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By Meg Brizollara, R.N. A Nurse's Letters from San Antonio

Note: I wrote this when I could from a laptop donated to the "Special Needs Unit" at Kelly AFB [Air Force Base]. One of the SEIU Seattle nurses is married to a guy who works for Microsoft and since there was no way of keeping records on any of the "patients" in the SN Unit she put out an SOS for a computer. We made spread sheets and tried to keep track of the patients but we'd come in at night and some patients would be gone (we knew not where or why) and new ones would be in.

Dispatch #1 Sept. 18, 2005

Hey everybody;

Got here last night with another nurse from San Francisco General and my head has been spinning ever since. San Antonio is a typical American town, strip malls, big box WalMarts, etc., with everyone going about their usual business, seemingly unaware of the fact that just a few miles down the freeway at a converted Air Force Base is a huge airplane hangar housing around 2,000 evacuees from new Orleans! That was the first thing that shocked me, the "Two San Antonio's" similar probably to the "Two Americas".

We came to the AFB and met 6 other nurses, all volunteers, all from various places around the country, mainly Seattle at this point.

We were given the "orientation": SEIU is essentially running the medical service in this facility.

FEMA is here but they do absolutely nothing; this is not an exaggeration. They will not help us though they have the only M.D. in the facility. They say they are "disaster" oriented and are mandated to do "disaster" medical service, so why they are here now, after the disaster is over is a question we dare not ask them because they look at us with such disdain as it is, we don't want to make it worse.

When the facility first opened, the FEMA medical staff had their own section but decided to wall it off behind moveable panels so no one can see them basically doing nothing but playing cards and basketball. Like I said they are unwilling to help us in any way and I have been told not to ask them for anything.

I'm also told that the City of San Antonio called the local SEIU offices here to request nurses when they first realized they were going to have between 1 and 3,000 evacuees! NOT FEMA, not the Red Cross, SEIU. Why I'm not entirely sure but will be learning more in the coming days. This request was made to SEIU from a "Right To Work" state, Texas, as most states in the South are. "Right to Work" really means right to work at slave wages without the ability to collectively bargain and join a union. Brilliant designation by state GOP legislatures a number of years back.

This is the hugest building I've ever seen. It's wall-to-wall cots, during the day neatly made beds with stuffed animals and meager possessions piled on top while the occupants mill around during the day. Meals are served by the Mexican Army! I couldn't believe it. Mexican troops are ladling beans, rice and meat onto Styrofoam plates for the residents. I was so moved by this sight, especially when I think of how we treat them up norte! The Navajo "scouts" come around asking us if we need anything. Don't really

know what their function is but if i 'need anything" I'll ask

There's so many stories to hear from the people here and I've only heard a few. I just walked by an elderly woman who said to me when I asked her how she was, "I'm blessed! Know what I'm sayin'? People here are so nice, They gonna help me start a new life. I'm blessed! Do you hear me?"

God almighty, I just started.

More later,


Dispatch #2 Sept 19

They held the plate glass window in their living room for hours so it wouldn't break from the winds from the hurricane.

Olymphia Otis, her son, her husband, daughter and "grandbaby" along with 2 "Iranians" who lived next door in the townhouses in East New Orleans Parish. They kept the window from breaking and letting wind and rain in, though the ceiling in the bedroom had been blown off. The townhouse of the 2 Iranians had been destroyed and they had come over to the Otis' to see if they were okay and stayed, holding up the plate glass window across from the "man made lake" across the street.

The sun came up and everyone breathed a sigh of relief though they were standing in water up to their chests. "The water will go down now. We're gonna be okay". Then the water rose and rose. They went to the second floor, then the third. 3 days had gone by and they had eaten all the food in the house.

The water got higher. They had to take 2 tables, one from the dining room, then the kitchen table and stack one on top of the other. They then broke a hole through the ceiling and helped each other up onto the roof. Olymphia is obese as is her diabetic husband and she teared up when describing how hard it was for the Iranians to get both her and her husband through the hole onto the roof.

