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Saturday, September 10, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Volunteer doctor likens city to Third World

Seattle Times staff reporters

The sick have run out of medicine, and those with diabetes can't get the dialysis they need. Seizures, aneurysms, dehydration and utter poverty have prevented people from leaving the disaster that's New Orleans.

Dr. Dan Diamond says it's like the end of the world.

"When you go to the Third World, you expect the Third World," Diamond, a private-practice doctor from Silverdale, Kitsap County, said in a telephone interview yesterday from New Orleans. "But you don't expect to see the Third World in the United States."

Diamond is one of five Washington volunteers with the nonprofit relief group Northwest Medical Teams who traveled to Louisiana to care for hurricane evacuees. The Oregon-based group has 20 volunteers in the disaster zone.

Arriving at 1:30 a.m. Monday in New Orleans, the team immediately set up a tent and cots in front of the city's convention center, where thousands of people had gathered for evacuation.

It's a place Bill Essig, vice president for Northwest Medical Teams' international programs, calls "ground zero."

The team has treated more than 500 evacuees in the past four days. The city is largely empty now, but the volunteers remain to care for those who haven't left yet.

Farther west in Lafayette, La., Northwest Medical Teams volunteers are aiding people who have special needs. Other teams near the Texas border in Lake Charles and in Mississippi are providing much-needed relief to hospital staff overloaded by the disaster.

Northwest Medical Teams recruits health-care providers to help people affected by natural disasters and poverty. The group has dispatched 1,200 volunteer teams worldwide since its creation in 1979.

The group's vice president, Soozi Redkey, said volunteers on the Gulf Coast are shifting their focus from immediate disaster relief.

"Even though the initial disaster might be winding down, what's going to be winding up is our response to any grief counseling," Redkey said. "That's going to be a major thrust from here on forward."

Team headed home

After nights of sleeping on the floor and on luggage carousels at New Orleans' airport, after helping treat 20,000 people in a week, the 30 or so members of Washington-1 Disaster Team are heading home.

The team of local doctors, nurses, paramedics and emergency medical technicians was deployed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Aug. 28. They and other disaster-management teams from around the country staffed a makeshift hospital at the New Orleans airport.

Relying on generators and working around the clock, the workers cared for patients evacuated from other hospitals and nursing homes, and rescued from rooftops.

At one point the patients completely covered the floors of the two-level concourse the team was in, said Bill Engler, Washington-1's team commander, who spoke by cellphone yesterday as the group headed to the Houston airport.

At one point, "probably 2,000 people were there at one time, and we only had 80 of us to take care of them. Most of us put in 160 hours last week just to take care of the people."

Ministering to the media

Among those needing care on the Gulf Coast, journalists would probably not immediately spring to mind.

Not so for Pastor Bob Rieth of Bothell, who, for the past few days, has been in Baton Rouge, La., offering sandwiches, snacks and an ear for those covering the disaster.

People don't realize "the impact [the devastation] would have on people covering it," he said.

Rieth, a Lutheran pastor, is president of the Bothell-based Media Fellowship International, which seeks to expand the network of Christians in the media.

The Oklahoma City bombing — the first time MFI did this sort of thing — made him realize "there seemed to be people there to help everyone except the news people," Rieth said by cellphone from Baton Rouge.

Rieth has set up a motor home at the Louisiana state-trooper training headquarters, where he says most media covering Katrina are based. There, he offers food, soft drinks, coffee and water.

"Our goal is not to evangelize," Rieth said, although "if someone has a question, a concern, we're willing to answer."

He says he has talked to about 60 reporters.

"There are people in the media who come from this area, whose family members are missing or have family members who've lost property," Rieth said. "So it hits them very close to home."

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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