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New Orleans
Crisis and Challenge

A Human Triumph of the Power of One

Beryl P. Wajsman

3 September 2005

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others,

or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.

And crossing each other from thousands of different centres of energy and daring, those ripples

 build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of suffering and oppression.”


~ Robert F. Kennedy

It’s the banality of the answers to the “whys” that stagger the imagination in the wake of the New Orleans tragedy. Why did it take five days for the U.S. Army to bring in food, water, engineers and doctors when the General in charge of its rescue efforts, Russell Honoré, said the army was ready on day one? Answer…nobody asked, nobody ordered. Why did it take five days for federal troops to be mobilized and enter the city? Answer…nobody asked, nobody ordered. Why did it take five days, according to former Louisiana Senator John Breaux, for one of America’s largest hospital ships - the USS Comfort - to leave its home port of Baltimore for New Orleans while the city went begging for cruise ships? Answer…nobody asked, nobody ordered. Why did it take five days for New Orleans International Airport to be federalized as the center for air rescue and evacuation? Answer…nobody asked, nobody ordered.  

Why after five days have nine major stockpiles of fire-and-rescue equipment strategically placed around the U.S. to be used in the event of a catastrophe not been pressed into service? Answer… from Department of Homeland Security spokesman Marc Short to CNN…no governor in the hurricane-ravaged area asked for them and nobody in Washington ordered them. Why did it take five days for the Federal Emergency Management Administration, FEMA, to ratchet up to full capacity and exercise its mandate of centralized direction of disaster relief even though it had substantial notice of the impending disaster? Answer…according to FEMA director Michael Brown…nobody asked and Michael Chertoff, Homeland Security Secretary in charge of FEMA, did not issue any orders in the pre-strike period.

And most tragic of all, why was Acadian Air and Ambulance Services – the frontline emergency paramedic provider serving all of Louisiana – not allowed to accept the offers of hundreds of paramedics from all over North America willing to come and help, nor even the offer of 300 ambulances from Florida? The answer, to paraphrase Balzac, was that “ …the leviathan weight of that black monster called bureaucracy…” conspired to inflict sclerotic paralysis while competing jurisdictional authorities fought over who would get the credit. We have truly witnessed what the Italian legal philosopher Becarria called, “…the tyranny of the mindless…”


Well, this appeal I send to you today is a story of more noble conscience and a more courageous response. A story of someone who was not satisfied with mindlessness and would not rest in the face of petty bureaucratic mediocrity. A story of one who did not wait for answers to the “whys”, but instead decided to act.




It is a story, and an appeal, of which we have written of before. Another example of how our community of common cause has brought forth allies of daring and energy that together shame the false pieties of interposition and nullification used as excuses for inaction, and in their place produce results fuelled by authentic compassion and character.


Hal Newman helped build Cote-St Luc Emergency Medical Services into the best unit in the country and a model in North America. We are proud that he is on the Institute’s Advisory Council responsible for Emergency Preparedness and Social Services. We are even prouder to call him friend. Hal’s brotherhood of paramedics and emergency relief workers are a special breed. Wherever they go they stay in touch and stick together.


When Katrina broke, Hal instinctively leapt into action. And almost at once his band of brothers had the same instinct. They started talking and emailing to each other. Each and every one viscerally understood that their place was where the suffering was. Their role, to help relieve it. Hal asked for the Institute’s partnership, both moral and material. We gladly gave it.


Over the past few days Hal has assembled a roster of several hundred paramedics and related specialists who are ready to leave their homes and private lives and head south early this coming week. All are ready to pay for their own airfare. Only some have the financial means. For protocol’s sake contact was made with the appropriate officials at Health Canada and at FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) in Washington, D.C. The usual answer was received. Do nothing till you hear from us. That’s government code for “wait till we get our shit together because we haven’t a clue as to what to do”. So our planning continued.


Hal continued his work from the ground up. He contacted dozens of local and regional American units and, aside from signing up volunteers, got their logistical help for everything from lodging to food to placement. Aside from those who want to go directly to the affected areas, we have also offered Canadian EMS providers to northern tier States so that American specialists can be deployed further South. A commitment has been obtained for a central operations post in Lafayette, Louisiana. We have started to receive concrete offers of supply aid.


One particular group in Colorado had ambulance cot gurneys, canvas flats litters and folding aluminum and wooden backboards to ship to Acadian. These products were specifically requested by the CEO of Acadian who is at the New Orleans International Airport with his personnel working on triage with the Army. The donors in Colorado didn’t have the money to send it and the transport companies wouldn’t do it for free. The Institute agreed to cover the cost.


Using his company, TEAM EMS, Hal has set up EMS Across the Border. Together, we’re establishing a continental database of specialist and asset resources through the assistance of Convergence Communications of St.Louis. Convergence was behind the ESponder collaborative command & control software that was used at the Super Bowl and are one of the corporations who are supporting this project. The registry will be used to create a statement of capability that will be dynamic and available for future use as well. The Institute has brought all of our member social services, NGOs, and labor groups into the mix. The Teamsters are working on providing transportation services for this project as well - in Canada and the USA. A co-ordinated, centralized and directed network has taken shape.


To assure another layer of protection against charges of “freelancing”, liason has been established with Public Health Canada’s HERT (Health Emergency Response Teams) project and, though they have fine personnel such as Donovan Arnaud, Tom Turnbull and Marc-André Beaulieu, they have not received a government deployment order. More problematic is that HERT was established in 2001 and apart from the executive team mentioned above, have not set up any emergency response units. In fact a Request for Proposals has just been tendered to set up the first two in 2005-2006.


We are in touch with the Chief of Staff to Michael Brown, the Director of FEMA, on logistical issues. Pleas for help are coming from a myriad of EMS (Emergency Medical) systems on the ground in the USA. These include  Mid-Georgia Ambulance - another private ambulance service - which is backstopping Acadian's relief operations, as well as EMS directors in Oklahoma who are desperately short of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) to serve the approximately 25,000 refugees who are arriving as overflow from Texas.


We have also received the protocol from the Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta for the Interim Immunization Recommendations for Emergency Responders. These include required immunizations against tetanus, diphtheria toxoid (receipt of primary series, and TD booster within 10 years), and hepatitis B vaccine series for persons who will be performing direct patient care or otherwise expected to have contact with bodily fluids.



This initiative between TEAM EMS and the Institute is truly taking on the structure of an International Emergency Management Assistance Compact [EMAC]. But we need all the help we can get. We urgently need funds for those medics who can’t pay for their flights. But we also need contributions of medical equipment, transport and food. If you know anyone in these industries please call them for donations in kind. And we need the help of the media to spread the message of this endeavour.


The United Nations High Commission for Refugees, as well as the U.S. State Department, have both confirmed that today, some nine months after the Tsunami hit South Asia, less than 10% of all the money committed has been spent. We should not comfort ourselves because we’ve made a check to some charity. This is a chance to exercise your power. Your power of one. One person reaching out to help another can truly make a world of difference. Hal Newman has proven that. He has challenged us and we have responded. Now we put the challenge to you.


Don’t indulge in the slavish comfort of believing the pronouncements of bureaucratic mediocrities. Become a partner in something larger than yourself. You are witnessing suffering. Try and heal it. You are witnessing want. Try and fill it. You are witnessing injustice. Try and cure it.


It’s up to you.



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