Olymphia and her family, the 2 Iranians and their wives and children (2 babies, totaling 3) were up on the roof for 5 days.

The Iranian finally said "We're gonna die here and I'm not dyin' on no roof".

They decided to swim, somewhere. They got a mattress from the bed on the third floor and put the babies on them. Then they started swimming.

Olymphia can't swim. They grabbed a board that was floating and pulled her along with her hanging on to the mattress and the board.

One of the babies fell off the mattress into the water. Olymphia grabbed his little shirt while she could still see him under the water and pulled him up and back onto the mattress.

They swam for an unknown period of time until a New Orleans police boat came by and plucked them all out of the water.

They took "women and children first" and Olymphia's daughter and the grandbaby went with the NO police in another boat.

They then took the rest to the Convention Center in New Orleans that was so filthy, no lights, no water-they stayed outside since the stench was too horrendous to go inside and there wasn't any room anyway.

Olymphia didn't know where her daughter and grandbaby were taken until she got here in San Antonio at Kelly's AFB and the Red Cross did a search for her daughter.

Found her in Shreveport and she is coming here to be reunited with Olymphia and her husband on Friday.

I will be here on Friday but not until after 11pm! Damn! I'd give anything to see this reunion.

Meanwhile I am the only nurse from SF who will do the night shift here at Kelly AFB "Special Needs" area. My partner is Don Miller from Seattle and what a doll he is. Funny as hell and compassionate, shaming the FEMA people into helping us with a young man who had a seizure for a LONG time on the floor here at 2 am.

I smoke outside in the smoking area and have spoken to Rachel and her daughter Rachel. Mother and daughter with the same name. Both beautiful with classic features. Both were in the Superdome. "Everything they done said is true, Miss".

Navajo Scouts have helped me twice now get an elderly woman from the cot to the wheelchair so I could take her to the bathroom. They wait around til she's done to help get her back in again. They speak Navajo.

Oh and the Mexican Army shouldn't be cooking Jambalaya. Or home fries either. The rice and beans are good though!

More later.

Addendum to dispatch #2

“Olymphia Delfine Otis. But no one call me that, they call me Dell. Not Olymphia, understand, Miss?”

Sitting outside smoking with her and Rock, an 80 year old man who swears that they "opened the Spillway to flood everybody but the rich Lakefront people, just like they did with Bessie".

He's referring to the Hurricane Betsy in the 60's, and Lake Pontchartrain. Dell agrees with him and is also convinced that the spillway was opened so that the floodwaters in the upper class lake front district of Orleans Parish could go down and people there could get out.

The pumping station on Broadway St was done with cheap materials due to corruption on the part of City Officials they say. Veracity of this unkown, time will tell.

800 people went to Abrahamson Middle School which had been turned into a shelter and every one of them drowned according to Dell. Later I read in's Mayday Mississippi Delta section that this didn't happen, no one who took shelter there died.

Dell is out there every night smoking because whenever she closes her eyes and tries to sleep she feels like she’s drowning inside a "concentration camp". Oh, and she's the executive chef at the Marriott New Orleans. "I'm one hell of a damn chef Miss, if I may say so my own self"

One Red Cross volunteer, a white guy from here in San Antonio said "If these folks think they're gonna get a free ride here in Texas, they got another thing comin'. We oughtta lasso up every one of 'em and drag 'em behind a truck". I didn't hear this directly, Don told me about it.

Executive Chef at the Marriott. Damn welfare cheat. I'm blessed by having met her.

Dispatch #3 Sept. 20

Don and I come to Kelly AFB tonight anxious about Hurricane Rita and what it's going to mean for the folks here in the shelter and for Texas and the gulf region. Mainly Don wants to know if he's going to be able to get the hell out of here on Friday to go home. He's exhausted, he's been here longer than any of us. We can't figure out whether everyone is overreacting because of Katrina. Rita is so far only a category1.

