Yesterday, a dispute between Louisiana and the Federal Emergency Management Agency over the value of the damage Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans’ Charity Hospital finally was resolved. In a private arbitration hearing the Civilian Board of Contract Appeals ruled in Louisiana’s favor to the tune of $474.7 million, just slightly less than the $492 million they were looking for from FEMA. After the storm, floodwaters from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ flawed levees filled the basement of the 21-story Charity Hospital. While the lower floors of the hospital were ruined, the vast majority of it was still in shape, save for broken windows and trash – much of that from people trapped inside during Katrina. FEMA’s original assessment of that damage was that it was minimal and hence the agency only committed to about $125 million in reimbursements for a new hospital.
Solving the four-year standoff between the state and FEMA is just one part of the formula, though. The question now is how it will be spent. It’s already being reported that the $474 million award will go towards a new hospital that will cost at least $1.2 billion – some say that is a conservative figure, and that it very well may end up costing upwards of $2 billion. It will also cost the city about 70 acres of real estate, including historic homes and buildings, with many of those units razed for parking lot space. There is another option, and that is to rebuild the hospital back in its original shell, which still stands tall and wide near downtown New Orleans today. Doing this would cost the state hundreds of millions dollars less by anyone’s estimates.
In some ways, this ruling is bad news for advocates of rebuilding the original hospital. In order to get FEMA to fork forward more money, it had to be proven that extensive damage was done to the building, which is exactly what the state, and the Louisiana State University which controlled it, was arguing to keep it shut down. Now that it has been effectively argued that damages were bad enough that the higher FEMA reimbursement award was necessary, it will be that much more difficult to fight the creation of the neighborhood-dissolving new medical facility.
There is hope for the Charity Hospital that generations of New Orleanians are already familiar with. High-ranked state legislators, including the state’s treasurer Jack Kennedy, are taking a serious examination at shelving the new hospital plans and preserving the current one. And many of them, like Kennedy, have voiced statements in legislative hearings that sound favorable for that preservation.
Meanwhile, at a time when authoritative research tanks such as the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center are reporting that there is still a huge void in housing units available for low-income families, there’s still a push to knock down even more units for a new facility. Whether Charity comes back in its old body or a new one the result of its completion will be hundreds of new jobs – thousands if you count the upstream impact of an improved medical system on the region’s overall workforce. So then, what will the state do about housing those new workers? They can’t live in parking lots.
Brentin Mock is a reporter for The Lens in New Orleans. In 2008, he wrote “Charity Case,” a feature article about the Charity Hospital dispute that appeared in Issue 19 of Next American City. The text of this article appears below. You can read the article in its entirety here.
On the second day of Hurricane Katrina, doctors and patients in New Orleans’ Charity Hospital began breaking windows that had withstood the fury of the storm. They needed ventilation in Unit 11, the third floor mental health ward where water surrounding the hospital had trapped registered nurse Marva Guillemet, a small team of other nurses and doctors and a dozen patients, one of whom was pregnant.
Without electricity, chaos impending, Guillemet and the hospital staff braced themselves, relying on procedures not taught in medical school. Food and water quickly grew scarce. Guillemet and the nurses fed the patients their own packed lunches. Toilets stopped up, so trash bags became makeshift waste outlets, stored in the hospital stairwell after use. Many people would have collapsed in such a crisis, but Guillemet could not afford to with patients who depended on her. The building stood equally strong: Charity Hospital, a facility dedicated to the poor and uninsured, saved the lives of more than 200 patients and caregivers while hundreds of other buildings throughout the city buckled.
Today, Rev. Avery C. Alexander Charity Hospital, also known as “Big Charity,” is closed. Although only its basement sustained major damage, Louisiana State University’s Health Care Services Division condemned the 21-story facility. Before Katrina, Charity allocated 97 beds to mental health patients and employed a substantial mental healthcare staff. As of March 2008, LS U has sprinkled ersatz health facilities throughout the city to substitute for Charity: a few clinics providing primary and limited special care here, a converted Lord & Taylor department store there. LS U opened 20 emergency psychiatric beds in small units near University Hospital and 10 in the New Orleans Adolescent Hospital, which was built to treat minors, not adults.
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