In what could prove to be a tide-turning series of articles, reporters have begun to confront elected and appointed officials about the original decision to shut down Charity Hospital in late September of 2005. After a teams of doctors, nurses, and military personnel worked around the clock to decontaminate the first three floors of the building and announced it was ready to receive patients, the decision to close Charity has left the city of New Orleans without needed health services for nearly four years.
The slow retreat of many public officials' support for the increasingly tenuous LSU/VA proposal has morphed into a full-fledged blame game this week.
Since obtaining and publishing a series of photographs depicting clean conditions at Charity Hospital just weeks after Hurricane Katrina, tension among and between public officials has been slowly building as suspicions mount.
For instance, this past spring, Congressman Joseph Cao (R - New Orleans) personally delivered a letter to President Obama in which he claimed "Charity Hospital was completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina." Within days, retired Lt. General Russel Honoré, who commanded the Katrina Joint Task Force that helped clean out Charity Hospital, met privately with the Congressman to correct him.
When the Congressman staged a round-table event at Charity Hospital, he seemed to back away from his assertion to the President when responding to a question posed by WWL's Dennis Woltering:
Well, based on what I have seen so far here on the first floor - I was not able to go up to the top floors - but based on what I have seen here, I believe at least the first floor is more than 50% damaged.
Last week, General Honoré went further. In an interview, he told WWL's Dennis Woltering that the hospital "could have been reopened."
Lt. General Honore's increasing frustration with the failure to reestablish healthcare infrastructure in New Orleans has lead him to name names. In a devastating report by the AP's Cain Burdeau, Honoré called out former Governor Kathleen Blanco.
In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré 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,'" Honoré recalled telling Blanco. "Her reply to me: 'Well general, we're not going to open it, we're working on a different plan.'"
Burdeau then confronted former Governor Blanco for a response. Blanco said she had no recollection of that conversation with the General and claimed that the interview with the AP marked the first time she had ever heard that Charity Hospital had been cleaned out.
[S]he said Honoré'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.
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.
The AP article also contains another incredibly provocative quote about the extent to which military personnel viewed the cleanup of Charity as successful. General William Caldwell, commanding officer of the storied 82nd Airborne Division, told Burdeau just how ready the facility was 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."
The details of that shocking story lead the Baton Rouge Advocate's Martha Shuler to track down Fred Cerise and Larry Hollier, respectively the chief of the LSU Health System and the head of the New Orleans Health Sciences Center, at an LSU board meeting. Each man defended the decision to close Charity but conceded, perhaps for the first time in public, that indeed the building had been scrubbed.
Cerise went a step further to corroborate former Governer Blanco's claim that the responsibility for information regarding the condition of Charity Hospital fell to Jerry Jones, Director of Facilities, Planning and Control.
Cerise said Blanco called him about Honoré’s claim.
Blanco could not recall any such comments and asked if he did, Cerise said.
“I told her I certainly was not involved in those decisions at that time,” said Cerise, a physician who was Blanco’s health secretary at the time.
Cerise said the administration was relying on advice from the state Office of Facility Planning and Control run by Jerry Jones.
Jones ruled against the reopening of Charity Hospital, he said.
Jerry Jones has remained as Director of Facilities, Planning and Control under new Governor Bobby Jindal and continues to be one of the leading figures advocating for the LSU/VA plan. During the legislative session, he testified against HB 780, which would have prevented premature expropriation in the proposed LSU Medical Center footprint until financing for the facility has been secured.
In testimony to the State Legislature, Jones claimed that the state had prepared three business plans for the facility but was overruled at the close of the legislative session by his boss, Division of Administration Secretary Angele Davis, who halted land acquisition in the footprint until the creation of a governance structure that would be a "step toward developing a financing model for the new facility."
Jones is also responsible for handling the state's claim to FEMA for damage incurred at Charity Hospital during the storm. It remains to be seen whether or not Jones' appeal of FEMA's earlier decisions has been threatened by the amplified revelations and admissions about the condition of the facility during the weeks immediately after the failure of the federal levee system.
Mr. Jones and the Department of Facilities, Planning, and Control has been responsible for maintaining the facility since it was closed. FEMA has criticized Jones for allowing the building to incur additional damage by repeatedly failing to secure the building and for claiming some of this preventable damage as storm-related.