Sunday, September 18, 2005

Andrew Schamess, doctor

Mr. Schamess describes his experiences with FEMA in Houston on his blog "":
After a couple of hours in the medical clinic I was pulled aside with a few others to screen evacuees to relocate to a cruise ship. A cruise company had offered a ship docked in Galveston. We were supposed to decide who was healthy enough to board. ...

They kept us sitting around for about two hours, during which time we decided which conditions to screen for and made up a checklist. They weren't going to tell the evacuees where they were going until they got to Galveston. Aimee and I objected - you can't just bus people out to Galveston and then tell them they're going on a boat. They have a right to make their own decisions. [...]

Come 11:00, the FEMA employees decided to knock off. The processing would have to wait until tomorrow, they declared - as if it made little difference whether four hundred hot, miserable evacuees got to leave the Astrodome now or later. This lassez-fair attitude struck me as inappropriate in representatives of the agency whose slow response left thousands of New Orleaneans to die in the flood. I told the FEMA supervisor this. She smiled and assured me that my concerns would receive full attention in the morning. Then she left for her hotel.

Aimee and I spent the rest of the night running the gastroenteritis clinic. I want to emphasize that the City of Houston is doing its absolute best to manage the influx of evacuees - but this is what happens when you crowd six thousand malnourished people together in an open space on cots. We had a steady stream of patients with vomiting and dehydration. We laid them down on stretchers, gave them intravenous fluids, anti-emetics, cleaned them up, found them new clothes. Once they were able to keep down some water, we sent them out to the quarantine area. They were remarkably cooperative about it once they understood that they could infect others in the Astrodome.

One young man wandered in who was autistic and mute. He had been separated from his group. We had no idea how to find them. He was frightened as well as sick. Aimee contacted a local agency that cares for the retarded. They were willing to take him in. How he will ever be connected with his prior caregivers, I don't know.

As the night wore on and patients came and went, I began to imagine that he symbolized all the hurricane victims. It's as if they've lost, not just their homes, but their place in the world: their individual voices, their collective voice, their power to choose. Who is representing them politically? All kinds of decisions are being made about them without their input.

When I left Houston and had time to look again at the media coverage, this feeling was even stronger. The administration is working assiduously to shift the focus away from the disaster, away from the three days that people were trapped in the flood zone with no food or water, and toward rescue and reconstruction efforts now underway. We see soldiers patrolling the now empty streets, politicians posing in front of demolished houses. Everyone cares! The great crisis is be the damage to the President's reputation. Can he save his legacy?

We should not allow ourselves to forget the real experience of the people of New Orleans, those who were abandoned in the flood. I hope their stories will be collected and told. I hope that they will not disperse silently to whatever homes can be found for them. I hope they will not be bought off by a $2,000 ATM card. Their lives have been changed forever. I would like to know what happens to them.
(Emphasis added) Earlier entries by Mr. Schamess: Houston Convention Center; Volunteering for Medical Relief - Hurricane Katrina.


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