Honore: Ex-La. governor halted hospital reopening
7/14/2009, 9:10 a.m. CDT
The Associated Press
(AP) — NEW ORLEANS - Weeks after Hurricane Katrina slammed New Orleans and worsened the medical plight of the city's poor, then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco said the publicly run Charity Hospital would not reopen, even though the military had scrubbed the building to medical-ready standards, the retired Army general who oversaw the work said.
In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Lt. Gen. Russel Honore said Blanco told him in late September 2005 the 20-story building that served the region's poor residents would not reopen.
"'Ma'am, we got the hospital clean, my people report ... if you want to use it,'" Honore recalled telling Blanco. "Her reply to me: 'Well general, we're not going to open it, we're working on a different plan.'"
Honore's revelation raises questions of whether state officials used Katrina as an excuse to leverage federal financing for a new public hospital.
It comes as state and federal officials continue squabbling over how badly the hospital was really damaged and how much federal recovery funding should be allocated to it.
The state wants $492 million for a new hospital to replace the Depression-era building as part of a proposed $1.2 billion medical complex. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has offered $150 million for repairs. The dispute is on appeal at FEMA headquarters.
Blanco said she could not remember the conversation with Honore. She said she didn't know the military had scrubbed Charity until she was contacted by the AP.
But she said Honore's comments struck her as out of context. "I would not have made that statement because I would not have the first idea of having other plans for Charity at that moment," Blanco said.
Honore suggested that money, not medical judgment, was at the heart of the decision.
"This is about business, man," Honore said. "This is about rich people making more money. This is not about providing health care."
Keith Twitchell, president of the good-government Committee for a Better New Orleans/Metropolitan Area Committee, said "anything he (Honore) says must be given credence," but it seemed improbable that state officials hatched long-term plans so quickly.
"Two, three weeks after Katrina, it's hard to imagine anyone at the state level was thinking, 'Oh, boy, this is our chance to shut down Charity,'" Twitchell said.
Charity's closing forced needy residents to turn to the few overcrowded, private hospitals still operating, which financially stressed them.
FEMA also spent more than $90 million to open temporary facilities, including a hospital in a shopping mall.
In documents filed with FEMA, the state said a damage assessment was done at Charity within the first two weeks after Katrina. Citing floodwater in the basement, wind damage to the roof, widespread mold and human and medical waste, they claimed the hospital was destroyed.
Blanco said she was told Charity was contaminated because the air conditioning and heating systems flooded and "affected the core operations of the entire building."
She said she relied on the advice of Jerry Jones, director of State Facility Planning and Control, an office that oversees public buildings. Jones did not return repeated telephone calls seeking comment.
When the 82nd Airborne Division arrived in the ravaged city in early September 2005, Charity was identified as key. It was in the center of town and provided a lot of people care, said the division's commander, Gen. William Caldwell.
About 150 soldiers and a team of medical professionals worked to get the hospital running, Caldwell said.
Meanwhile, a German military team's pumps sucked water out of the basement. Air sampling found no contamination-a concern, considering the flooding and bodies in the flooded morgue, Caldwell said.
Caldwell recalled telling Honore the hospital was nearly ready to receive patients. "We were actually thinking of having a ribbon-cutting ceremony, give a thumbs up and turn it over to the health care professionals," Caldwell said.
But then, Caldwell said a decision came to stop the cleanup.
Dr. James Moises, a former Charity emergency room doctor who helped clean the hospital after Katrina, said Charity was made useable, and the medical staff was eager to see it back in use.
Moises said state officials used Katrina as an excuse to close Charity and ask FEMA for the money to build a new medical complex. Moises said: "It was their orchestrated plan. It was, 'How can we manipulate the disaster for institutional gains?'"