- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 3, 2005

Ship leaves Baltimore for Gulf

BALTIMORE — For people stranded on the upper floors of New Orleans’ partially submerged hospitals, it might seem strange that relief is coming from a hospital surrounded by water.

They might also find it odd that the medical staff of the USNS Comfort, a vessel designed for healing injuries sustained in foreign battles, will treat mainland U.S. residents wrought by weather.

The U.S. Navy’s Baltimore-based floating hospital began a seven-day voyage Friday night to the Gulf Coast to aid a region battered by Hurricane Katrina, which left much of New Orleans awash and thousands of coastal residents struggling to survive.

The ship and its crew, who are supposed to be ready at a moment’s notice, spent nearly three days supplying and preparing for the departure.

The ship’s senior officers have so far revealed few details about the precise scope of their mission, which they said could change several times between now and a scheduled supply stop tomorrow in Mayport, Fla.

“We have to make sure that we’re ready for everything,” said senior medical officer Russell Gilbert, who will run the on-board hospital. “I have to make sure I’m not caught off-guard.”

The Comfort One, one of two hospital ships employed by the Navy, was most recently called into service after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and during the initial stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.

The 894-foot-long and 10-story-high ship is run by the Military Sealift Command and initially will hold 250 patient beds, a number likely to change according to the latest assessment of the region’s needs during the supply stop.

The first leg of the trip will be staffed by 270 military personnel, including a medical staff derived mostly from the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. That number also may change.

The Comfort is a floating hospital in the fullest sense. It has 12 operating rooms, a transitional recovery ward, a frozen-blood bank and high-tech medical equipment that some of the deluged hospitals did not have even before the hurricane struck.

It even has mechanized, orthopedic beds, an idea spawned from the ship’s recent Iraq tour.

This mission marks a rare peacetime deployment and an even rarer strategy not oriented to trauma because ship personnel will be dealing more with cases of dehydration, malnutrition and waterborne illness, rather than missing limbs and impact wounds.

Herman Frazier, a 24-year Navy veteran and master chief petty officer on the Comfort, has a mother-in-law who lived in uptown New Orleans on Louisiana Avenue. She made it out of the city and should be flying to Virginia shortly, he said.

But even with ties to the city, his demeanor was inexpressive and his tone calm.

“I’m focused on the mission at hand,” he said.

Antoneil Banton, a 24-year-old storekeeper 3rd class, said he was preparing himself to see up close what so far he has seen only on a television screen. “I’m ready for whatever happens,” he said.

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