Saturday, January 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Weather

MacDill crew joins rescue efforts in St. Croix

ST. CROIX, VIRGIN ISLANDS — Wadata Hector lay barely conscious and sprawled on the floor at the Henry E. Rohlsen Airport on Tuesday as Airmen tried to take a blood test.

Hector, a 65-year-old dialysis patient, was among dozens of St. Croix residents hoping for passage to the United States. His test results would determine how critical his condition and whether he'd be flown out.

Staff Sgt. Matt Kane and Capt. Robert Stanley struggled to find a vein, but tried again and again. They had just landed in a C-130 aircraft, which had been sent to the island on Tuesday from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. It was one of several relief missions undertaken by Air Mobility Command to help in the Caribbean.

St. Croix was slammed by two massive hurricanes - Irma and Maria - in a period of 12 days. The latest storm made landfall during the night on Sept. 19, with 155 mph winds that also devastated other U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

Some patients were able to board under their own power on Tuesday, while others were carried into the airplane's gaping hull on stretchers. Medical personnel quietly moved back and forth across the tarmac, as the airport remained mostly barren. A hangar nearby had collapsed.

On the plane, Capt. Sara Truitt traded smiles while buckling patients into place, checking vital signs and tending to their needs.

She was part of a 16-person crew, called the Aeromedical Evacuation Team.

Truitt said she was a nursing student in Biloxi, Miss., when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, and that storm solidified her decision to become a flight nurse.

"After Katrina, there were no resources, there was complete devastation, there was no patient care, then the military came in and provided food, fuel and evacuations," she said.

On this trip, she came full circle.

"It is so humbling, and rewarding, to help people to get the treatment they need," she said. "So many of these people, especially the dialysis patients, if they do not get help, they will die."

The Air Force crew worked in tandem with a team from the National Disaster Medical System led by Russell Bieniek.

Bieneik compared the situation to what he witnessed in Haiti following the catastrophic 2010 earthquake.

"It's not as bad as the conditions were in Haiti. It's just much more extensive and widespread," he said. "An earthquake was kind of isolated to one area in Haiti. This storm had no mercy. It went across multiple islands."

Most of the people leaving St. Croix had special needs. A mission that concluded last Sunday had evacuated 34 dialysis patients.

It took several hours on Tuesday to board more than 26 patients and nine family members. They arrived later in Atlanta. Hector, already an amputee, was one of them. Before the storm, he had been receiving dialysis, and on the plane, he was considered "a critical care" patient.

Jacquiline Massicott, 61, rode on the six-hour flight to Georgia, buckled in a few feet from her husband's stretcher. The storm had blown the roof off their home, and they rode it out huddled in a closet. She threw a mattress over him as debris swirled through the house.

They were able to escape injury, but his medical needs are life-threatening.

Those left behind on St. Croix are just starting the process of digging out and trying to restore electricity.

The island is home to just over 50,000 people, according to the 2010 census. It has suffered storms before, most notably Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Then, as now, most of the homes on St. Croix were destroyed, and the military was sent in to help. Aside from the Air Force, the Army and Navy have sent personnel, and hundreds of National Guardsmen have been deployed from different states, including New York and Missouri. A cruise ship is providing sleeping quarters off the coast.

 

Researcher John Martin contributed to this story.

 

     
       
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