Each week this summer The Advocate will present first-person accounts of people who experienced Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. The series is in partnership with StoryCorps, a national nonprofit whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share and preserve the stories of their lives. The selected oral histories were mostly recorded in 2006, when Katrina survivors were in the early stages of coping with the disaster. The series also will attempt to follow-up with those featured to see where they are today, 10 years after the storm.
Kiersta Kurtz-Burke was a physician at Charity Hospital downtown when Katrina hit. On May 27, 2006, she was interviewed by Justin Lundgren, her husband. The couple live in Mid-City.
Audio: Part I
Audio: Part II
Justin Lundgren: What was it like actually being in that building during the storm?
Kiersta Kurtz-Burke: A few windows shattered on upper floors. We were on the fifth floor, so it didn’t really shatter on our floor. But again, we were so busy. One of the main things that happened is water came in during the hurricane around our windowpanes. So none of the windows on our floor shattered, but the water came in horizontally and suddenly we were basically dealing with one to two inches of water all over the floor, including patient rooms.
JL: I guess you spent the night clearing patients from their rooms and making sure that everyone was physically in a safe space?
KKB: Yeah. We actually moved patients within their rooms towards the bathroom, because we realized because of the tubes and the IVs, and everything else, we couldn’t really move people into the inner hallways. So I was concerned that the windows would shatter and somebody would be injured.
JL: When did you first start to notice or realize that water was flooding the city?
KKB: Well, Monday night there was a little bit of water in the gutters as always is in New Orleans after it rains. I remember one of the therapists saying to me, “I think it seems a little bit higher. Doesn’t it seem like it was only two inches and then it’s really an inch higher than that?” But again, once sunset came on Monday night it was completely dark. So it was not like you can look out and see the water with the streetlights. I barely slept on Monday night. I just couldn’t really sleep with everything going on, and remember the AC is out so now it’s like 100 degrees inside the hospital. When the sun came up on Tuesday morning one of the nurses called me to the window and we looked out and there was about four feet of water around the hospital. And we suddenly realized we were in a totally, totally different scenario than we had ever imagined.
JL: So you had this realization and did you just immediately think “we’re going to be here for day after day?”
KKB: We just thought, “Okay, now the actual rescue effort will have to come via boats.” We did start having regular meetings in Charity Hospital every four hours. That really started Tuesday morning once we realized the situation we were in. We knew it’s going to even out at the level of the lake, but how high is the lake? So we actually moved patients up from the first floor to the second floor.
JL: Tell me what communication was like.
KKB: We really lost all local communication. So from floor to floor we couldn’t call floor to floor, we couldn’t call anyone’s local cell phone. And some of the nurses worked that entire week without knowing if their families were okay, knowing that their families were in an area that probably was flooded. The cell towers I guess were down, but a few landlines had long distance communication, so we would call our families who were farther away. So I could talk to my family in Michigan, and they were frequently our source of communication.
JL: How did you prepare your patients?
KKB: We didn’t know where they were going. We knew they would eventually wind up at hospitals, (so) we hand wrote out their medical discharge summaries — all the information we could medically on them. Which for a lot of patients was two or three pages, we hand wrote that out in triplicate. We wrote that out, and we put one copy of that in a plastic bag and we tried to get three days of medication. Because again, we didn’t know if the patients would be somewhere in an airport or in a shelter for three days, or if they would even have medical personnel. So we put three days of medications in a plastic baggie and we pinned it to our patients’ gowns.
JL: Did you have enough food, enough water?
KKB: I was much more concerned about water than I ever was about food because just knowing that you can live a long time on very little food. But water was a big concern, and then it was so hot in the hospital that people were sweating so much. So we started allotting a gallon a day for our patients for water. But we did wind up putting people on IV fluids, and actually several staff members. I was very perplexed as to why we couldn’t just have a little boat or a little helicopter zip in and drop off some water supplies. On Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday mornings we had very small amounts of food for patients. They were getting things like corn flakes, or one night they got a half a cup of green beans and a roll. And, you know, I remembered being very apologetic with the patients that there was so little food.
JL: Yeah, how was their morale?
KKB: Unbelievable, so fantastic. I mean the patients were always joking. The patients I was really concerned about were the patients that were aphasic and couldn’t talk to us. We pushed them to the window so that they could see the water, and we were constantly explaining what was going on to the best of our ability.
JL: During the early part of the week I was in Baton Rouge, and I do remember having conversations with you. I just remember very clearly having a conversation in which you described the smell of gas in the building. And it really freaked me out. Tell me a little bit about that.
KKB: We smelled gas Wednesday afternoon, and we could not figure out where it was coming from. First we thought maybe it was just from the water in the street cause you could see a slick of obvious oil or gasoline from cars. But we realized it was really coming from inside of the building, and our maintenance guys were fantastic. They were looking to find the source of it, but again, it’s dark. They had to go to every floor. It seemed a little bit worse on the upper floors, and that persisted for many hours really until the middle of the night on Wednesday. And I do have to say that was the point in which I was most afraid, because I realized this building was so flammable. There’s all this oxygen in here, and then I was walking up and down the stairs, and one of my patient’s husband, who is a fantastic, lovely 70-year-old gentleman, was walking up the stairs with a lighter. And I said, “Oh my gosh, you have to put the lighter out. This is in the middle of this huge gas leak that we don’t know where it’s coming from!”
