Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others.

As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor; let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the charter of his own, and his children's liberty.

Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap; let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs; let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and Let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.

While ever a state of feeling, such as this, shall universally, or even, very generally prevail throughout the nation, vain will be every effort, and fruitless every attempt, to subvert our national freedom.

- Abraham Lincoln, January 27, 1838
  Address Before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Al Gore and the Charity Hospital Airlift

While George W. Bush was making grand media appearances 'on the scene' (weeks later,) and making promises he never intended to keep, Al Gore was quietly working behind the scenes to help alleviate the suffering on the Gulf Coast.

Many don't know this story, because Al steadfastly refused to speak to the media or give any interviews about his response in the aftermath of Katrina - and he has never mentioned it in any of his speeches.

What he did, he did because he cared.

Gore privately commissioned two planes to evacuate elderly and ill citizens out of New Orleans - and as you can see from the photo - he was there overseeing the effort.

Greg Simon of Fastercures tells of his experience, and the many obstacles thrown in the way, as the 'Charity Hospital Airlift' come to evacuate seriously ill patients from New Orleans:

Around 8 pm this was the situation: We had planes for two flights at least. We had hospitals in Tennessee and Chicago for 290 and 200 patients respectively. We had two doctors for the plane. We needed landing slots at the airport and patients for the planes. We needed a contact on the ground.

Gore called Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta and obtained two landing slots for Saturday. All we needed now was a medical contact at the airport. I contacted Casey Decker at the HHS Command Center, a highly advanced, high tech center for tracking and dealing with public health crises of all kinds. I asked Decker for help contacting TRANSCOM, which was running operations at the airport, as well as a medical coordinator on the ground. Decker explained they had not been able to maintain communications with TRANSCOM on the ground or the medical staff. That was troubling.

It was now after midnight early Saturday September 4th. I was home with my laptop and phone and blackberry spread out around me on my bed. My wife, wisely, chose to sleep in the guest bedroom to avoid the phone calls. And then it began.

Starting right after midnight I began receiving calls from FEMA, HHS, TRANSCOM and other groups whose acronyms I still cannot explain. LCDR Kennedy from FEMA called to understand what I was trying to do. I told him. Fifteen minutes later Mimi Riley, Deputy Director from NDMS called to beg me in a plaintive and exhausted voice not to carry out this mission. She had many reasons – you need doctors on the plane, Chicago is too far from their home, how will we track the patients, this is a military operation and we were not military.

I explained to her that we had two doctors on the plane one of whom was a retired Air Force Doctor who had run the military hospital in Baghdad after the invasion. I thought we could trust him to run an airplane of people from New Orleans to Knoxville. We were working with NDMS hospitals in Tennessee and Chicago so they would have a good tracking system. (I guess Mimi never heard of the Great Migration of African Americans from New Orleans and the south to Chicago after the flood of 1927 and during the Depression. Many people from New Orleans are more at home in Chicago than Houston. )

Mimi was unmovable. We were not military and that was that. She tried to sound grateful for our intentions but she was not going to have outsiders help. I even offered to GIVE her the planes and the crews and the hospitals and let her run it through her NDMS system but she would have none of it. She asked me at least to delay until noon the next day and I said I would try.

I called Steve and told him to delay the planes. I called Al. It was 2 a.m. in Nashville. He was planning to leave for Dallas at 4 a.m. to meet the plane. I told Tipper what was going on. She said, “Greg, you can’t delay it now. It’s too late, the doctors are flying in here to fly with Al to Dallas.” Al got on the phone and said we could not delay. I tried to scare him. What if something went wrong with a patient on the plane? What if the military did not cooperate on the ground and no patients got on the plane? He refused to budge. Col. LaFon could handle the patients and Al would trust that when they landed they would break through the resistance and succeed.

I called Mimi back and said we could not delay but we would agree not to fly to Chicago. I called Steve back to re-start the planes.

Over the next three hours (from 2a.m. to 5 a.m.) I was called by an array of Majors and Lieutenant Commanders telling me to stop. (“I don’t mean to be rude, sir, but you must not do this. You must stop this now.”) Major Webb from GPMRC (don’t ask), Grant Meade from ESF. Major Lindquist from TRANSCOM (at last!) all telling me they would not cooperate and they did not know how we had gotten permission to land. I never mentioned Gore’s name because no one ever asked me who was paying for the flights or how we had come so far.

Finally at 5 a.m. Major Lindquist said if we landed he would not put any patients on the plane and we should expect no cooperation and there was no place to store the plane so we would have to leave.

