By Troy Hudson
On Sept. 10, as Hurricane Irma made landfall in Cudjoe Key, Florida, with maximum sustained winds of 130 mph, much of the country was anxiously awaiting news of its impacts. In a state of over 20 million, it seemed almost everyone knew someone in Florida, and no place in the state appeared totally safe from the storm’s destruction. The ultimate path may have been uncertain, but one sobering fact was sinking in: The Florida Keys were going to receive a direct hit from a Category 4 hurricane, and words like “leveled” and “decimated” were being used to describe the expected aftermath.
While most of us probably felt thankful to be so far from the storm’s path, three SMCC faculty members were awaiting a call to action. Brian Dougher is the SeaWolves’ men’s soccer coach as well as the Emergency Management Coordinator for Maine Medical Center. Nate Contreras and Clif Whitten are adjunct faculty in the Paramedicine program. Contreras is also a captain with the Scarborough Fire Department as well as a registered nurse, while Whitten is a lieutenant and EMS coordinator with the Saco Fire Department. They all belong to an organization called the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS) that responds to major medical emergencies whenever states request aid from the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
When a major medical disaster requires support from HHS, teams like the one Dougher belongs to, known as Disaster Medical Assistance Teams, or DMATs, are activated and deployed. The DMAT that serves Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, known as NH-1, is no stranger to the destruction hurricanes leave behind: they were deployed to New York in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy struck the east coast, causing $75 billion in damages and killing 174 people. This time, they were in Marathon Key and running an improvised tent hospital within two days of landfall.
“The unique thing about the DMAT teams is that when they’re sent out, they’re basically self-sufficient for 72 hours,” Dougher explained. “We’re sent to locations where we know we may not get backup for a couple of days, so we’ve got to carry all the equipment we need.” Dougher’s team set up a tent hospital in the parking lot of Fishermen’s Community Hospital in Marathon Key. The hospital itself sustained major damage and will be out of service for months.
During their three-week stay, the team helped serve over 700 people. According to Contreras, injuries included “lacerations, strokes, cardiac issues, pediatric illnesses and even medication refills. Many people lost their medications during the evacuation phase of the hurricane.” The temporary clinic served as an emergency department, determining whether patients could be tended to on-site and sent home with medications or driven two hours north for further treatment in Homestead. In some severe cases, patients were airlifted to the nearest hospital in Miami.
It was “a very humbling experience,” Dougher said. “It was interesting to see houses that were completely flattened right next to a house that survived. Boats where you didn’t think boats would really belong, but somehow storm surge pushed them across roads and on top of buildings.”
Dougher is the safety officer of his DMAT, which makes him responsible for maintaining safe conditions for those providing aid. In the tropical climate of the Keys, where summer temperatures can climb toward 110 degrees Fahrenheit, staying safe was not without its challenges. “A lot of things you have back home we didn’t have access to,” he said. “We didn’t have drinking water. We had running water but it wasn’t drinkable. Lots of bottled water and MREs for meals.” One of Dougher’s responsibilities was to keep the generators running so that portable air-conditioners, critical for preventing injuries related to heat exhaustion, could continue to function.
Reflecting on his experience, Dougher said, “The team I work with is an incredible group of people. It doesn’t matter what type of environment we’re in; we’re down there to do a job and we do it well.” In fact, while the work done by DMATs is seldom publicized, they stand ready for deployment at any time. Some members of NH-1 had only just returned from Texas following Hurricane Harvey when they received the call for help from Florida, and six DMATs are in Puerto Rico as of the writing of this article.
After spending weeks serving others in challenging conditions, you might think a much-needed break was in order, but Dougher says it was back to life as usual: “I literally got off the plane and went straight to soccer practice.” That attitude perfectly reflects the spirit of NH-1, a team comprised of community-minded people like Dougher, Contreras and Whitten, remarkable individuals who stand ready to lend their expertise to relief efforts whenever disaster strikes.