HOUMA, La. (Reuters) -Outside a hospital abandoned after Hurricane Ida tore its roof off and flooded the interior, emergency medical workers were ready for action.
The Terrebonne General Health System building was desolate, its patients evacuated just before the storm came ashore at full strength about 50 miles (80 km) away on Sunday.
But its parking lot was bustling. Two dozen ambulances were using it as a staging area for emergency calls across Terrebonne Parish and to move patients to other hospitals.
“They’ve asked us to be on site here near the ER because it’s closed,” said Donna Newchurch, who heads the Louisiana Ambulance Alliance. “If people drive up and see the medical center is closed, we can transport them to another facility.”
For medics sitting under the awning of a camper that supplied cool drinks and coffee, the days have been long.
Their two ambulances stood ready, while more than 20 others were out on 911 calls that included breathing problems, traumatic injuries and women in labor.
“We have been running constantly,” said Newchurch. “All units have been all-hands-on-deck since Monday.”
Most of Louisiana’s hospitals escaped catastrophic damage from the storm, but two facilities in this parish of more than 110,000 residents were among the handful that weren’t so lucky.
Newchurch and her crews helped relocate about 144 patients from Terrebonne General to hospitals across the state over the weekend. After the storm passed on Monday, they evacuated about 46 patients from Chabert Medical Center, also in Houma, about 50 miles (80 km) southwest of New Orleans, she said.
COVID TAXING HOSPITALS
The storm hit as hospitals were crowded with COVID patients, cases of the Delta variant were surging and nurses were in short supply.
Several of those evacuated from the Houma hospitals were critical care patients who were intubated and required assisted breathing.
“A lot of them had COVID as well, and hospitals are already full, so it made finding beds for them at other hospitals difficult,” said Clay Hobbs, chief operating officer of Pafford EMS.
Governor John Bel Edwards said on Wednesday that 2,447 COVID patients were hospitalized across the state, 446 of them on ventilators.
Like much of the state, Terrebonne Parish is largely without power and there is no reliable estimate of when electricity will be restored.
“When a hospital doesn’t have electricity and water — it’s basically out of business,” said Mart Black, spokesman for Terrebonne Parish.
Black said the city is attempting to get a feeder line from Entergy to get a power generator facility back. A water plant is working to restore service to the two area hospitals, he said.
Officials at Ochsner Health System, which operates medical facilities across Louisiana, told reporters they were quickly reopening shuttered hospitals as power was restored, although 250 to 300 beds remain out of commission.
Edwards has discussed setting up a makeshift medical unit in the parish for minor emergencies.
“People may step on nails or cut themselves,” said Black. “When we set this unit up, it can hopefully handle that, but serious stuff will have to go somewhere else.”
(Reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar in Houma; Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Peter Szekely; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Sandra Maler)