By Dr. Todd Husty
Special to TelevisionWeek
Even after days of traveling through the wind and storm devastation of Alabama and Mississippi, we weren’t ready for what greeted us in New Orleans.
Anzio Williams, our former assistant news director at Hearst-Argyle-owned WESH-TV, the NBC affiliate in Orlando, Fla., and now news director at sister NBC affiliate WDSU-TV in New Orleans, stepped out of his truck at the rendezvous, a looted convenience store. Almost instantly, two heavily armed, Kevlar-vested men appeared-our escorts. For the next six days, we went nowhere without two members of the Tulsa, Okla., SWAT Team.
So who are we? Ed Rose, my friend and producer for more than five years; Pete Dellis, one of WESH’s photojournalists and me, Todd Husty, an emergency medicine physician and five-days-a-week medical reporter at WESH for the past 10 years. I am also the EMS medical director for Seminole County, Fla., and its cities as well as Maitland and Winter Park, two cities in Orange County, Fla. Part of my life is training for disasters; therefore WESH and Hearst-Argyle felt that our team could contribute to getting WDSU back up and running.
The military and law enforcement presence in New Orleans was overwhelming 10 days after Hurricane Katrina. My military training and years in emergency medicine gave me similar experiences and an attitude such that there is very little that surprises me anymore. But I was unable to assimilate the blackness and emptiness of New Orleans. No civilians, just armed troops. No throngs of people out for a good time or in search of some more N’awlins cookin’. No, there were just the (para)military and the smells.
Pulling into the WDSU compound, we were confronted by a mixture of odors: wet, musty sewage and decaying animals. At first the smells made us want to hold our breath, but eventually physiology won. As we traveled to the middle of the flooded areas, the olfactory concoction now included thousands of dead fish, oil, gas, diesel and countless rotting refrigerators. We kept hoping that the dead bodies weren’t human, but we knew that they were out there too.
WDSU became our home. The floors and inflated mattresses were our beds. NBC organized food service. No fresh veggies, but not bad. We helped build showers. The public water was only for flushing, when there was enough pressure. The garage had portable toilets. We did have limited air conditioning and electricity. And we used lots of hand sanitizer.
Last year, Central Florida was pounded by hurricanes. We had learned and prepared after Andrew in 1992, but still learned much more last year. We brought important public health information to New Orleans on the dangers of generators, the risks connected with chainsaws, alerts to boil water and where to get medications or health care. The Centers for Disease Control stated in one interview that it had a lot of messages to get out and that it needed existing media to do it.
We heard complaints from locals about the negative reporting by the media. They argued that though there was enormous devastation, injuries and death, there were plenty of stories about rebuilding and starting anew despite the losses. Every day we searched for those stories and found them every 30 feet. They included healthcare workers’ heroic efforts during and after the storm; how a hospital was saved by a casino; thousands of immunizations being given by healthcare workers and the Scientologists; pharmacies pulling resources from across the U.S. to keep the chronically ill healthy; and how the Federal Emergency Management Agency did do some things very well.
Yes, we did stories on the slow responses to remove the dead, but we praised hospital corporations for sending in private helicopters, which helped keep the death toll down. Yes, we slammed hospitals for having emergency generators on the first floor or in basements, but praised the efforts of many who dealt with those mistakes and vowed to apply what they learned in the rebuilding effort. And, yes, we reported on the muck, the stench and the risk of disease, but we also pointed out that the professionals working in the muck had not experienced an increase in disease.
It was dirty, hot, sweaty and smelly, but for those of us who came to grips with the conditions, it was unforgettable. For me, it was a time of growth, professionally and personally. I wanted to help, and I believe we found a way. But it also helped me get humble once again.
I was still quietly mad at Charley, the hurricane that dropped seven trees on three buildings at my home. Charley put me to the test, but Katrina made me realize it can always get worse. And then it will get better again.