“Saturday morning I called my fiancée, informed her of the updated prediction of a direct hit category 4-5 hurricane and asked her to start packing to leave. That afternoon a ‘code gray’ [natural disaster] was called, and we were informed by e-mails and pages. This meant that both the Saturday and Sunday teams had to report on Sunday and would be on duty indefinitely.
“Sunday morning I reported to work under the code gray status. Katrina was bearing down on New Orleans, and it was evident from the media that there was going to be some major damage. [New Orleans] Mayor [Ray] Nagin issued a mandatory evacuation. Katrina was becoming a super-storm, and we were right in her path.
—Steve McPherson, MD
“Our attending rounded as usual that morning. Then he met with the upper echelon of hospital administration. At this meeting the house staff were informed that there was a real possibility that the first two floors of the hospital could be flooded. The administration asked all services to prioritize a list of ‘salvageable’ patients. Essentially this meant asking—assuming we lost power, generators, and elevators—who would be the most appropriate to carry manually up to higher floors. Further, assuming the necessity of economy in allocation of medical resources, who would stand the best chance of survival and would benefit from these resources.
“So, we put our heads together with the SICU teams and developed a triage list. The next step in hurricane preparation involved moving the patients away from vulnerable window areas in into an adjacent recovery area that was more internally located. The rest of Sunday afternoon was business as usual. There was, however, a palpable undercurrent of nervous anticipation. Sunday night we pitched a no-hitter. Of course, this was not due to luck but rather because the town was empty. Aside from zero admissions, the hospital that night from a functional standpoint was essentially normal.
“Monday morning Katrina struck. Despite being in a rather sturdy steel frame, brick-and-mortar public building, you could feel that the wind strength was impressive and the rain was pounding relentlessly like a banshee from hell. At 10 a.m., we lost primary power and generator power kicked in. The ICU was still functioning fairly normally. We were obtaining labs, running vents although we had no computer system, and had to retrieve lab results like an old-fashioned errand boy on the main floor.
“Outside, I could see about three feet of water had flooded Gravier Street. Surrounding houses were missing a few windows and shingles, but otherwise the damage seemed minimal, and it looked like initially we had dodged a bullet. I remember thinking that the levies had done their job. This notion became a pipe dream as the water level surrounding the hospital steadily began to rise sometime between the hours of 12 to 2 p.m. We had no idea about the now-infamous levy breaches, but the burgeoning deluge provided the information that the media or government was unable to give us at that time. The feculent water continued to rise slowly throughout the day. Pretty soon, I saw boats with outboard motors cruising by. I’m not sure if anyone in the hospital knew precisely that our predicament was becoming more precarious by the hour.