The National Medical Disaster System is a federally coordinated system that provides medical response to a disaster area in the form of personnel, medical supplies and equipment. Patients are moved from a disaster site to an unaffected part of the nation for medical care. Over 50 agencies were ready and waiting at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, just north of Atlanta. This was the first time the system was used domestically, but they were prepared for patients. What they received was an overwhelming number of evacuees. Plans had to change.
NMDS set up two airplane hangars to accommodate over 1900 evacuees. In one hanger, patients were treated by Veterans Affairs professionals, triaged, and sent to different area hospitals and nursing homes. In the other hanger, Red Cross volunteers and other agencies processed evacuees, finding shelters and temporary housing in the Atlanta area.
Russo remembers the evacuees that came through the door were in their rawest emotional state. These people were trapped in homes or on roofs and picked up by helicopters or managed to make it to an evacuation site. They were tired, hungry, scared, and now 500 miles from home.
Once the evacuees touched down at Dobbins, VA medical professionals went on board for a quick triage and update from the flight crew. Passengers included hospital patients, newborns, seniors, mental health patients, scared evacuees, and even a few dogs. Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta was brought in to take care of children and infants, something that the NMDS was not equipped for. The Cobb County Animal Control came out to take care of the pets, taking dogs overnight so that their owners could get settled before reuniting with their furry family members. Faith-based leaders were on site to help evacuees cope with the trauma. Security was brought in to handle the influx of passengers that got off the plane. People were arriving with drugs, weapons, alcohol, and contraband, and security staff helped to provide a safe shelter for evacuees and staff.
Over 200 volunteers treated and triaged the evacuees in a 5 day period. One week later, the NMDS was activated for the second time – for Hurricane Rita.
For Russo, the key to preparedness is being informed. When public officials are ordering evacuations, it’s critical to listen. The biggest lesson that Sherri learned from her experience was to always listen to public officials. “Most of the evacuees I talked to were shocked. They really didn’t think the storm would be as catastrophic as it turned out to be and ignored the warnings. Listening and being aware of what is going on around you is critical – be it news on TV or a person knocking on your door. Public officials are giving you informed advice. Listen to them.”