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Helpless and frustrated: Reflecting on Hurricane Katrina response

Remembering the aftermath of the storm brings back the emotions of those days and affirms my pride in being part of EMS

Hurricane Katrina made landfall ten years ago. This anniversary is an occasion to read remembrances, watch videos and look at photos from the days during and after the storm.

As I watched the events unfold from 1,000 miles away, I was keenly aware that many of my EMS colleagues were wrapping up EMS Expo, just-married family friends were trying to get out of the city, and EMS responders throughout the Gulf Coast were plunging into the unknown.

Two videos, released this week, capture the importance and difficulty of the situation for medics. Listen to Greg Doyle, AMR operations manager for Gulfort, Miss. remember the storm response and watch a tribute to EMS from the American Ambulance Association.

Memories and emotions

I had been a medic for two months with five years of previous EMT experience at the time Katrina spun north through the gulf. I sat on the edge of a sofa, in my darkened basement, holding my 5-month-old son, watching hour after hour of coverage. Knowing other fathers were holding their children, but in dark, humid attics as the floodwaters rose or in the putrid Superdome was more than I could handle.

Other memories of those days, again watching from afar, have flooded back to the surface this week.


EMS connects me to you, you to me and us to a larger world of medics. I knew I was part of something bigger than me when I watched ambulances from around the country line up to evacuate patients.

Helplessness and frustration

As a new medic I had an overconfident notion of “I can help” which conflicted with the simultaneous feeling of “I have no idea where to start.” That helplessness and despair made me angry.

In the earliest hours of the incident it became obvious that many of the leaders, especially politicians and appointees, were woefully unprepared to lead or able to grasp the enormity of the incident. Their repeated failures hindered the skills, intentions and capabilities of responders on the ground, as well as experts who could have responded much sooner.


EMS providers were at their best in the hours and days after the storm when they took responsibility to meet the urgent needs of their communities. The strong theme throughout the remembrances of Katrina is EMS providers realizing they were responsible and taking action to help whoever they could, however they could.

When we focus on the patient in front of us, managing an incident as best we can and being responsible for our colleagues and personnel we lead, there is no room or need for helplessness or frustration. And when the waters recede, the debris is swept away, and we have a chance for a shower, a hot meal, and cold drink, we should all feel tremendous pride in being part of EMS.

Greg Friese, MS, NRP, is the Lexipol Editorial Director, leading the efforts of the editorial team on Police1, FireRescue1, Corrections1 and EMS1. Greg served as the EMS1 editor-in-chief for five years. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a master’s degree from the University of Idaho. He is an educator, author, national registry paramedic since 2005, and a long-distance runner. Greg was a 2010 recipient of the EMS 10 Award for innovation. He is also a three-time Jesse H. Neal award winner, the most prestigious award in specialized journalism, and the 2018 and 2020 Eddie Award winner for best Column/Blog. Connect with Greg on LinkedIn.