By Capt. Lesley Kipling
BELLE CHASE, La. -- Like many National Guard member, Col. Greg Biernacki was eager to help the citizens of Louisiana who were affected by hurricane Katrina.
“That’s why I’m in the Air National Guard. Opportunities like this, where we certainly can make a big difference to the people that are in need,” Biernacki said.
Biernacki is the senior Air Surgeon for the Commonwealth of Virginia, but in Louisiana he was assigned as the Medical Commander for all of the National Guard soldiers deployed to the state.
He is responsible for coordinating National Guard and Air Guard medical assets from seven states, including Ohio, Kansas and Virginia, in order to support both the civilian population and the soldiers in the region.
Biernacki arrived in Louisiana on Oct. 1 and has had a very busy month. Upon arriving, he was immediately concerned that unsanitary conditions would be a breading ground for diseases.
“People returning to their homes are going to find that there is not much power, there’s not much sewage [removal] and there’s not much garbage collection,” Biernacki said. The sitting water attracts mosquitoes and the piles of rubbish could become a breading ground for rodents; both of which can carry disease.
Soldiers trained in preventive medicine went through communities, talking with residents who had returned, making sure they were okay and had food, water, and other necessities.
“The main thing people are going to notice is the big black mold that is sitting on their walls,” Biernacki said. Medical Soldiers and Airmen warned people to wear respiratory masks and to take frequent breaks outside, if they were working in an area with mold.
Initially, military medical assets were the only health care providers in the area. Air Guard and National Guard soldiers operated a surgical hospital in downtown New Orleans and even provided care to those in the Superdome. Over the past month, civilian agencies have taken over many of those sites and Biernacki has worked close with local and federal agencies to ensure that the transition has gone smoothly.
He is in regular contact with the Red Cross, Center for Disease Control, Northcom, the Louisiana Department of Public Health, and numerous other organizations. “For 30 days strait, I’ve interacted with my civilian counterparts,” Biernacki explained. He was even tasked to write a white paper on the potential health care crisis that could unfold in New Orleans as residents return, especially since there are still only a handful of medical facilities that are fully operational. His assessments and suggestion have been widely circulated; even the Governors office has taken his recommendations under consideration in determining various courses of action for getting Southern Louisiana up and running again.
The unsanitary environment and close quarters, also poses a health threat to the thousands of soldiers in Louisiana. Biernacki and his team have gone to all the bases where soldiers are living, to ensure that the soldiers also took actions to minimize health risks. Biernacki talked to the unit medics, checked the unit’s water supply for contamination and looked for potential health risks. He wanted to ensure that subordinate units had a chance to make contact with him, share their concerns and establish a personal rapoiur.
Biernacki, a family physician in Williamsburg, is heading home at the end of the month, confident that the medical Airmen and Soldiers have done their best to aide the citizens of Louisiana.
“This is a Air National, Army National Guard mission. This is neighbors helping neighbors and we have all come down here to help the people of Louisiana who have a lot of need.”