At about 8:30 a.m. Thursday, Wake County received notification from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to activate its emergency operations.
Within two hours, emergency responders were ready to handle 55 patients at a time in a makeshift hospital at the National Guard Armory at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, which will serve as a staging ground for patients from the Gulf Coast.
"We had a pretty good idea of what needed to be done and a bunch of people who were ready to do that," said Skip Kirkwood, EMS director for Wake County. "This morning, we threw the switch and here we are."
Emergency managers have been told that each military plane that will arrive at RDU can carry between 55 and 60 patients. They are expecting to have a six-hour turnaround time to prepare for the next plane.
From the National Guard Armory, patients will be cared for, assessed and based on their medical needs and be transported to one of 22 hospitals within a 60-mile radius.
Katrina has caused the evacuation of most hospitals in the region. This means there are hospital patients who have nowhere to go, as well as new patients who need medical care. FEMA estimates there are as many as 2,500 people who will be flown out of the area to receive care in other states.
On Wednesday, FEMA activated the National Disaster Medical System and put the Triangle area on standby. While officials say they do not know when the first plane with patients will land, they say they are ready.
"We have actually performed drills so they know we do this very well," Bisset said. "They have a lot of confidence in us and so that's why they selected to start transporting patients here."
In May, Wake County held the biggest disaster drill ever in the state. County officials said the drill prepared them to coordinate this effort out of RDU, along with the National Guard and emergency responders from across the state.
"We've drilled," said Wake County spokeswoman Sharon Brown. "We know how to do this and we will be hopefully able to help them as soon as we hear the word."
The National Guard estimates it will have about a one-hour notice on the arrival of the first plane. On Wednesday, emergency managers hoped they would have a 12-hour notice of activation, but they say, regardless, they are still prepared.
Emergency officials hope that traffic in and around the airport can be kept to a minimum, as about 40 to 60 ambulances will be traveling to and from the airport to pick up patients. They are asking the public to stay away from the airport area if at all possible. For those who do need to go into the area, they request motorists be mindful of the emergency operation under way.
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