Like many college students on the Gulf Coast, Tom Hutton evacuated from Tulane University's New Orleans campus when Hurricane Katrina hit.
"I knew [the hurricane] was coming a week in advance," said Hutton, a senior at Tulane who had evacuated several times over his years there. "One or two days before [it hit], it was all doom and gloom."
Unlike many students, Hutton went back. He is a member of the Tulane Emergency Medical Services team, a group of 20 volunteer students trained in emergency medicine, who run 911 calls with two ambulances on Tulane’s campus.
It was move-in day when the university told students to leave the area. Tulane’s plan was always to evacuate the students to the University of Mississippi in Jackson, Miss., said Hutton. The TEMS team stayed at Tulane until all students were evacuated, and then followed them to Jackson.
"We all questioned the wisdom of going there because it was still in the storm’s path, but it wasn’t too bad, only category one" by the time it arrived in Jackson, he said.
But the next day, the rumors started coming in of Katrina’s destruction, and Hutton started hearing words like "destroyed" about towns like Baton Rouge and New Orleans. As the hurricane passed by, the team sat down and discussed the situation, said Andrew Jahier, Tulane senior and director of the TEMS team.
"Everyone was all for going back and helping out and doing whatever they could," said Jahier. The entire team drove to Baton Rouge in a convoy that included the two ambulances and a disaster trailer.
THE TULANE students found themselves in the Louisiana State University gym, but not for a basketball game. The gym had been turned into a makeshift hospital, said Hutton, with a special needs center for people who needed continuous care. Hutton began working triage, determining the conditions and needs of patients brought in from overcrowded hospitals nearby.
"They bring in these busloads of 50 people from New Orleans and just drop them off," said Hutton. "Some of them were pretty seriously ill."
Those first few days in Baton Rouge, said Hutton, the TEMS team worked 20-hour shifts and got very little sleep.
"That was really pretty stressful, because that was really before people had any idea of the scope of things," he said.
But the fast-paced confusion allowed Hutton and his fellow TEMS team members to do work they would not have done otherwise.
"We pretty much had free rein in terms of what we could do," he said. "We could put ourselves in positions where we could do the most good, and not get stuck waiting in some gym, waiting for something to happen."
Hutton and members of the TEMS team began making transport calls, driving to and from some of the hardest-hit and most dangerous areas on the Gulf Coast, such as the New Orleans airport and Plaquemine Parish, which he said is "low-lying on a good day" and was almost completely destroyed by the hurricane’s flooding.
"There’s only one road, and every five miles there’s a town along the road," said Hutton. "Going down that, it was like, ‘Here’s a little town, and here’s a little town,’ and it really started to get more and more destroyed."
COFFINS WERE strewn along the road, said Hutton, and he couldn’t tell whether they were from a coffin factory or from a graveyard. Power lines were down, and a house that "just got picked up and moved," he said, sat in the road.
"At the very end, you get to this point where you look out and there’s no more road, just water," said Hutton.
Five days after the storm hit, Hutton went into New Orleans, to begin transporting people and medicines throughout the state. When they got there, FEMA had not arrived yet.
As the convoy drove down Interstate 10, it stopped short at a crowd of thousands standing in the road, waiting to get out but not knowing how. Hutton described how the crowd surrounded the ambulance and began pounding on the windows as the vehicle moved through the mass of people.
In New Orleans, Jahier spent some time doing search and rescue in boats along what were once the streets of the Crescent City.
"Most houses were at least partly underwater," said Jahier. "It was difficult because there were no street signs, they were all underwater."
Although the team received "critical incident stress debriefing," a therapy session to help team members deal with the things they were seeing, Hutton was not prepared for much of what he encountered, like people dying of heart attacks in the field hospital.
"More depressing was that some people were fine, and many of them were saying their houses were destroyed, or that they were looking for relatives and things like that," he said. "That was pretty depressing."
"I was really nervous about the hurricane and what [Hutton] did see," said Tom Hutton Sr., his father. The younger Hutton volunteered on the weekends with the New Orleans Health Department, said Tom Hutton Sr., but at school, his son helped students with what were mostly non-life-threatening injuries or illnesses.
"One of the hardest things for him was when he saw people dying and they didn’t need to die, they just had no food or water," said Tom Hutton Sr. "They didn’t need to die, but the government had not prepared for it."
Tom Hutton’s mother Patrice Hutton was worried for him, especially in the first few days when land lines were down and it was hard to get through to him. But his parents managed to talk and send text messages to him a few times a day, said Tom Hutton Sr.
"[Hutton] had his shirt, pants, and shoes on, and left," said Tom Hutton Sr. His son left all his possessions, along with his car, on Tulane’s campus, and doesn’t know what he’ll find when he finally returns there.
Tom Hutton is back in Burke now, working on law school applications. He, along with many other TEMS team members, missed the deadline to enroll in another school for the semester until Tulane reopens in the spring. Hutton might go back down South, he said, since Tulane is offering a semester’s credit to students who are willing to pay tuition and spend the semester working with relief efforts in the New Orleans area, but he isn’t sure yet. Hutton, a double major in Russian and history, might stay in the area and start work on his thesis, which is required if he wants to graduate with honors.
"In this particular case, we were in the wrong place at the wrong time, or the right place at the right time, however you want to look at it," said Tom Hutton. "I was part of something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life."
"He’s very responsible," said Patrice Hutton, who works as an emergency department nurse practitioner. "They’re following through with it, and it’s a very honorable thing to do."
"He has been very safe. It’s the number one priority," said Tom Hutton Sr. "It was kids standing up to do something above and beyond the call of duty."