Before Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, Charity Hospital was the pride of New Orleans. A 1930s Art Deco–style icon built with WPA funds, Charity was one of the oldest continually operating public hospitals in the country and was regarded as one of the most vital and successful. “Charity was one of the best teaching hospitals in the country, where students from Tulane and LSU did their training,” says Dr. James Moises, a former Charity emergency room physician, noting that it served 100,000 patients a year before the storm.
Today Charity is a skeleton of its former self, with smaller, temporary facilities. The interim coverage does not include “urgent and chronic outpatient care,” notes Moises, and reaches a vastly reduced patient population. Meanwhile, the money that has flowed from the state and federal governments to compensate for the storm’s damage to the hospital is set to be spent on a highly controversial new $1.2 billion complex on an entirely different site, separated from the downtown core by an interstate highway.
The abandonment of the old Charity Hospital stands as a potent symbol of the many disappointments and betrayals experienced by the residents of New Orleans after Katrina. The loss has been a huge blow to the poor African-American community Charity served—an outcome that is all the more tragic, critics say, because it didn’t have to happen.
Charity flooded only in the basement during Katrina. In an extraordinary act of dedication and volunteerism, a 200-person medical and military team brought in a 600-kilowatt generator, pumped out the water and prepared the hospital for service. It was cleaned (to a condition better than before the storm) and was “medical ready” within weeks, according to doctors and military personnel present at the cleanup, as well as Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, the retired Army general who was commander of the joint task force on Katrina.
“I was one of the first state officials to tour Charity after the storm,” recalled State Treasurer John Kennedy in an interview for this article. “We were in desperate need of this facility. The lights and A/C were on. It was clean and functional.”
What happened next, critics charge, is that powerful forces in the state—including Louisiana State University, which operated Charity Hospital—conspired to block its reopening. For LSU, it is alleged, the hurricane and flood became the excuse to pursue a longstanding agenda to build a sprawling and expensive new facility with government support.
Kennedy says that after the storm, as Charity sat idle, he asked LSU hospital CEO Don Smithburg, “Why not move back in at least temporarily?” And, Kennedy says, Smithburg responded, “If we do, we will never get a new one.”
Repeated attempts to contact LSU representatives for comment on the claims in this article were unsuccessful.
According to three cleanup volunteers who requested anonymity, after the storm the hospital’s lights were on until LSU representatives rushed in to order the power turned off. Officials at Entergy, the power company, concluded that it could put Charity fully back into service “in just ten days.” But in an unusual move, the 82nd Airborne, the famed disaster relief unit, was pulled off the job by then–Governor Kathleen Blanco. Hospital police then locked out the volunteer workers.
In order to qualify for full Federal Emergency Management Agency compensation, the hospital had to demonstrate that the disaster damage exceeded 50 percent of the cost of rebuilding. The extent of the damage was the subject of a legal dispute between LSU and FEMA that dragged on for years. Under pressure from LSU, FEMA increased its estimate of damage from an initial $23 million to $150 million in 2008, and finally $475 million in 2010.