But we come in at 11 pm and it's chaos. They want to move everyone here at Kelly to another shelter to make room for possible evacuees from Texas because of Rita.

We are outraged because these people were already moved from an old Levi Strauss factory TO Kelly and there seems to be no reason for this-why not move Texas evacuees to the Levi Strauss factory which is now empty? Nobody can answer that question.

FEMA came by today and ordered everyone to fill out these ridiculous forms, yet another of many many forms these people have had to fill out. Some of these people are illiterate but are too embarrassed to admit that so they just say "yes, ma'am" when I ask if their form is filled out. it's taken us several hours to figure out that these forms, which evidently are vital to their getting services, are in fact not filled out so Don and i do it for them.

FEMA asshole just came by and barked at us about whether we got everyone signed up, forms filled out.

Don lit into him saying "We're nurses. We take care of medical needs. You want forms filled out? Get one of your beancounters over here and help these people". He walked away.

We don't know if we're going to be coming back here tomorrow night or not.

The evacuees here don't know either and it breaks my heart.

On a lighter note, I was outside smoking last night with a group of the "usuals", among whom is David Otis, Del's husband . When he found out that I live in San Quentin California, he asked me if I knew Scott Peterson or Charles Manson.

Without waiting for an answer he said "Now, I'm against the death penalty, you understand. But they shoulda fried that muthafucka's ass right off!". When I started laughing he looked at me perplexedly, not seeing any irony or contradiction in what he had just said and said "Imagine! Killing ya own flesh and blood!"

Right now there's no other place on this earth I would rather be.

Dispatch #5 Sept 22

Yes, they indeed moved all the "special needs" people from Bldg. 1536 where they (and we) were. But they didn't move any of the supplies or records.

I can't believe how chaotic this is. I went in to Bldg 171 at Kelly last night to report for a night shift and saw a slew of Red Cross nurses who FINALLY realized that coverage for the night shift was needed.

One of the SEIU nurses brought the records (which they had made, no records or ability to MAKE records there when we got there) to bldg 171 and installed them there.

But most of the people I knew from the last few nights at bldg. 1536 were gone, placed in hotels or HUD apts around San Antonio earlier in the day.

That includes Del and David Otis, whom I hear was in tears on the way out. Why I don't know-I don't think it was tears of gratitude or joy though I could be wrong.

I don't think he was wearing well, last I saw him he was getting irritable so I left him alone.

The Red Cross nurses at 171 ignored me, started fussing over the medical records WE developed where there had been none and acted like she's been in control the entire time.

She left-and left me with an LPN who looked to be on heavy doses of methadone. Over the next few hours several Red Cross people had come by and asked if we needed anything.

I resented this because they were nowhere to be found all week and now acted like they were here to save the day.

One of the patients, a sweet old man who is 80 years old named Rock who had been one of the group of smokers outside during the wee hours of the morning at 1536 the last few nights was there.

He was overjoyed to see me and I was to see him. I tried to introduce him to the Red Cross staff but they were not at all interested.

They huddled together talking amongst themselves, ignoring both me and the patients, and I found myself becoming angrier and angrier.

Rock knows how to get ahold of me as I equipped him with my cell phone number. Wish to God I could bring him a bottle of Crown Royal, which is what he drinks at home. He's sharp as a tack, but I noticed he's now in a wheelchair which he wasn't before.

It's unbelievable to me that these people are as friendly, courteous and good spirited as they are considering what they’ve been through and the reason they are here.

I hope they can last and this doesn't degenerate into more chaos, anger and difficulties that a group of people this size can potentially generate.

Whenever you go in or out of the front entrance to any of these football field- or -2 sized buildings you must be searched, wanded, etc, just like on the airlines. Yet you can walk halfway through the buildings and go out a side door and come and go as you please with no one batting an eye.

Must be how this 20-year-old blind kid managed to get crack cocaine and come back high as a kite and almost delirious. He had done it before but Don and I were afraid they'd put him in jail so we pulled his cot up to the front near us to keep an eye on him until the crack wore off. Now I hear he's done it again and I don't know where he is.

