Tragedy Innew Orleans Hospital
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TERENCE SMITH: Authorities report that they found at least 44 bodies in the flooded Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans. But what is unclear is whether some of those who died were hospital patients waiting to be evacuated. Douglas Struck, who’s been covering this story for the Washington Post, was at the hospital today and yesterday, and he joins us now.
Doug Struck, welcome. What is the situation now at the Medical Memorial Center? You’ve been there. What’s it like?
DOUGLAS STRUCK: Right now the place is closed and boarded up. It’s surrounded by National Guardsmen who will not allow anyone nearby. Earlier today, a helicopter from – presumably from the company that owns it – landed and took a look around, but this is a facility that’s now dead and empty as far as present uses. All of the patients and all of the staff have literally scattered across the lower states to other hospitals and other places.
TERENCE SMITH: What have you been able to learn about what happened there?
DOUGLAS STRUCK: It’s still quite murky as to exactly what happened in the days after Katrina hit New Orleans. The hospital, itself, had about 240 patients. They survived the storm fine. The hospital came through. When the power went out, their emergency power went on.
But in the succeeding days, in the next four days as the waters from the broken levee gradually rose, it’s unclear as to how prepared the hospital was to deal with it. Clearly, this was a catastrophe they hadn’t expected. The lights — the generator ran out of diesel fuel. The electricity went off. They had only a few little generators to keep going. Medical supplies ran low. The heat soared inside the hospital to well above 100 degrees. People were fanning patients to try to keep them cool. And many of these patients were elderly and quite ill and they succumbed.
In that period, as many as 45 people died apparently. The hospital owners, based in Dallas, Texas, made quite an extraordinary effort to airlift the remaining patients and the staff from the hospital, and, in fact, they did that successfully.
The owners of the hospital claimed that they made a final sweep and no one was left alive — only the bodies that had been wrapped and given final prayers and left in the chapel when they left.
TERENCE SMITH: And there’s no evidence to the contrary, that any live patients were abandoned?
DOUGLAS STRUCK: There is no evidence to the contrary. I think the question is not so much whether live patients were abandoned. The question is whether or not this facility should have been evacuated earlier, either by authorities or by the owners of the hospital and whether or not the hospital was adequately equipped to sustain itself under a catastrophe of this magnitude.
Now the hospital officials say, look, we never expected anything of this size. And we would have expected help from local authorities if we had to evacuate. Neither of that were true – and the catastrophe just overwhelmed the… their ability to continue to provide care.
They say that no patients died because there wasn’t enough care, but it is clear that patients died because conditions inside the hospital became so extreme and so difficult.
TERENCE SMITH: And was the situation there much worse than other hospitals in New Orleans?
DOUGLAS STRUCK: Well, unfortunately, a lot of the hospitals had very desperate conditions. And that itself is a bit of a scandal. You had lights that were out… in this hospital particularly, you had, because the lights were out, you had darkened corridors.
Hundreds of people had come there seeking shelter so you had people roaming around the corridors. And security quickly became an issue. There were stories of assaults inside the hospital. There was looting going on outside the hospital. Unfortunately this scene was repeated in some other hospitals in New Orleans so they’re not the only ones.
TERENCE SMITH: Is it possible then that there are more bodies in other hospitals that will still be found?
DOUGLAS STRUCK: I think it’s possible. All of the hospitals as far as we know have been at least peripherally checked. If they were in water they have been checked by Guardsmen or police in boats. But of course that’s not a very thorough check.
These bodies having been discovered or having been recovered two weeks after the storm are suggestion that maybe as the floodwaters continue to recede in New Orleans, there might be more grim discoveries.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Douglas Struck of the Washington Post, thank you very much.