Through the night there was one voice supporting me. Julie Soutuyo from FEMA had called around midnight when she came on shift and asked what we were doing because she had seen some report from our earlier calls. I explained the whole thing to her. She tried to put us in touch with TRANSCOM in New Orleans and she checked on me all through the night to see how we were doing. When I told her of the calls from the military to stop us, she mentioned that she had confronted the NDMS people on our behalf and made the case that they should accept our help under these circumstances but had been rebuffed. (The next day she called me from home to see if we had succeeded.)

(Casey Decker at the HHS Command Center also tried to help but he was unable to reach most of the people we needed to speak to despite his best efforts.)

At 7 a.m. on Saturday September 3rd, the American Airlines plane with Gore and the doctors and Gore’s son Albert left Dallas for New Orleans. They landed at 8:30, got off the plane and Col LaFon immediately established contact with the Colonels running the operation on the ground, most of whom he had served with. He had trained many of the doctors on the scene. He explained why they were there and the doctors began a triage process to fill the plane. Two hours later the plane was loaded and headed to Knoxville.

After speaking with Gore, I called ahead to Donna Tidwell of TEMA who was running the operations there and told her what to expect – about 20 patients needing dialysis, many more needing insulin, a burn victim and many people needing to be back on their medications – and one boy with his dog. Forty of the people on the plane were evacuees mistakenly put on the plane by TSA but who might need medical attention nonetheless. Knoxville was prepared to provide shelters for them.

The plane’s arrival in Knoxville was described by the local paper as the “Mercy Plane” and the mayor and many of the citizens turned out to help.

By now, it was too late to return to New Orleans, load up and leave before dark and American Airlines refused to have its personnel stay in New Orleans after dark. Gore and the team headed to Dallas for the night. Around midnight Saturday night, the FAA called American airlines and pulled their landing slots for Sunday saying only FEMA planes could fly in. Gore called Mineta again who promised to honor our initial agreement for two landing slots.

On Sunday morning Gore and the team landed in New Orleans to a much improved scene. Many more patients had been airlifted out after our flight and there were only ten ambulatory patients for our plane so we took 120 evacuees with us to Chattanooga. The welcoming reception in Chattanooga was so large that Gore said it looked like there was an ambulance for everybody on the plane.

We decided not to return to New Orleans because the medical patients we could take had been helped. (We could not take bedridden patients on stretchers on this plane.) Gore said that on the second trip to New Orleans, the doctors at the airport told him that the evacuation of the first 90 ambulatory patients had been the tipping point in their ability to adequately care for the other bedridden patients. They also noted that the military evacuations did not really pick up steam until after we “motivated” them with our private effort.

Of note:
Throughout the entire operation in Tennessee, EMS operations in Chicago had stayed prepared to handle patients or evacuees. None ever arrived because the military did not want us to use Chicago. The volunteers in Chicago were amazing in their desire to help. Mayor Daly had been rebuffed earlier when he offered a complete mobile hospital unit for the airport and a tent city as well. Sen. Barack Obama called Gore and asked how had Gore managed to land in New Orleans when the Senator had been refused landing rights to help.

None of the airlines involved required a contract or any written guarantee of payment before sending their planes and volunteer crews – the first time Steve Davison had ever witnessed that in 15 years of chartering planes for political campaigns and other events. One official said if Gore promised to pay, that was good enough for them.

In the aftermath of Katrina I heard countless stories of obstruction: by both FEMA and the military. Firemen were sent home from the scene after traveling across the country on their own dime to help; or were kept waiting for a week outside the city while residents were dying. Animal rescue workers were kept out, presumably on the pretense that 'humans should be evacuated first;' only it turned out that the humans weren't being evacuated at all, so animal rescue volunteers entered the city anyway, in boats, and rescued both people and their animals.

Even news crews helped with the rescue; they were there, and the need was so severe that they helped in any way they could. Sean Penn went out in a boat, pulling people out of the water himself. Anyone who could get past the government roadblocks, or who simply went around them... helped the residents while the Federal government obstructed and dicked around.

And people were dying.

This I cannot forgive. It is for the residents of New Orleans, both living and dead, to forgive this betrayal -- for I cannot.

Thank you President-elect Gore, for making a difference.

I try not to think of how different things would be for New Orleans... how different they would have been for New Orleans after the storm, had the Supreme Court not demanded a halt to the Florida recount in 2000.

The betrayals are seemingly endless.

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