2 am last night I'm feeling really sick and the RC nurses are ignoring me anyway, the patients asleep so I decide to leave. I walk out to the parking lot and see throngs of teenagers outside listening to rap music on a boom box. One of them chatted me up, calling me by name since it was on my nametag. I called him by name too since it was tattooed on his arm. Kurtis.

Kurtis says he's a member of the Sacramento Crips. This he tells me when I tell him I'm from the Bay Area. I acted impressed, even scared of him but he was too sweet for me to keep the act up for long. We high fived each other as I tried to find my car in the huge parking lot.

I don't exaggerate or glorify at all when I say these people are polite and kind, apologetic even for needing anything, almost without exception.

If you were from Mars and had just been beamed down here you would NEVER guess what these people had been through. We try to figure out why-glad to be alive, southern manners, probably a combination.

I feel deprived without my memory foam mattress and Whole Foods down the street!

I asked David Otis what he thought about the huge number of cops in each building-he says it's "for our protection". I looked for a hint of irony, thinking he was kidding but no. He wasn't-he'd been at the Convention Center in New Orleans, several others in our group were at the Superdome and they are GRATEFUL for police presence.

Rita again has flooded the 9th Ward in New Orleans, East of downtown. EVERY SINGLE HOME has been destroyed by Katrina-no one left to be impacted by Rita.

Here in San Antonio the sun is out, it's beautiful, I have the day off. There's nothing here I want to do really but GWBush is coming! Now THAT will give me something to do!

Dispatch # 6__________________________________________________________________

Went to building 171 today without the intent of working because I wasn't scheduled but to find out what the nursing coverage was for the next few days. Krista, the charge nurse (who replaced Carmen whom I did not talk to much since she was on during the day and I was there at night) said she had nobody from 6pm to 11pm and could I stay.

Of course I can stay.

Half an hour later I meet Juan Carlos, a doctor from Mexico who was volunteering. An endocrinologist. Fabulous, I said, lots od diabetics here. Another few minutes later and in walk a retired ER physician, another doctor from India and another RN.

No one knew they were coming-obviously what started out as a shortage of staff turned into a glut.

I'm irritable and trying desperately not to show it. Krista asks me to fax some prescriptions to a private pharmacy, which will be reimbursed by FEMA for meds needed by both Katrina and now Rita evacuees.

No one knows how to use the state of the art printer/scanner/photocopier/drycleaning/cloning/whatever machine. NO ONE KNOWS ANYTHING here. No one knows where the "special needs" unit is or where to get a blanket for a patient, yet there are throngs of Red Cross volunteers, all of whom appear to be Junior League dilettantes or disaster gadflies, or just plain ne'r do wells who volunteer with the Red Cross.

They all love talking into their walkie talkies and use their lingo into cell phones in conversations of the utmost importance but I can't find a single person to help take old ladies to the bathroom.

A man has a blood pressure of 210/110. He doesn't feel well and thank God Juan Carlos is there and we decide to send him to the hospital for a workup. The ambulance drivers show up but don't know what hospital they will be taking him to. I want to give them the unit's phone number but can't count on anyone answering the phone if in fact they remember to call us.

Maybe they can walkie talkie the location of the hospital this man ends up in.

Someone said "take him to Baptist" which I guess is the local hospital. I write it down on the "chart" I made up for the man (who didn't have one).

One of the other SF nurses had a hissy fit about something I know not what and left to go back home to SF. I'm just as frustrated as she is with the Red Cross but I still feel there are things I can do.

Rock asked me to smuggle him in some rum and I'm damn tempted to do it. They sit on their cots all day, mill about, have nothing to do until a permanent place is found for them but of course all that is on the back burner with the influx of Rita refugees.

Houston is unscathed by Rita so now everyone who came to San Antonio wants to go home but can’t because gas is sold out everywhere. The freeway going to Houston is one big parking lot.

