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Medical teams rush to help victims

Residents here began the slow process of repairing their lives Monday, clearing tree branches, bundling debris and patching roofs.

All this work has brought a new problem: injuries.

Escambia County's three hospitals are treating triple the number of trauma patients, many due to chain saw accidents.

They're handling the influx because medical professionals from across the country have come here to operate mobile emergency rooms at local hospitals.

These doctors, nurses, firefighters, paramedics and respiratory therapists form Disaster Medical Assistance Teams to treat patients in tents filled with medical supplies and examining tables.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and Gov. Jeb Bush on Monday visited the West Florida Regional Medical Center, where doctors and nurses from the Tampa Bay area were treating ailing residents.

The officials toured the tents, shook hands with aching patients and walked the hospital halls.

"You all have saved so many lives," Bush told Ron Wegner, a Tampa anesthetist and team commander.

Their appearance perked up injured patients, Red Cross volunteers and hospital staffers stretched thin at work and at home.

"As soon as I saw them, I was scared and excited and forgot about my pain," said Mary Padgett, who was being mended in a mobile tent for arm and hip injuries after slipping on a tree branch.

While Ridge's agency is known more for issuing terror alerts and protecting America's borders, he also oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"Homeland security is about response and recovery as well," he said. "The devastation here is enormous."

Ridge, who took a helicopter ride over devastated areas, assured residents that relief workers would remain until they were no longer needed.

"Everybody is working as hard as they can," he said. "There are real transportation challenges."

With several routes into the Florida Panhandle closed because of damage, many rescue workers are finding it tough getting in.

The Tampa Bay team had to spend the night inside cars and trucks at a rest area because the traffic was so heavy.

They are paid by the federal government, have their own jobs back home, but move in whenever disaster strikes.

FEMA spokesman Butch Kinerney said that in two days the Florida team and its support staff from five states treated 319 people for injuries ranging from broken bones to bee stings to carbon monoxide poisoning.

Wegner, the team commander from Tampa, said they treated victims of Hurricane Charley for eight days. They expect to stay here for more than a week.

Like many of their patients, they lack laundry facilities and are tired.

"But our (situation) is nothing compared to these people coming in for care," Wegner said. "They've lost their homes, their dogs, their cats. We're glad we can help in some way."