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Why I Didn't Come Back: Charity Hospital never reopens

Charity Hospital technically is still here; it never left.

WWL Staff

Published: 8/29/2015 12:18:42 PM
Updated: 12:18 PM CDT August 29, 2015

Why I didn't come back…

Charity Hospital technically is still here; it never left.

It was able to withstand the 100-mile-per-hour winds of Hurricane Katrina and survive the floodwaters from levee breaches that inundated the basement of the building, but 10 years later all that remains is the massive, sprawling concrete skeleton that sits vacant on Tulane Avenue; its soul, the soul that provided medical care to thousands for hundreds of years, is gone.

It seems Charity wasn't able to survive the opportunism to replace a hospital that was in shabby condition even before the storm.

The history of Charity Hospital begins well before the current structure, even well before the United States existed. It began in 1736 from a grant from the estate of Jean Louis, a French merchant and sailor, who died a year earlier. His will states "a sale shall be made of all that remains, which, together with my small lot, I bequeath to serve in perpetuity to the founding of a hospital for the sick of the City of New Orleans..."

Jean Louis' vision was carried out for hundreds of years – through six buildings, being run by the Daughters of Charity, then run by the state, then operated by LSU, through Spanish rule and French rule into American rule – until Sept. 3, 2005, five days after Katrina made landfall.

From the beginning, the hospital was designed to take care of the poor and indigent, said Alexander Glustrom, a filmmaker who produced the documentary "Big Charity," which tells the story of Charity from 1736 to today.

Glustrom, who is from Atlanta and was moving into the dorms at Tulane when he was forced to evacuate as Katrina turned its eye toward New Orleans, eventually became fascinated with the towering building that stretches a city block while working nearby in the Iberville housing development.

The idea to make to a documentary became more intense once he helped organize a large debate at Tulane on whether to reopen Charity or whether to build something new as officials and bureaucrats squabbled over the hospital's future post-Katrina.

He helped enlist experts for the panel – a medical school dean, professors, medical professionals, architects and journalists – from both sides of the debate, and "two days before the debate the pro-hospital side dropped out one after another all on the same day," he remembered, which canceled the debate. "I think that really sparked my interest even more as to, what's going here? Why are we not able to have this discussion?"

Rumors have swirled around the iconic 20-story Art Deco building designed by the architectural firm of Weiss, Dreyfous, and Seiferth almost immediately after the storm as whether it was fit to reopen as a hospital and what will happen to the building beloved by many.

"You get different opinions on exactly how much damage it took," said Glustrom, "but what everybody can agree on is that first floor never flooded, only the basement flooded. Water never made into the first floor. Some windows broke. That's about it."

Glustrom said the hospital was occupied for about five days without power once the basement flooded, which knocked out the generators with about 1,200 hospital staff and 300 patients inside.

Without power, in those five days, the medical staff of Charity would work tirelessly to provide care for some severely ill patients, all without a lot of the benefits and technology of modern medicine. The staff would be lauded as heroes for their tireless work in those days before evacuation.

In the lobby of the hospital, "Where The Unusual Happens & Miracles Occur" is posted on the wall, Glustrom noted. During the course of making the documentary, he said he was told of repeatedly of numerous miracles that took place inside Charity during those dark days which were credited with keeping several patients alive during the time it took to get the hospital evacuated.

"The military come in and does an assessment of all medical facilities across the city and they decide that this is the best place to rebuild medical infrastructure in the city," Glustrom said. "All the hospitals in the city, and they said this was the best place to rebuild the major medical infrastructure because of its location, the amount of damage that it took and because of the amount employees that were there and ready to work."

Gen. Russel Honore, who was interviewed for the documentary and led the immediate efforts to restore order in the city, said the hospital was cleaned out, brought up to medical standards and could have been put back on line. That would never happen.

"Honore reports to governor at the time who was (Kathleen) Blanco, and tells her that the hospital is ready to reopen," said Glustrom, "… and she told him that, 'We have no plans to reopen the hospital. You and your men need to get out of there.'"

As to why the hospital never reopened, Glustrom speculated that there had been plans to renovate or replace long before Hurricane Katrina struck, but officials lacked the funding pull off such a massive project.

"So they saw this as an opportunity to use FEMA funding to build a new hospital that they've been wanting to build for a long time. They may have feared if they had opened this facility, then they wouldn't have gotten the settlement from FEMA," he said.

FEMA and the state, would tussle over amount of damage Charity suffered – whether it was damaged beyond 51 percent of the value – and what was to be paid out, before FEMA ultimately forked over $474.8 million, which was aided by intense lobbying from then local Congressmen Anh "Joseph" Cao and Sen. Mary Landrieu to get the full payout.

That money helped pay for the $1.1 billion replacement for Charity, University Medical Center, UMC, which opened just before the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

"I think there is a lot to the argument that Charity may have been totaled before the storm," Glustrom wondered. "It was a super old dilapidated building that probably needed to be replaced," adding that rather than Katrina hammering the building, time, neglect and a lack of money may have been more of the culprit.

While area hospitals and UMC have picked the slack in Charity's absence, mental health service remains lacking in the area. "The third floor (of Charity) was the biggest psychiatric facility in the state," Glustrom said. "There has been hardly anything to replace that."

So with the new UMC, why does Charity still stand?

It's less likely the aesthetics that preservationists love that has saved the building, and more likely a cost issue.

Glustrom thinks the massive size may play a part. At one-million square feet, demolishing Charity would be a huge undertaking. "They say even if they wanted to tear it down that it was built with so much steel and concrete it would cost more to knock it down and haul it away than it would to renovate it."

So with it likely stay, what is the building's future?

A new home for City Hall was floated for a bit, along with an idea to put Civil District Courts in there, but those fizzled. Glustrom thinks the future of Charity will entail some sort of private-public development. Looking at the some of the proposals that have begin to surface, he just may be right.

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