HOUMA, La. Heated air blew off the hospital’s roof, causing it to rumble. Unbelievably loud, one nurse reported, the cement slamming against the walls. Another felt as though she was in a shower.
One of the nation’s most potent storms approached southern Louisiana. The Leonard J. Chabert Medical Center team in Houma, 50 miles southwest of New Orleans, has cared for COVID-19 patients for a year and a half. Now the ceiling tiles were dripping. A massive metal beam ripped through the structure, repeatedly slamming against a glass door.
‘Twin-Demic’ Hits Louisiana Hospitals
Hurricane Ida collided with the country’s epidemic. In a Category 4 hurricane, hospitals usually evacuate or release patients. The neighborhood was hit hard by COVID, and many of Chabert Medical Center’s patients were too ill to go home.
In addition, hospitals beyond the hurricane’s path were already overcrowded with COVID patients. So they remained – nurses, physicians, paramedics — weary from one disaster, staring from the windows as another blew in with 150 mph winds.
By morning, both Houma hospitals had been so severely damaged that a significant evacuation was required.COVID-19 strained hospitals long before Ida arrived with her screams and pelting rain. Intensive care units were overcrowded, with some hospitals establishing overflow rooms for patients who needed life-saving surgery. Nurses and physicians worked additional hours to cover for sick or tired colleagues.
The highly contagious characteristics of the delta variant and the poor vaccination coverage in the area are now causing entire families to become sick. Nurse Jeanie Songe, Chabert’s house supervisor who oversees shift changes and hospital transfers, said: “It’s a tough moment for the nurses.” She added that a nurse’s workload has grown so that some feel they have nothing left to offer.
With 17 COVID patients and 5 on ventilators in the ICU. Chabert evacuated after losing electricity and water. Meanwhile, large pieces of the roof ripped off Terrebonne General Health System. The fifth floor flooded. Soaking wet floors below. The hospital drained. The personnel had released 120 patients before the storm.
People realized they could not put out a fire without water. For the first time in the hospital’s 65-year existence, they had to evacuate.
Dr. Chuck Burnell of Acadian Ambulance oversaw the basement evacuation. They had no radio or mobile reception. They had to sprint through wet and sweaty floors to communicate. They used printed maps to plan who would travel where and when so patients with COVID wouldn’t cross paths with those who weren’t.
Ambulances sped through the region’s shredded buildings and downed power lines, transporting patients to neighboring hospitals overburdened by COVID.
Burnell has been an ER doctor for nearly 30 years and claimed this storm was one of the worst he’s seen, coming as the state’s COVID fatalities skyrocketed.
Terrebonne General is still closed, save for a temporary emergency facility under tents across the street. The ER at Chabert is again open, but the generator still trips, keeping the facility in the dark. The medical team attempts to repair the holes, clean up the debris, and start healing. Several days following the storm, people sought treatment for unrelated problems. Some people with diabetes have been without insulin for days. Four had COVID.
Nurses are upset when long-time neighbors refuse to be vaccinated. The state’s immunization rate is just 43%. The virus’ tenacity won’t stop when the electricity is restored.