June 25, 2008 · Updated 5:55 PM
Millions of Americans watched in horror three weeks ago as CNN and others graphically reported the suffering of those caught by Hurricane Katrina in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
John Bitting missed the television coverage and yet he saw everything.
A registered nurse and emergency room manager at Whidbey General Hospital, Bitting was in the thick of the chaos as he and his disaster medical assistance team mates set up the initial triage facility in Concourse D of New Orleans Louis Armstrong International Airport.
Two years ago, Bitting who is 37 and married with two children volunteered to join the Washington disaster medical assistance team, or DMAT, along with 100 doctors, nurses, paramedics and emergency medical technicians.
In a serious natural disaster, FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will request a team roster of 35 first responders from DMAT.
Aug. 27:The phone rings
I was washing my car when I got the call asking if I could pre-deploy in Louisiana because a major hurricane was headed that way, Bitting recalled.
Can you do it? they asked.
His team left Seattle-Tacoma International Airport the next day for Houston, Texas and an odyssey hell not soon forget.
Aug. 28-29: Katrina arrives
Bitting and 11 other medical professionals arrive at a Hyatt hotel in Houston, ready to go wherever needed.
The next day, Aug. 29, Katrina is now a Category 5 hurricane.
The storm slams into the low coastline of Louisiana. Officials are pleased the eye of the storm has veered east and spared New Orleans.
In Houston, Bittings DMAT team is given updates every two hours throughout the day. Others had also arrived and were ready to help.
There were groups from Texas, New Mexico and California besides us, Bitting said.
For transport, the team rented seven cars and vans and started for Louisianas capital Baton Rouge at 6 p.m. From there, the convoy was sent directly to the Superdome in New Orleans.
As we approached the city, we spotted roadside signs reading, New Orleans Closed, Bitting said. It was a very eerie sight.
West of the city near the Cajun center of Lafayette, state police began escorting the group.
Aug. 30: Here comes the flood
While New Orleans is spared the worst of the storms onslaught, word arrives that levees along the citys canals have given way forcing thousands to flee their homes.
The closer the DMAT team gets to the fabled city, the greater the damage they see.
Roads were flooded, trees down and the sides of buildings had collapsed, Bitting said.
In some places the water was rising to our hubcaps. The only other vehicles were police cars, their roof lights flashing in the rain and darkness.
It soon became obvious that the Superdome was becoming its own domed disaster as thousands of evacuees headed there for shelter.
Bitting recalled the words of team commander Mike McCoy: Were a medical unit. We need to get out of here, the levees are broken and were going to be stuck.
As water began rising above the floorboards of the rented vans, the team headed north to Louisiana State University where patients were being treated on a volleyball court.
After a few hours sleep, they joined a convoy back to New Orleans, this time to the airport in Kenner, designated by federal officials as a medical triage site.
Normally, each team has a cache of materiel; 12 tons of tents, generators, medical supplies and water purification, Bitting noted. But only Texas had their supplies with them. So we did what we could.
Despite hundreds of exhausted evacuees and the overwhelming stench of urine and feces, four tents were set up to treat patients inside the airport concourse.
A green tent is set up to provide for the walking wounded. A yellow tent is raised for the more seriously wounded but treatable injuries. Red for those with life-threatening injuries. And a black tent: a holding area for those soon to pass away.
We had to deal with older folks on the edge of death. A very hard thing for all of us, Bitting said.
[subhead] Aug. 31: Katrina leaves path of devastation
The deadliest hurricane in generations is gone, but widespread flooding complicates emergency efforts at every level.
Bitting and fellow nurse Mark Gray worked in the red tent, helping University of Washington emergency room doctor Kathleen Jobe. Two male nurses and a female doctor, Bitting noted with a smile.
From that point, Bitting said his own timeline began to blur.
We were overwhelmed. Military helicopters, 150 an hour, were bringing hundreds of people needing attention.
They ran the gamut of simply confused, to serious injuries, to the dead. We tore the seats out of the vans to bring them to triage on the second floor, he said.
The following day, a Thursday, hospitals and convalescent homes began sending their patients.
Soon, even the airports baggage carousels were being used by people as beds and luggage carts were made into gurneys to move patients around the airport.
It was worse on the other end, however.
Conditions in New Orleans were so bad, Bitting said, that sometimes folks arriving on a helicopter would hand over guns and say, Here, Im safe now. I dont need this anymore.
By Saturday, the DMAT staff had seen thousands of people.
Ambulances, buses and C-17 air transports began taking the more serious wounded and sick to other facilities. Ninety-nine percent of those we saw were extremely thankful we were there, unlike some of the horror stories from the Superdome and convention center, Bitting said.
Gradually, power was restored and air conditioning came back on. Quite a relief. It was hot and muggy, Bitting said.
There was also now time for a little sleep and food; in military meals, ready to eat packages. Even at meal time, the crew thought of those who need their help.
We shared our MREs and water with patients, he said.
There were limits nonetheless, though.
We learned to walk through the rooms with blinders on, to concentrate on those we could help the most, he said.
At one point he needed to hand-carry some much-need oxygen to another triage point. I stopped by an elderly woman in a wheelchair who said, Ive been sitting here for two days in this same diaper. Can you help me?
I assured her I would be right back. When I returned she was dead. That was very hard, he said. Im a nurse, I care about people.
By Sept. 4, the airport was empty of patients and Bitting returned to Baton Rouge and a flight home. He looked forward to celebrating the birthday of his daughter a few days earlier.
Bitting will continue to live with Katrina in the days ahead; as he sits through debriefing after debriefing, or stops to answer coworkers questions about his role in the disaster relief effort.
Two things stand out.
The people I worked with are heroes, though theyd never want anyone to say that.
He also appreciates the support of his hospital: They know how to do the right thing.
At all levels, it seems. Whidbey General reported this week it has helped raise $9,000 for hurricane relief.
FEMA and the DMAT team, meanwhile, have requested another nurse and paramedic to help re-open a downtown New Orleans hospital.