Artist: Hugo Martinez
Storyteller: Roberta Brandes Gratz
Charity Hospital did not have to close. It was restored to working order within a few weeks of Katrina with the extraordinary volunteer effort of more than 200 doctors, nurses, technical professionals, citizens and military staff. UMC, at $1.1 billion and counting, with less beds and services than Charity and not enough staff to fully function, did not have to be built. Charity was well-suited, architects proved, to a complete, modern retrofit that would have taken three years and cost $550 million. Moreover, Charity’s upgrade would have retained the kind of downtown anchor other cities dream of having that gives strength to the larger district.
Just as tragic, a reviving, economically and racially diverse Mid-City neighborhood of 265 homes – some restored with government funding – was demolished with their rooted families displaced. Their houses were taken by eminent domain to make way for both the UMC and the new Veterans Hospital.
LSU ignored all the study’s facts and figures and plunged ahead with its own agenda – namely, to leave Charity closed and build a new hospital on a new site. Mysteriously, the repaired Charity was sabotaged, flooded, systems disconnected, operating rooms ruined. Photographs confirm it all. The bottom line: LSU and the state, under Governor Bobby Jindal, long wanted a new hospital with more beds for people who could pay and fewer beds for those who couldn’t; Katrina gave them an excuse to do what was otherwise politically impossible. Plans were on the drawing boards before Katrina.
Today, the actual redevelopment of Charity is a serious challenge. It was built to be a hospital. It is too big to be easily adapted to something else. Worse, LSU, who oversaw its demise as a hospital, is now in charge of its redevelopment.
This is no small tragedy and should never be forgotten. The powers that be – governor, legislature, mayor, city council, city planning commission, cooperating universities, business community – were all complicitous. The excessive waste of federal, state and city funds for the new project seemed criminal, especially considering the human needs of the storm-decimated city. And there were enough instances of questionable procedure, backroom dealing, falsehoods, sabotage and manipulation of federal regulations to have prompted a congressional inquiry.
Charity was the second-oldest continually operating public hospital in the country, founded only months ahead of New York Bellevue Hospital in 1736. Its trauma center was the envy of cities everywhere, second in status only to Cook County Hospital in Chicago. Considered one of the most vital and successful hospitals in many respects, Charity was a critical center of medical care in New Orleans, particularly for poor people and the uninsured.
Mega-projects like the new hospital complex are notorious for costing more than anticipated, destroying more than required to meet a deceptive goal and moving ahead outside of a genuine public review process. This could never have occurred if disaster had not struck. This didn’t need to happen.