Thursday, September 8, 2005

Four Honolulu city ambulance workers who were stranded in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit described their experience during a press conference yesterday at city Emergency Medical Services headquarters. Rochel Ortiz, left, Doreen Kitagawa, Melinda Shiraki and Jillian Takayama said they were happy to be home. Mayor Mufi Hannemann joined them at the conference.

Ordeal tests
island medics

Four workers trapped in New
Orleans say they saw the best
and the worst of humanity

» Hawaii deploys disaster specialists


The American Red Cross expects to be sending disaster workers to help in Katrina-affected states for several months. To volunteer or find out more about training, call the Hawaii Chapter at 739-8113. Neighbor island residents can call their local Red Cross office.

The four Honolulu paramedics stood on the streets of New Orleans, hour after hour, waiting for a bus that would never come.

"That night at the Monteleone, standing on the street for seven hours, being told that the bus is coming ... and it doesn't come. And then you have to go back upstairs to the dark room, with no electricity, no water, and go back to sleep and try another day to see if that bus is going to come tomorrow," paramedic Jill Takayama said yesterday, her voice softening and crying as she remembered efforts to escape the hurricane-stricken city.

Paramedics Takayama, Doreen Kitagawa and Melinda Shiraki and emergency medical technician Rochel Ortiz spoke about their ordeal yesterday during a news conference.

They had been stranded in the city after a paramedics conference ended, with no way out as Hurricane Katrina approached. They made it through the hurricane just fine at Hotel Monteleone in the French Quarter.

"It was the aftermath that we didn't expect -- the levees breaking, the water pumps failing, the whole city just filling with water ... people getting trapped," Kitagawa said.

Last Wednesday, the promise of a Grayline bus fell through when the military commandeered it to rescue hospital patients.

A day later, the hotel -- the water contaminated, the generator with only four hours of running time left -- was evacuated.

The four paramedics "went down to the lobby, and we just tried to find the biggest group as possible. There's safety in numbers," Ortiz said.

About 50 hotel guests trudged through the streets toward the convention center for what "seemed like forever," Ortiz said, with the paramedics pulling up the rear to ensure the group's safety "because it was very dangerous. People were watching us walk down the street."

Kitagawa said, "We wanted the biggest group possible because of what we've been hearing from everybody -- about the shootings, the stabbings, everybody hurting each other."

Takayama carried a 26-year-old Belgian man with a broken leg, while the other three lugged their own baggage and those of seniors.

After four blocks the group ran into a police commander who smiled when he learned they were paramedics. He took them to a police command post at Harrah's Casino, where they remained for about 12 hours. There, they assisted the sick and injured as best as they could with medical advice and the few medical supplies available.

"Melinda cut up one of her shirts to use as a bandage," Kitagawa said.

The women were later taken to a hotel where police were staying, and offered advice to officers suffering from exhaustion after working around the clock.

As soon as the police commander found a car for the paramedics, they were given 15 minutes to get ready. Police escorted them outside the city, and they drove to Houston.

The last they saw of their band of 50 was at a shelter set up in front of Harrah's.

"It was bittersweet, leaving the people who were so good to you and always checking on the girls from Hawaii," Shiraki said. "When you had to leave them, I think that was really hard for us. We felt very, very guilty, extremely guilty."

The Hawaii women, in their 20s and early 30s, say they have wondered about two New York women close to their age who kept them laughing, and hope nobody left the man with the broken leg behind.

The women say had they not been paramedics, they probably would not have gotten out of the city. The group offered their services from the start.

Despite witnessing looting, arson and hearing gunshots, the women also had good things to say about the people of New Orleans.

Among them is Detective Osbourne, who lost everything: his family, his home, his cars. "So he felt the best thing to do was to report to work," Shiraki said.

The detective gave the women his last clean towels and his last candle so they would not have to spend the night in the dark.

"There are truly good people in the world who went out of the way to help us, who gave us the last of things that they had because we were so far away from home," Shiraki said. "It kind of restores your faith in the human spirit and kindness."

The paramedics' families were happy to have them back. Takayama's 2-year-old son, Blaze, asked his mom to "gimme a hug."

Shiraki's mother, Carroll Nielsen, said: "She's always been our hero. I'm very relieved. After losing Mandy (Shiraki's husband, who died in a plane accident), it was very difficult to think we could lose her, too."

The women say it feels good to be home and that their ordeal helped them appreciate their family and friends.

"All the times that your mom talks to you or your grandma and you roll your eyes, and then you sit there and you wish they were there," said Shiraki, who vowed to spend more time with them.

"It's a huge eye-opener," she said.


Hawaii deploys
disaster specialists

Helpers from Hawaii are steadily deploying to the Gulf Coast region to help with Hurricane Katrina mop-up.

Veteran disaster relief worker Danny Tengan, 58, left last night on a flight to Houston, where he expects he will "do whatever's needed" at a Red Cross shelter for three weeks.

Based on his experience helping in New York in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and in Guam after a typhoon, Tengan, who is a state Civil Defense exercise training officer, said he expects "ordered chaos."

"You'll have a group of people in a confined space, with Red Cross volunteers trying to assist them in their daily needs" for shelter, food, clothing and sanitation, plus help coping with the emotional, financial and physical losses, Tengan said.

Among 15 Hawaii-based Red Cross workers already working in the Gulf Coast region are retired nurse Carmen Young of Oahu and Coralie Chun Matayoshi, chief executive of the Hawaii chapter of the American Red Cross, said Maria Lutz, Hawaii Red Cross director of disaster services.

Alfred Arensdorf, medical director of the state Department of Health's Child and Adolescent Mental Health Division, will lead a contingent of fellow health workers tomorrow to provide mental health services. They are Alton Tamashiro, branch chief of the Central Oahu Family Guidance Center; Judith White, clinical psychologist in Kauai's Mokihana Program; Dr. Melissa Sinkus, clinical director of the Kauai Family Guidance Center; Philip Morgan, mental health care coordinator in Kauai's Mokihana Program; Alex Lichton, a forensic coordinator at the Hawaii State Hospital; and psychologist Leon Luce, with the Adult Mental Health Division. Heading out soon will be Maui resident Carl Sandell, probably to work in logistics in Houston, Lutz said.

Already in the field are 11 Hawaii health professionals who left last week as part of the National Disaster Medical System under the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Among them are Dr. Paul Effler, state epidemiology chief, and Toby Clairmont of the Health Care Association of Hawaii, said Ed Teixeira, vice director of state Civil Defense.

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