Preserving Our Past, Capitalizing on the Present, Embracing the Future

Army Nurses and Healthcare After Hurricane Katrina

— by COL (Ret.) C. J. Moore, AN

When Hurricane Katrina hit the coast of Louisiana on 29 August 2005, its immense size and strength combined to turn a disaster in New Orleans into a catastrophe. Many healthcare facilities were damaged or destroyed. The communication infrastructure was knocked out. Over one million people were evacuated.1 On 7 September 2005, Army nurses and other healthcare providers of the 14th Combat Support Hospital deployed to hurricane-battered “Big Easy” to provide emergency healthcare in the wake of this, the costliest natural disaster in the history of the United States.

The mobile medical unit set up “64 beds plus operating room, pharmacy, radiology, laboratory, and blood bank in DEPMEDS temper equipment at the New Orleans International Airport.”2 Later, because Hurricane Rita potentially had the airport in its path, the unit was torn down and set up again at the New Orleans Convention Center. The hospital expanded to “84 beds; computed tomography and X-ray equipment were added; and an emergency room, and several ambulatory clinics were set up.”3 This move was fortunate not only because it moved the facility closer where hurricane-ravaged survivors might be, but also the Combat Support Hospital became to only facility to provide trauma support. Charity Hospital, which normally handled this level of care, had been damaged beyond repair by the floods following the hurricane. Chief Nurse Lieutenant Colonel Kelly Wolgast and the nurses of the hospital found there was no shortage of patients. Many individuals were cut off from care and medical therapeutics, such as oxygen or insulin. Other patients who were homebound or mentally ill were somehow missed and not evacuated. This population was also in desperate need of assistance. As in other disasters, the emergency room saw a high number of heart attacks, uncontrolled hypertension, and orthopedic injuries. Newly homeless patients’ chronic health care problems were exacerbated as they attempted to come to terms with their loss and try to plan for the future. The 21st Combat Support Hospital deployed on 10 October to replace the 14th as the city’s only trauma center.

Nursing care in the 21st CSH
1LT Bridget Regner tends a 21st CSH patient in New Orleans
Army nurses attached to the mobile hospital worked nonstop 12-hour shifts seeing up to 150 patients per day. They provided reassurance as their patients related their stories, and helped stabilize individuals so that they could be moved to other hospitals for definitive care. Nurses directed the efforts of dispensing hand antiseptics, to remind people of basic cleanliness, and encouraged people to rest when they could. They provided the bulk of the “hands-on” care such as immunizations and dressing changes. Traumatized clients were highly impressed by the kindly nurses and were appreciative of their excellent nursing skills.4

On 14 November the 21st Combat Support hospital handed over the operation to the newly reestablished Charity Hospital. In total, during the five-week mission the Army nurses and the other healthcare professionals provided non-urgent, urgent and lifesaving care to more than “1,400 patients including performing 11 operative procedures and seven cardiopulmonary resuscitations. The emergency room saw over 400 patients including emergency stabilization of 106 patients and 36 admissions.”5

There is no question that Hurricane Katrina was a challenging event in the recent history of our country. These Army nurses demonstrated that no matter what the event or location, outstanding nursing care can be provided. “It took the skills resident in American’s soldiers to overcome the chaos and destruction delivered by Hurricane Katrina.”6
1 Elizabeth Bridges et al., “Military Nursing Research: Translation to disaster Response and Day-to-Day Critical Care Nursing,” Critical Care Nursing Clinics of North America, 20 (2008): 122.
2 “ANC in the Spotlight,” The Connection, 30(December 2005): 7.
3 Ibid.
4 Patrick Kenney, “The Life of an Army Physician” Notre Dame Club of Hawaii Newsletter, December 2005.
5 Tequia Burt, “After the Storm: Experiences and Insight from the Front,” Healthcare Executive, 24 (March/April 2006): 32-34.
6 James A. Wombwell, Army Support During the Hurricane Katrina Disaster, (Ft. Leavenworth, KS: US Army Combined Arms Center, 2009): 6.