Gina told me (she's the nurse who went home) that a Red Cross volunteer told her to be careful about distributing supplies because "some of these people are hoarding". She points to piles of stuff under various people's cots.

Gina had the presence of mind to tell her that these people have lost EVERYTHING they own. So what they take some supplies not immediately needed; most of it sits in a storage room undistributed anyway.

Like Beefaroni in microwaveable cups. I heat up several of these little cups and pass them out to the people who couldn't tolerate the cold hamburgers served for dinner. And canned peaches.

I can't help but think this place is a tinderbox for a race riot; ALL the Katrina victims are black, the Rita evacuees are mostly white and Hispanic but the vast majority of the residents here at Kelly are black and you can feel the tension.

Though I'm still amazed at how courteous and pleasant the New Orleanians are. Anyplace else I think would've erupted a long time ago.

Think about it: thousands of black people in a huge Air Force airplane hangar turned into a shelter. TONS of cops. Volunteers to a person white.

I finally leave around 10 pm, since they were far better staffed than they expected to be. Now we actually have doctors. One from Mexico. I still can't believe it.

I took Caroline, a large Katrina evacuee to the store earlier. She's schizophrenic I think, is on lots of psych meds. She buys RAID because of the flies. Though truly, the place is clean and I didn't see any flies. She bought a new bathrobe at the dollar store and wanted to buy me one.

Took me awhile to talk her out of it.

This place is like another planet.

Oh and I feel really bad about saying that the LPN on the night shift last night was on methadone. Truth is he has cancer. He probably SHOULD be on methadone. Has that pasty white skin pallor so common to methadonians.

Krista, the charge nurse never did get to leave, though she was supposed to leave at 8pm.

New volunteers kept coming whom were not expected and she had to give them the whole orientation.

Including how to spend all their time on the walkie talkies while old ladies need to be taken to the bathroom. Hopefully tomorrow I will ask that no volunteer be assigned to our unit unless they are willing to take people to the bathroom, help them onto the commode, wait til they're done and bring them back.

If they're not willing to do that we don't need 'em.

Went to downtown San Antonio last night to explore. Sweet town! Cobblestone streets with large islands with palm trees in the middle of the streets with benches to sit on. Lots of families. Enjoyed myself.

More later

6th and last dispatch

Eileen and I go to bldg. 171 to work at 3pm and it's madness. Nursing students, dilettante volunteers with big hair and lots of make up, talking into their ever present walkie talkies who don't know where to get another bedsheet for an elderly patient who had wet the bed (cot). They all ignore us except the patients whom we know and say our tearful goodbyes to. Eileen walks around making a map of the cots with patient’s names on them so at least we know who is where. Katrina survivors mixed with white and Latino Rita evacuees.

An elderly senile woman with a face black as night, a filthy wig and serpentine eyes is dropped off outside by a bus that takes off and leaves her with us. She has several of the paper bracelets on yet still no one can identify her. They (the RC) put another one on her, one that says 171. I object to this because we don't know that she belongs here, we don't know where she belongs, it may not be 171. The bracelet stays.

No matter how senile one is, there's 2 things we never forget: Name and date of birth. She tells us these things but when we ask her if she knows where she is says "Why, Beaumont Texas!". Beaumont is a town destoyed by Rita I think, on the Gulf Coast. She doesn't understand all the fuss and keeps saying, " Why can't I just go home?" Breaks my heart again but I'm overwhelmed and Eileen and I realize we have no say anymore in how things are done so we finish up and decide to leave.

Poor Krista, the RC "charge nurse" is totally overwhelmed and is crying. We try to buck her up because her "tour of duty" is just starting and a whole lot of chaos has been dumped on her. We tell her she needs to join a union.

I haven't been able to sleep because I don't know what will happen to these folks, where they will be placed and if I'll ever hear from them again, though I've given them all my address and make them swear to write me when they get settled.

There's no more we can do and we pack our bags and go home. 

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