New Haven paramedic reflects on Katrina experience

NEW HAVEN, Ind. (WANE) – This weekend marks the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The storm devastated the Gulf Coast, killing nearly 2,000 people and destroying a quarter of a million homes.

As the water receded, volunteers came pouring into New Orleans and some of that support came from right here in the region. After the storm, FEMA asked for help from ambulance services around the country. When the call came, local paramedic and Director of EMS Services for New Haven-Adams Township EMS Ned Gatchell answered willingly and said he’d do it again in a heartbeat.

“I don’t think of it any different than the job I’m doing today. I don’t think of it as history. It’s just part of the job we did and I’d go do it again if need be because it was important work and I trained a lot for that kind of disaster management, so I would be glad to go again and lend my services if they were needed,” Gatchell said.

Gatchell’s group flew into Lafayette, then drove to Baton Rouge. From there, they got sent out to areas near New Orleans including Mandeville and Slidell.

“The further east you went, the more damage there was,” Gatchell said. “What we did is go out for welfare checks and try to find people that hadn’t been located yet back in the unpopulated, undeveloped areas and delivered food and water to those folks and made sure they had medical aid. Some of the most shocking things I saw were residences that were completely destroyed right next to residences that were not touched, within feet of one another. You get one mobile home that is destroyed sitting right next to another mobile home that doesn’t even have the glass broken out.”

His group worked 12 hour shifts with no electricity or air conditioning to speak of in some of the hardest hit places.

“We’ve just got a job to do. You really can’t look at the destruction and let it get to you. It’s really no different than what we do here every day. People need help and they need assistance, and that’s what our job focus is. It doesn’t matter what environment you’re in to render the aid. Your job is to focus on rendering aid,” Gatchell said. “It’s the same call for help, it’s just a different venue and a different location under different circumstances.”

Gatchell’s group helped between 30 to 50 people every day. Many of them lived in remote parts of the state.

“We would be given a map with a satellite photograph and directions of how to find that area on the map. We’d go and drive back little driveways that were sometimes a mile long and there’d be a little house back in there and we’d check on the folks and make sure they had enough food and water and that nobody was getting sick and check them out and then go over to the next residence,” Gatchell said. “A lot of the places were not on the map. We’d drive along and see a driveway and it’s not on the map. We’d drive back there and lo and behold, we’d find somebody that hadn’t seen anybody since the hurricane. We’d load them up with food and water and make sure their tetanus shot was up to date.”

Even with their homes and so much of what they knew washed away, Ned describes the people he helped as incredibly resilient and grateful.

“The people were very gracious and they were very happy to get help of any kind. They were very appreciative and thankful. They were genuine. They were not out to make a gain from the situation, but they were really happy to get a hand up and we were glad to give it,” Gatchell said. “The hardest part was leaving and turning the reins over to the next crew because you always feel like you can do a little more. So, there’s a little bit of almost like survivor’s guilt.”

Gatchell said it’s hard to believe it’s been ten years since the storm and thinks of his time down there often.

“I think of all of them. There’s certain things that will happen during a run now that will take you back to then- the same type of situation or same complaint or even the same smells or anything that can spur on a memory or flashback like that,” Gatchell said.

Hurricane Rita hit less than a month after Katrina. Ned’s group was wrapping up their trip right before it made landfall, and helped evacuate a nursing home near the eye of the storm. He also volunteered in Florida after Hurricane Andrew.

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