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Sunday, September 11, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Still in shock, medical team back from Gulf

Seattle Times staff reporter

Hours after he left New Orleans, the strain still played on Dr. Christopher Sanford's face yesterday as he and other members of a local medical-emergency response team touched down at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

"None of us had ever seen anything like it in our careers — not Vietnam, not 9/11," said Sanford, who worked nearly round the clock at a makeshift hospital at the New Orleans airport to care for medically needy Katrina survivors evacuated from that city's nursing homes, hospitals, rooftops and freeways.

Sanford was one of 35 physicians, nurses, paramedics and others who are members of the Washington-1 Disaster Team. The Federal Emergency Management Agency deployed it a day before the hurricane slammed the Gulf Coast.

Originally, the team was ordered to the New Orleans Superdome. When it became apparent the dome was too dangerous, members became one of the first medical teams diverted to the airport. They arrived Tuesday, Aug. 30.

"On the floor, there were hundreds and hundreds of people, as far as the eye could see," said Sanford, an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine who also maintains a private practice in Everett.

Some were begging for water or food or relief from pain or from their own waste. Some were dying.

"I've never felt so overwhelmed in my life," admitted Sanford, who repeatedly faced waves of severely ill hospital patients dropped off by helicopter. They arrived with no medical records.

"The hardest part was, you couldn't help everyone," added Julie Aldrich, a King County paramedic and one of the disaster team's leaders, who also returned yesterday.

Aldrich's eyes misted as she recalled the nonstop, 22-hour workdays. "When the levy broke there were way more evacuees than we had resources for," she said. "No one had all the support they needed, and no one anticipated how overwhelming it would be."

What little sleep team members got came fitfully — they slept atop the airport baggage carousels, the only space available. Their rest was punctuated by the barking of homeless dogs.

Constant training

The Washington-1 Disaster Team, all volunteers, trains year-round. It has responded to hurricanes, floods and earthquakes, according to Marty La Fave, the team's deputy commander.

Both personnel and the area's mobile MASH units were dispatched for Katrina. While the team members have returned, their equipment is still there. Large tents. A portable lab. Electrocardiogram machines. All kinds of medications.

"We don't know if we'll ever see it again," La Fave said. "FEMA gave it to another medical team — which is the right thing to do."

Like the others, Aldrich is aware that FEMA is coming under increasing scrutiny for its handling of the disaster.

Washington's team "did the best we could with what we were dealt," she said. "I'm really grateful to have had the experience."

Victims seek help here

Meanwhile, the Washington Emergency Management Division's phones continued to ring yesterday as Katrina survivors, who have made their way to this state, sought help.

"There are hundreds of people here; I can't tell you the numbers, but I know we've taken several hundred calls from all over the state," said Diane Schurr, a trained emergency volunteer.

"Some went to a shelter before the storm and were told they couldn't go home, so they just self-evacuated. They're coming because of family and friends here."

Schurr said some are "amazingly upbeat," while others are clearly struggling, particularly with finances. Many tell her they have money, but it's not available because their home bank is under water.

"We're getting online and finding branches and getting them contacts," she said.

The other big issue, she said, is matching the survivors with the plentiful donations.

Survivors may call Washington's disaster-assistance hotline at 800-688-3469 for help.

Burien store

Aid groups are mobilizing throughout the region. In Burien, organizers are trying to get donations to families that have fled to the Puget Sound area.

With assistance from We Care Northwest, a group that draws on the congregations of about a dozen Northwest churches, Steve Denmark opened up a vacant Burien department store a few days after the hurricane hit and stocked it with donations of clothing and necessities from individuals and businesses.

He has coordinated with the Red Cross in Seattle to give families vouchers to "shop" at the store. But unlike a typical department store, everything is free.

By the end of the day yesterday, Denmark planned to have six evacuated families come through his store, though he said some 70 families in Washington have been qualified to take whatever they need off the shelves.

All of the items at his store are "mother-inspected," he said. "If it's good enough for her kids, it's good enough for someone else's kids."

The store will be open through Wednesday, Denmark said, when a 48-foot truck will be loaded with the donations and driven to San Antonio, where the goods will go to the thousands of evacuees there.

Elizabeth Rhodes: erhodes@seattletimes.com

Seattle Times staff reporter Brian Alexander contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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