airport and medical personnel evacuated 849 patients, some of whom had been at the airport for three to four days. These patients and others were evacuated by members of the 433d, 452d, and 453d Aeromedical Evacuation Squadrons (AES). Before relief efforts ended at the New Orleans airport, AFMS had treated more than 7,000 patients and provided aeromedical evacuation to approximately 2,300 patients.

In Biloxi, Miss., the storm and subsequent tidal surge from Katrina caused flooding and severe damage to the Keesler Medical Center, greatly hindering the ability to treat patients. In the midst of the storm, after floodwater took out the emergency generators, hospital personnel, under the light of seven battery-powered lanterns, delivered a baby by Caesarian section. Throughout the crisis, the hospital confronted the challenges of evacuating patients, restoring the medical care facility for the base, and supporting the disaster response effort along the Mississippi Coast. Critical Care Air Transport teams and an obstetrics team from the 59th Medical Wing evacuated patients and expectant mothers to the Wilford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, prior to the storm.

A short time after the hurricane abated, the 82d Medical Group from Sheppard AFB, Texas, deployed 56 personnel to staff a 10-bed EMEDS facility erected in a parking lot across the street from the hospital. The deployed Airmen marveled at the dedication and selfless support provided by the Keesler personnel, many of whom suffered great personal loss as a result of the storm. From Sept. 9 through 26, the EMEDS personnel at Keesler treated over 1,000 patients.

In addition to the units already mentioned, the AFMS provided a wide range of medical care throughout the Gulf Coast Region. The Air Force Institute for Occupational Health sent an epidemiological rapid response team to New Orleans to test water, air and soil for contamination and assess the risk of infectious disease. Air National Guard staffed two 25-bed EMEDS at the New Orleans Naval Air Station, and Bay St. Louis, Miss. An Air Force Special Operations Command medical element in Jackson, Miss., and a mobile clinic in Gulfport, Miss., also supported the effort. In addition, ANG medics maintained a medical presence at the Louisiana Superdome until those who had taken shelter there were evacuated. Beyond these, other medics, from all over the Air Force, deployed to numerous locations around the country in support of disaster relief efforts.

During the AFMS Katrina response, Airmen treated approximately 15,000 patients and assisted three births. In all, the Air Force aeromedically evacuated over 2,600 patients from the Katrina disaster area. Throughout the Gulf Coast, the AFMS demonstrated their ability to quickly provide emergency medical capability and then utilize their unique aeromedical evacuation capacity to move patients to hospitals throughout the country without lowering the level of care.