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Louisiana parish gets temporary hospital

CHALMETTE, La.—Welcome to Wal-Mart. The doctor will see you now.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and St. Bernard Parish officials are setting up what parish officials describe as a temporary hospital in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart Super Center in Chalmette.

Parish and medical leaders see the hospital as a key to bringing people back and providing for those who are trying to recover in the heavily damaged area.

Twenty-six modular buildings form a facility half the size of a football field. With the addition of interior walls, medical equipment and utilities it will be operational as a 70-bed hospital by the end of November, said Doug Garman, an Army Corps of Engineers spokesman at the joint field office in Baton Rouge.

"You're looking at a series of modular trailers that have been assembled together," said Steve Rick of the Army Corps of Engineers, which is in charge of providing the structure. "It's a building that would have had soldiers living in it with bunk beds and showers."

Hurricane Katrina devastated Chalmette Medical Center, a hospital with nearly 200 beds, and parish officials doubt it will reopen. Some hospitals in the New Orleans region remain closed as well.

"To get to a doctor would be about a 25-minute ride right now," St. Bernard Parish spokesman Steve Cannizaro said.

He said water and electricity gradually were being restored in the parish, which lies southeast of New Orleans and had a population of 65,500 before Katrina, according to Census Bureau estimates. In the weeks since Katrina, a disaster-management team has been providing some medical services at Chalmette High School's football stadium.

Officials including FEMA and Army Corps say the temporary hospital, which is adjacent to St. Bernard Parish offices, will remain open for 18 months to two years. They hope for a permanent hospital by then.

The cost so far is $2 million for the 22,000-square-foot medical center, and it still needs equipment and supplies, Garman said. Officials at the site said they knew of no other project like it to provide medical services post-Katrina.

Christian Gadbois, a medical coordinator for a disaster recovery unit that's serving St. Bernard Parish, said the facility would have limited trauma services, a pharmacy, a laboratory, treatment rooms, observation rooms and critical-care beds. Its services will include X-rays, ultrasounds and electrocardiograms.

Gadbois said medical services were essential during the recovery and rebuilding of the area.

"You have an increased risk of traumatic injury," he said. "You have an increased risk of respiratory emergencies."

The government is working with three doctors who practiced at Chalmette Medical Center: Dr. Paul Verrette, an internal medicine specialist; Dr. Lee Domangue, Chalmette's emergency services chief; and Dr. Bryan Bertucci, who also serves as the parish coroner.

"The rebuilding of this parish will not be stunted by a lack of a quality medical facility," Verrette said.

Gadbois said funding for running the temporary hospital hadn't been finalized, but that various options were available. Rick said hurdles for the corps included installing lead walls for the rooms where X-rays will be taken.

The Wal-Mart is closed because of hurricane damage and no decision has been made about reopening it, Wal-Mart spokesman Dan Fogleman said. The company isn't charging the hospital any rent through March, and it will allow the lot to be ripped up for utilities to be installed, he said. The hospital will pay for the utilities, Fogleman said.

"Wal-Mart is part of the fabric of the community," he said. "This is one way we can help out."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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