February 14, 2006

New Orleans Hospital Reopens, Wary of Mardi Gras

By Kim Dixon

NEW ORLEANS -- Hospitals in this hurricane-ravaged city have begun to revive six months after Katrina forced closings and mass evacuations and industry officials say man-made as well as natural obstacles have made the recovery a tough challenge.

HCA Inc., the biggest U.S. hospital company, reopened the doors to its Tulane University Hospital on Tuesday to hoopla and promises of readiness.

Tulane is close to Bourbon Street, where thousands of tourist revelers are expected to kick off the boisterous annual Mardi Gras festivities on Saturday and strain the fragile infrastructure of a city swamped and battered by Katrina.

Worried local health officials say emergency rooms are already jammed at area hospitals, most of which operate on the outskirts of the city. Tulane is the first hospital to reopen in downtown New Orleans since Katrina flooded 80 percent of the city and killed more than 1,300 last August.

More than a dozen area hospitals remain shuttered and only two emergency rooms are open.

"This has been a crooked path and a lot of obstacles to get over," Jim Montgomery, chief executive of Tulane University Hospital said at the reopening, which featured a jazz trio, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and a slew of HCA executives, and local food favorites like Bananas Foster.

The hospital, where two-and-a-half feet of flood waters filled its emergency room, sits in a still beaten-down area amid shuttered buildings and hotels. Across the street, the public Charity Hospital remains closed and embroiled in a debate about whether it is even worth re-opening.

Tulane is taking it slow. It reopened with 63 beds -- a quarter of its pre-Katrina capacity. It will hold off further investment until it becomes clear just how many and what types of patients will return.

"Over the long-term, it is really unknown. We're going to wait and see what happens over the next six months," HCA President Richard Bracken told Reuters at the reopening. "I've got to admit, over the past six months, I wasn't sure I'd be standing here today."

Although HCA used insurance money to rebuild, executives said they are frustrated by local politics. They were discouraged by a recently scuttled state plan to consolidate local levee boards, which they said were partly responsible for the neglect to city levees which broke last August.

"We're outraged at the actions of our legislature," said Mel Lagarde, head of HCA's regional office.


Mardi Gras has been a New Orleans staple for two centuries and a key for the local economy. The pre-Lenten festivities begin on February 18 and culminate on Fat Tuesday, February 28.

Although crowds are likely to be smaller than in the past, when up to a million visitors might descend on the city, officials are nonetheless alarmed.

A group coordinating health care for Mardi Gras is still trying to determine if it can set up a mobile hospital downtown. "It looks promising, which is about the best I can say when working with the federal government," said James Aiken, an LSU doctor working on the project.

Officials at non-profit Touro Hospital, which usually serves the city with about 300 beds in the Uptown neighborhood, is open. But a city-wide shortage of doctors, nurses, and pharmacists limits its ability to provide care.

One physicians' group has estimated about 1,200 doctors, or slightly more than a third of the city's physicians, remain.

On Monday, health officials announced that a trauma unit for seriously injured patients would open outside the city limits to replace one destroyed by Katrina flooding. But that facility will not open for at least a month.

Officials said they had looked for a location closer to the water-logged city center, but found none.