It felt very hopeless. And I told you at that point I wrote this letter to you and to the rest of my family.
JL: I know... you had the opportunity to go back to Charity for the very first time in nine months. And you found your letter, which you wrote and you left there on the desk. I don’t know if you want to share some of that.
KKB: I felt a little weird writing it, and it feels a little strange now because obviously we all survived and we were fine. But at the time, I did have some concerns, particularly that day. And I think I really tried to minimize what was going on in the hospital to you even though I did tell you about the gas leak. But this is the letter I wrote on Wednesday at 8 o’clock p.m.:
“A morbid thought to leave a letter like this and probably totally unnecessary and paranoid. But I’m hoping it will help me feel better, and maybe allow me to get a few winks tonight. I probably don’t need to go into details. Let’s just say that things have gone from bad to worse, and then into some crazy next level of really bad in the past few days of the hospital. (There are) reports of violence outside the hospital and rampant rumors, but my main concern at this point is a persistent gas leak in the hospital that has been present since early this afternoon. We don’t know where it’s coming from, and our janitors are working hard to find out. But it’s dark, and the building is highly flammable with all of the [oxygen] tanks. We’re trying to get the message that using lighters, matches, etc. is forbidden, but with the lack of flashlights, that’s how some people are seeing their way around. We noticed several buildings downtown on fire today. Arson? Who knows, but we realized that help would obviously not come quickly if we did have a problem. It hasn’t so far. And we would never leave our patients, obviously.
“OK. Enough of that. I would like my beautiful family and friends to know a few things first about this experience. Yes, in some ways I wasn’t always truthful about how scary the situation was when we were able to speak on the phone. Just keeping my own faith and hope I guess in wanting to protect you a bit. But I would hate for something to happen, and for you to think I spent these last days in fear or terror or something. I didn’t. Despite what has happened outside and in here, we’ve been a very tight unit on our floor. We’ve made each other laugh quite a bit in fact, and worked our asses off. God bless the nurses. And talked about what we’ll eat, drink, and what a shower will feel like and a real flushable toilet when we get out. And I really have confidence that will happen. I just hope in time for all of my patients to survive. A few are quite sick and I am so worried for them, but they’re in such good spirits, amazing. So inspiring and they really keep us going. The therapist will get them up everyday and they walk with help if they can, or we push them in wheelchairs to the end of the hall so they can look out at the water, the helicopters, etc. No reason to hide it at this point, we’re all on the same page and are leaning heavily on each other for support. I should go just to check on the ramp and see if any rescue may be coming. I doubt at night, but what an amazing 37 years I’ve had. More love, adventure, and fun than most people have in a very long life. My favorite part has been the joy in being a daughter, sister, friend, and wife and the rest never mattered much. I hope I squeezed a lot of life out of life, you know. I think I did. I still consider myself the luckiest person I know. Justin … You’re the love of my life. Sweetie, the thought of all my wonderful family and friends has been the thing that has gotten me through these trying times. Love, love, love Kiersta.”
It’s hard to read. Actually yesterday’s the first time I read it since the storm.
JL: I know. I think it’s so emotionally hard to listen to that because for me it just brings me back to so much fear during that time.
KKB: Although, you know, I felt so much better after that. And also they fixed the gas leak.
JL: I remember you telling me about those first couple days when the water was raising, and you saw a stream of human life just going by the hospital. What was that like?
KKB: We’re so close to the Super Dome and so people made their way through the water. It was incredible. We would stand on the ramp and we would talk to people as they would go by and people would have their families and every floatable object you could imagine. I was so impressed by the ingenuity. That was probably what impressed me the most, and the fact that people were not panicking. You know people would have grandmothers, babies in refrigerators that they’d obviously cleared everything out of. Babies in tires, and they were pushing everyone towards the Superdome at that point.
Some of them had to take 20 hours to get through the water. But what struck me a lot after the whole thing was over... and I saw everything on TV, was that you see all this looting and pillaging, and people going crazy. But my perception was that I couldn’t believe how calm people were. I cannot imagine pushing my family through the water... and not completely freaking out. Generally it was surreal, but it was very calm and people were doing what they needed to survive. There was not a lot of screaming or anything going on. Even though it kind of felt like inside I felt like screaming at times, it was very calm.
Kurtz-Burke, 46, now works as a rehab physician at the Veterans Affair hospital in New Orleans where she treats veterans from wars ranging from World War II to Iraq and Afghanistan. She and her husband rebuilt their Mid-City home that took on four feet of water in Katrina. They also adopted two children in 2008.
Her current job requires her to walk past Charity Hospital, which has been shuttered since the storm, its fate still unknown. She says the hospital’s closing “will probably be responsible for more death and illness than the levee failure.” “We’re talking about 10 years without healthcare for people with no insurance. There’s been a huge, huge hole,” she says. “To me, obviously, that’s a story that doesn’t have closure.”