In the Shit

My brother has flown Chinook helicopters for Army Special Ops for 15 years. He has flown into full-fledged battles with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns being fired at him by the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and by the Republican Guard in Iraq. He’s seen some shit. Now, he lives in Lafayette, Louisiana, about three hours outside New Orleans and flies an Emergency Medical Services helicopter. He’s been in New Orleans since Monday afternoon. I’d been trying to reach him for days when he called as I was driving toward my gym on Mulholland Drive.

“What’s going on?” I asked. “It looks awful from the TV.”

He answered me in an unusual, flat voice, which I could tell was part fatigue and even larger part sadness. He spoke slowly at first. “This is a whole new level. Something even I have never seen before. It’s much worse than anything you can imagine.”

I pulled over to the side of the road for the rest of our conversation.

“Almost all the city is gone, flooding everywhere, bodies are floating all over the place. When we land near water, the wash from the blades moves them around like floating logs. There are thousands dead. It’s chaos.

“When we first started, it was, ‘Fly to this hospital and get the injured to that hospital.’ That ended quickly. Now me and my medic look around and say, ‘Hey, that looks like a hospital down there, let’s land.’

“Yesterday we had our chopper loaded up, our engines were revving to take off, when some nurses and a doctor came out with six premature babies, begging us to take them. I told them we couldn’t because it’s against the law, we don’t have the equipment to sustain them. The doctor and nurse pleaded, ‘They’ll die in an hour if you don’t take them.’ What could I do? ‘Okay, put them on top of that guy, we’ll get them someplace.’ It’s like that everywhere.”

He went on.

“People are still trapped on roofs and in attics. When we’re coming back in we throw out what bottles of water we have to people on the roofs. Some doctors and nurses were begging me for water at one hospital, it’s been days since they’ve had any.”

I let my brother ramble because I knew that’s what he needed to do.

“It’s so insane. People are shooting at us when we land. They know we have water and morphine. When we take off people try to get on the chopper and all sorts of stupid shit. It’s like the fall of Saigon. Now we have to radio cops to meet us at a location before we land, so they’ll guard us. At the Superdome, there’s a team of snipers covering us every time we land.

“And any best-care practices went out the window a while back, it’s like, ‘Okay, what about her, are we taking her?’ Then the doctor will say, ‘She’s going to die anyway, next one.’

“We’re now landing at the New Orleans airport and having the injured tossed onto baggage carts so they can get to a medical plane. Some are being taken as far as Spokane.”

My brother retired from the military last year so he could get a quiet job flying EMS helicopters. I asked him how his family was handling all of this. “They’re fine, but things are getting a little hairy in Lafayette too. The Cajundome is filled and so is the parking lot. The mood is turning ugly. Every hotel and motel is full. People are running out of money, and Lafayette’s out of gas now. When I wake up at 4 a.m. to fly, there’s usually a few people passed out on our yard.”

I asked him if his two girls, ages 13 and 15, and his wife would be okay, “Oh yeah,” he said, “locked and loaded, no problems there.”

“How much longer are you going to be doing this?” I asked.

“I figure at least three or four more weeks. No one has any real idea of the scope of destruction and no one’s in charge. New Orleans is gone.” Our connection cut out and there was no chance of calling back.

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