October 5, 2005

Flood-damaged New Orleans hospitals to be closed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Charity Hospital in New Orleans,
which captured the sympathy of the nation as it struggled to
evacuate patients from the chaos and destruction brought by
Hurricane Katrina last month, cannot be saved and will be
closed, officials said on Wednesday.

The Louisiana State University Health Care Services
Division said the Charity and University Hospitals were too
heavily damaged and were unsalvageable.

"The ... Charity and University Hospital buildings were
issued their 'death warrant' by Katrina and the cataclysmic
floods it spawned," said Donald Smithburg. chief executive
officer of LSU's Health Care Services Division.

"Even before the storms, these old facilities were on the
ropes," he added in a statement.

Charity Hospital was built in the 1930s and University
Hospital in the 1960s.

As levees failed and New Orleans filled with floodwaters
after the hurricane, doctors at Charity called television
networks and newspapers on their cell phones, begging for help.

They described watching in disbelief as staff and patients
at neighboring hospitals were evacuated while they waited amid
growing desperation and danger.

Staffers eventually were forced to beg rides on boats and
in military vehicles to get their dying patients to a nearby
helicopter pad for evacuation. Some would-be rescuers were
frightened off by reports of gunfire, which in many cases
turned out to be false.

Smithburg estimated that damage to Charity Hospital totaled
more than $340 million and $105 million at University Hospital.

Only three hospitals are now operating in New Orleans --
East Jefferson, West Jefferson and the Ochsner Clinic. All are
not-for-profit hospitals in the immediate suburbs.

Charity was the only free hospital in New Orleans and
doctors have expressed fears that poor patients will go
untreated while a replacement is built, a process that will
take years.

In the meantime, the USNS Comfort, a naval medical ship,
will help. The ship, which is already receiving patients, is
docked at the Poland Street Wharf, adjacent to New Orleans'
badly flooded Ninth Ward.

It is a trauma facility with 12 fully-equipped operating
rooms, 1,000 beds, X-ray equipment including a CAT scanner, a
medical laboratory and a pharmacy.

Smithburg said that despite an effort to clean up Charity
Hospital, it could not be used again to treat patients. "Both
facilities are dangerous, dangerous places," he said.

"Over the past several weeks experts have inspected both
hospitals. Perhaps to the well-intended observer the facilities
don't look much worse than they did pre-Katrina, but through
the lenses of consulting engineers, the buildings have unsafe
air to breathe, pervasive mold growing, and mechanical systems
that were completely destroyed by the storm."