This year we mark the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. And for the first time since its last fateful visit in 2005, EMS World Expo returns to New Orleans. In advance of this year’s show, scheduled for October 29–November 2 at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, we dispatched California paramedic and photographer Josh Kennedy, NREMT-P, to ride along with New Orleans EMS and capture the sights and scenes of the city today, as it continues its fight to recover, as seen by those on the front lines of its EMS. Here’s what he saw.
The Big Easy
I flew to New Orleans from San Francisco full of anticipation at what I might experience. It would be a great professional opportunity to ride with and photograph the New Orleans EMS system. I had no personal experience with any EMS system outside of mine in Alameda County, where I’ve served for nine years, the last five as a paramedic. I didn’t know what my two-day journey would yield, but what better way to experience any new city than through the lens of a camera traveling Code 3?
I expected to have a good time. I didn’t expect to be touched so much by the dedication, hospitality, positive attitudes and consistently great customer service of New Orleans EMS (NOEMS). I was told of the personal and professional tragedies faced by all during Hurricane Katrina. I saw the work that’s been done, and still needs to be done, to restore this wonderful city. I was amazed at how common positive attitudes were as I interacted with the city’s chiefs, doctors, paramedics and EMTs. Despite their ongoing daily struggles, they continue to aid others with the highest quality of service.
On my first day I rode with New Orleans native and Deputy Chief Ken Bouvier. Ken made me feel right at home as I climbed into his Ford Explorer. Right away he began telling me, with great pride, of his city’s EMS statistics and geography.
NOEMS serves 199 square miles of city and cares for a population of approximately 344,000 people. They run more than 50,000 9-1-1 calls a year. Of eight hospitals in New Orleans prior to Katrina, only five remain, with much smaller footprints. These hospitals are continually overrun with patients, leaving crews “on the wall” waiting to transfer care.
Ken showed me areas that are coming back and areas that are still suffering. Walking around the fence that sealed it off, I was saddened by the empty slab of concrete where the NOEMS building used to be. In the Lower Ninth Ward, an area famously devastated by Katrina, I was amazed that its fire station now is a wheeled trailer with an engine parked next to it.
In that same area, Ken showed me a memorial consisting of blue poles of increasing height—from about 1 foot to 8—to symbolize the different water heights in that area. There were also chairs placed in this memorial to represent people’s inability to sit on their front porches and look out.
Ken pointed across the street to a fence with a water-line stain about two feet from the ground. He said the water was much higher than that for a short time, but stayed at that two-foot level for weeks, causing that line.
I saw many rebuilt homes that still had the old cement steps in their front yards. Those steps were the only things left on homeowners’ properties after the flood. They don’t serve a functional purpose now, but serve as a reminder of the past.
Ken pointed out boarded attic openings of homes where trapped residents called for help during the flooding—the only parts of their homes not submerged. Later, as we responded to a call downtown, Ken noted the Superdome area where thousands waited to be evacuated and where NOEMS ate and slept for a few days.
I was humbled by stories of starvation in a city known for its fine dining. I never believed starvation could happen in any city in this country, with all our modern amenities and accessibilities.