Emerald Coast medical team arrives in Texas to help storm victims

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TONY JUDNICH @Tonyjnwfdn

DALLAS – In the weeks ahead, Gary Kruschke, team leader of the FL-1 Disaster Medical Assistance Team, anticipates the group will treat many Hurricane Harvey victims dealing with problems stemming from contaminated flood water.

“And we’ll probably see a lot of people who couldn’t get out of their flooded houses and had heart attacks,” the DeFuniak Springs resident and retired Fort Walton Beach firefighter said Wednesday. “We might be working out of tents. We’ll see pretty much everything an emergency department will see on a busy day.”

Harvey struck Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city, last Friday, then smacked Louisiana as a tropical storm Wednesday morning. Harvey dumped more than 50 inches of rain on parts of the Houston area, and more than 30 deaths have been attributed to the storm and its aftermath.

Kruschke said the FL-1 DMAT began deploying 44 medical personnel, including 20 members from Okaloosa County, to Texas on Tuesday.

The personnel included Jay Brosnan, who is the deputy commander of FL-1 DMAT and a registered nurse at Twin Cities Hospital in Niceville. He was part of a group who flew to Dallas from Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport Tuesday night.

The FL-1 DMAT has members from across the Panhandle. Kruschke said he and the other members hoped to receive their mission orders from federal officials Wednesday afternoon.

The team could be assigned to the Houston area or Louisiana for at least two weeks, he said.

“I have no idea what they’ll assign us to,” Kruschke said from Dallas, where he arrived Tuesday night after meeting with federal Health and Human Services leaders in Washington, D.C.

He said HHS Secretary Tom Price and other officials “were talking about a huge patient-moving scenario” in Houston.

“We might be moving patients from hospitals and nursing homes,” Kruschke said. “We could be helping hospitals that are overwhelmed, so their staff can go home and get the water out of their house. Or we could set up an ER on a stretch of grass in a community, or it could be a shelter mission. We want to provide acute care in an emergency department, but it will be at the direction of the federal government.”

The Florida-1 DMAT has deployed to more than 20 disasters, including hurricanes, the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, according to information from Kruschke.

He recalled how the team assisted people affected by Hurricane Katrina, which slammed New Orleans and other areas in August 2005. Post-Katrina, FL-1 DMAT members helped provide medical assistance in cities and areas such as Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, and Chalmette, Louisiana.

Tuesday night in the nation’s capital, Kruschke learned the federal response to Harvey would be similar in size but much quicker than the response to Katrina.

“The amount of assets the federal government is throwing at the (post-Harvey) situation makes me believe we have a real serious problem,” he said. “Fifty percent of the National Disaster Medical System has been activated within the past two days.”

He said the system has a total of 54 DMATs and about 4,500 members. The teams range from a 40-member group to the 75-member FL-1 DMAT.

Kruschke said FL-1 DMAT members will soon know how the post-Harvey scenario compares to post-Katrina, in terms of casualties and the number of survivors in need of help. Katrina caused 1,833 deaths.

“I hope the loss of life (from Harvey) isn’t similar to Katrina,” Kruschke said “It feels like Katrina now, except folks are acting appropriately. There was a delay in government help in Katrina, and folks acted out” by looting.

Brosnan said federal officials put FL-1 DMAT members on alert about Harvey last Friday and told them on Tuesday to go to Texas.

Like Kruschke, Brosnan on Tuesday night said, “We have no idea where we’re going” to provide post-Harvey assistance.

Both men said there is a big need for new disaster medical assistance team members.

In the areas hit hard by storms such as Harvey, “We truly are in a position to represent our home, whether it’s Okaloosa or Walton County,” Kruschke said. “It’s heartwarming to come into a community and, whether we’re on grass or in a tent, to hear, ‘This is the best care I’ve ever received.’ ”

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