If Hurricane Katrina happened again, Michael Lente would go back.
He’d go back to the chaos of the Gulf Coast, to the instant entrepreneurs selling “I survived the big one” T-shirts from the back of their trucks, to the 100-degree-plus invisible goo of the summertime South called air, to the armed soldiers and helicopters criss-crossing the sky that triggered flashbacks of the Vietnam War upon his return to New Mexico.
“I would, as long as my family would let me,” said the 55-year-old physician assistant, Vietnam veteran and former medic with the U.S. Navy. “Our team accomplished a lot.”
As a volunteer with the emergency-handling New Mexico Medical Reserve Corps, Lente went to the Gulf Coast to fix what he could after Hurricane Katrina played pick up sticks with thousands of lives in late August last year.
“It was a war zone,” Lente said at a recent ceremony hosted by Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.
The group working for low- and moderate-income families recognized Lente and other volunteers for traveling to the Gulf Coast to help with hurricane recovery.
“With this (disaster),” Lente said, “you get the bad, the ugly and the really frustrating.”
Frustrating was the red tape, incompetent leadership and the lack of anyone taking action without permission due to concern over being held accountable for mistakes, he said.
But not the group he led. While others waited for sign-offs from superiors, he and his team of nurses, technicians and volunteers began providing medical care, he said.
“Sometimes you’ve got to buck the bureaucracy to get something done,” he said. “That’s how we finally got through the red tape.”
In Gulfport, Miss., he saw cars stacked atop one another, houses washed from their foundations.
More amazing was the china.
An untouched stack of the porcelain plates and cups stood amid the shreds of wood that were once a home.
He took a picture, one of many capturing his experience along the Gulf Coast that were tucked into a small photo album.
“This (album) is just to remind people and me that one time, something happened, and don’t forget that,” he said.
When Lente returned, he said he took some time off work as a physician assistant to deal with flashbacks from his service in Vietnam. He says they were triggered by the warlike conditions along the Gulf Coast.
If another disaster struck, he hopes those in command of organizations like the Red Cross and Federal Emergency Management Agency have taken lessons from Katrina, but he has his doubts.
“I’m wondering if we actually learned anything,” he said. “People were paralyzed by red tape.”
The all-volunteer New Mexico Medical Reserve Corps – established by the Center for Disaster Medicine with the University of New Mexico in 2003 with government grants – has about 280 members today who help the public during emergencies. The group helped evacuees who made it to the Albuquerque Convention Center.
FACTBOX: FEMA HELP
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has called Hurricane Katrina the most catastrophic natural disaster in U.S. history. It forced more than 270,000 people into shelters. The agency has paid $650 million to house displaced families in hotel and motel rooms.
There have been 454,986 evacuee registrations with FEMA outside of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas. In New Mexico, registrations with FEMA reached their peak in October 2005 at 1,157. There are 890 now.
Here’s a look at FEMA’s help with Katrina evacuees living in New Mexico:
495 of them get direct FEMA rental assistance.
383 are in Bernalillo County.
121 are in Santa Fe County.
$1.5 million in disaster relief – including rental help and shelter costs – has been set aside for them.