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Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Isle workers survive
as disaster’s hostages

» Hawaii medical team deploys
» Katrina certain to strike isles at pump

Four Honolulu emergency workers are holed up in a dark, dank New Orleans hotel, having survived Hurricane Katrina but now struggling with its horrific aftermath.

"We're trying not to get caught up in the madness -- the violence, the looting and fires," said Melinda Shiraki, a 10-year veteran teaching paramedic with the city's Emergency Medical Services.

Already the four women have dealt with price gouging, food and water shortages and the uncertainty of when the ordeal will end.

Shiraki, paramedics Jill Takayama and Doreen Kitagawa and emergency medical technician Rochel Ortiz were in New Orleans for a convention that ended Saturday. But they were unable to get a flight out or a rental car over the weekend as Katrina approached the Gulf Coast.

So they moved from the French Quarter mansion where they had been staying to two 12th-floor rooms in a downtown hotel, two blocks from Bourbon Street and just off a flooded canal.

"We couldn't get a cab from the house we were renting," Shiraki said. "We had to hitch a ride. Then we started to panic. We started to notice people were gone and it seemed like it was going to be really bad."

Two of the women spoke last night with the Star-Bulletin by phone, one of the few things in the hotel that was still working. "This is our only link to the world," Shiraki said.

With no electricity or running water in the hotel, they just lay in bed in the darkness and sweltering heat, she said.

"It's like being in a prison, and we just wait," Shiraki said.

Last night, Takayama and Ortiz managed to "bargain" for the group's dinner: Two plates of fried squash and rice for $40. They also brought back a $5 warm can of Coke and a piece of bread, which they split.

But the streets were filling with water yesterday, and they don't know what it will be like today.

"We wheel and deal for food," Shiraki said. "I can't believe we have to do this in America."

The four have been rationing the contents of their mini-bars, a few peanuts at a time. Yesterday, they found a trashed bar on Bourbon Street where they bought a case of bottled water for $40 and some rice with butter.

A little boy gave Takayama a bucket of clean water that they could use for bathing, a luxury. The hotel announced over its public address system that it has no food and the water it has is being reserved for future use.

The city is under martial law, and a memo slipped under their hotel room doors said if anyone is outside after 8 p.m., police and the military have the authority to shoot to kill. "It feels like we're in the movies," Shiraki said.

But the women can turn to one another for comfort.

"It's easier to be with three of your best friends and we keep each other entertained," Shiraki said. "One cries and the other three picks her up."

Shiraki shares her iPod, but it can't be recharged, so each person is allowed to pick one song every night.

Takayama's 2-year-old son, Blaze, calls nightly to sing "Eensy Weensy Spider."

"We usually end up crying," Shiraki said. "He tells us not to be scared."

"I'm so grateful that my family's not here," Takayama said. She sees mothers with their children and no milk for bottles, unable to provide for them.

The women call home to let their loved ones know how they're doing.

"I can imagine knowing how hard it is, only having the news," Takayama said. The women, on the other hand, are cut off from TV and radio news.

"We can see only certain things, not all the devastation," Takayama said.

Outside the hotel, they haven't ventured too far, avoiding the flooded streets to avoid illness from contaminated water.

But they've witnessed people digging through trash, picking up half-filled beer bottles and looting, Shiraki said.

"They set fires in a city that has no water, which blows our minds," Shiraki said.

A fire struck the third floor of their hotel. One man pleaded to allow his young son to escape in the elevator, but the passengers literally threw him off, Shiraki said.

"It's total madness. People are desperate," she said, noting that she does not believe anyone was hurt in the small fire. They have also seen fights in the streets and in the hotel.

The three paramedics and EMT have volunteered their services with the Red Cross and other local public agencies, and informed the hotel that they are paramedics.

"It's difficult to be the victim and not the provider," Takayama said. "We're usually the ones coming to the rescue of others, and not the ones being rescued."

In Honolulu, EMS Chief Patricia Dukes said that should the four employees perform paramedic work or work in the shelters in New Orleans, the city will pay them for their work.

"They'd much rather be doing work than sitting in a hotel room," Dukes said.

The women hope to get a flight or rental car out of the city soon, but are unsure when they will be able to evacuate.

Despite all they are going through, the women said the experience has given them an appreciation for what they have.

"I can't imagine what the people that live here have to return to, if anything," Takayama said. "We get to go home one day, and these people don't.

"It's saddening when we walk through the streets," she said.

The women say they try not to complain and walk around with smiles.

"We try to pick up people's spirits and are trying to spread the aloha spirit in the Big Easy," Takayama said. "We got some people smiling."


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Hawaii medical
team deploys

The Federal Emergency Management Agency activated a team of nine Hawaii medical professionals yesterday to assist victims of Hurricane Katrina.

The Hawaii team of one doctor, six registered nurses and two emergency medical technicians will leave tonight for Houston, where they will report for assignment.

The Hawaii Disaster Medical Assistance Team is co-sponsored by the Healthcare Association of Hawaii and the state Department of Health.

The team may assist a small community hospital with outpatient clinical services, conduct health care assessment capabilities, or possibly establish a clinic to treat and rescue workers.

The team's supervisory medical officer and chief of the Health Department's Disease Outbreak Control Division, Dr. Paul Effler, was in Mississippi yesterday with an Ohio-based team to give medical and surgical care.

Eight Honolulu Army engineers left Saturday to help with Hurricane Katrina relief efforts in the southern Mississippi Valley region.

The team works with the 249th Engineering Battalion, contractors, and local and state entities to assess, install and maintain emergency generators at critical facilities.

Those wishing to contribute to the relief efforts can donate to the Red Cross by calling (800) HELP NOW.

The Salvation Army is also helping with relief efforts by sending disaster relief teams and providing hot meals to residents and first responders.

Donations can be made by calling (800) SALARMY (725-2769), or locally at 988-2136.



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