Grand Junction, Colo. • The physical toll Hurricane Michael took on the Florida Panhandle earlier this month seems comparable in some areas to the devastation Hurricanes Irma and Maria brought on Puerto Rico last year, according to a Mesa County surgeon who deployed to help with medical efforts at both disasters.
Harold A. Fenster, a general and trauma surgeon based in Grand Junction who works for medical temp companies in several states, deployed to Panama City, Fla., Oct. 10 as part of a medical team under the National Disaster Medical System, a federal program that gives medical, veterinary and mortuary relief during disasters.
Fenster spent nearly six weeks in Puerto Rico, as well as in St. Croix and St. Thomas, after Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria last year. He also deployed to North Carolina last month after Hurricane Florence.
The Category 4 hurricane made landfall Oct. 10, decimating structures along the Florida Panhandle.
Fenster, who expected to return to Grand Junction on Tuesday, said in Mexico Beach — a coastal community about 24 miles east of Panama City — damage from the storm was severe.
“Mexico Beach was totally demolished buildingwise, [with] a couple of standing buildings,” Fenster said, speaking by phone from Florida last week. “Here we have a lot of damage but not to the point of Mexico Beach. There’s a lot of tree damage, a lot of house damage, a lot of shingle damage, a lot of road damage.”
Fenster said he still considers Puerto Rico post-Maria the most severe disaster he's responded to with the emergency response team, but Florida in the wake of Hurricane Michael isn't far off.
“Puerto Rico was worse because the whole island was affected,” he said. “The damage that was sustained here is equal to Puerto Rico but in a more limited scale.”
Fenster’s team is working out of a “tent hospital” across the street from a major hospital, Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center. Only the center’s emergency room and X-ray facilities are open, he said late last week. The offices surrounding the hospital were battered by the storm.
“They’ve lost all sorts of electricity, water, power,” Fenster said.
He and other medical staff on his team are seeing patients flowing over from the hospital’s emergency room — mostly minor medical issues that the hospital just can’t take time to treat.
Then there are the walk-in patients.
“Things like a lot of chainsaw injuries because there are so many trees down on houses and cars,” Fenster said. “People are using chainsaws to free their houses or their cars or get them off the road.”
Fenster has also seen patients who can’t get medication for chronic illnesses like high blood pressure or diabetes, and who are suffering from conditions like upper respiratory infections.
While medical staff at the tent hospital can treat minor surgical injuries, Fenster said many patients are being flown by helicopter to Tallahassee or Pensacola or even to hospitals in Alabama for more serious issues.
Fenster said medical relief workers are also enduring harsher living conditions than in Puerto Rico, where aid workers alternated between stays in hotels and working in the field. In Florida, doctors including Fenster are living out of tents full-time.
“For me personally this is a much harder deployment. We are seeing patients day and night,” he said. “This consistently tough for us.”
According to a Wednesday news release from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Fenster is one of about 400 medical and public health professionals working in areas affected by Hurricane Michael. By Wednesday, the teams had seen more than 1,300 patients, the release said.
Fenster said the “intensity of the work and the feeling of helplessness of the victims of this catastrophic storm, as well as the extraordinary damage in this area,” have taken him by surprise.