Friday, April 29, 2011

Tornado story: When search and rescue becomes search and recovery

It was about noon on Thursday, April 28, 2011, when Sarah Nafziger realized that she and her EMS colleagues were no longer likely to find people injured from the massive tornadoes that had ravaged Alabama the night before. The only people left to be found were the dead.

Nafziger is an emergency physician at UAB, and serves as medical director for several EMS units in the Birmingham area. On Wednesday evening, April 27, she watched the big twister move through Tuscaloosa and Pleasant Grove and when it passed, she hopped a ride on a Trussville fire truck to Pratt City. With first responders from around the area, she worked through the night to triage patients injured by the storm. She helped to coordinate the resources at hand: send paramedics here, they need more ambulances there.

By Thursday morning she was in Pleasant Grove.
"You couldn't recognize where you were," she recalls. "Was this a business district or a housing development? You couldn't tell."

The landscape was simply flat, bits of rubble, scoured by the 200 MPH winds of the killer storm. There were some walking wounded, those with minor injuries who had not yet sought treatment. Otherwise, their search and rescue mission had taken on the grimmer task of collecting the bodies of those the storm had claimed. She shared her story with the Wall Street Journal.

Nafziger praises the work of EMS crews after the storm. Departments from across the region came together to locate patients, provide first aid and arrange transport to appropriate hospitals. UAB hospital admitted 43 trauma patients, and nearly 100 other walking wounded were treated and released from the emergency department.

The mission began as rescue and moved to recovery. The task facing Birmingham, Jefferson County and all of Alabama now is to rebuild.

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