Katrina at the doorstep

The lights go out at Children's Hospital New Orleans

Misty Keasler

 Children’s Hospital New Orleans offered safe haven during Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. But only for so long.


At 8 a.m., Sept. 1, 2005, Steve Worley turned out the hospital’s lights and locked the front door. Children’s Hospital New Orleans was closed. “You can only imagine the magnitude of the unknown that lay ahead. What would the hospital’s future be?” recalls Worley, the hospital’s president and CEO.

Hurricane Katrina hit the Louisiana coast Aug. 29. For three days, the hospital struggled to stay open, relying on emergency supplies and a skeleton crew.

While the rest of the city was trying to evacuate, hospital staff were coming in to work. The hospital had activated its “code gray” disaster response plan on Aug. 28, calling in essential personnel and discharging all the patients they could. Twenty-eight out of the 131 patients checked out of the hospital. About 400 employees and medical staff (half the normal workforce) remained behind to care for the mostly low-income, critically ill children who couldn’t be moved — those on dialysis or in intensive care, those recovering from heart surgery and kidney transplants.

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“We were very worried about potential flooding so we made plans to move everybody off the first floor of the hospital,” says Alan Robson, medical director. The lab and all patients were moved up. But the flooding never occurred. The hospital building, next to the Mississippi River in the affluent Uptown neighborhood, came through the hurricane virtually unscathed. Its elevation, 12 feet above sea level, kept it dry — unlike the other New Orleans hospitals. For a few days at least, Children’s Hospital was a safe haven for the sick.

Indeed, on Aug. 30, a set of premature twins, one weighing 1 pound, the other weighing 2 pounds, arrived at Children’s by canoe from nearby Charity Hospital. Brian Barkemeyer, MD, director of neonatology at Children’s and a physician at Charity as well, paddled the babies through floodwaters to an overpass where hospital staff packed them into an incubator jury-rigged into the back of a truck.

But the next morning, as breaches in the levees brought the city to its knees, Worley made the decision to shut down.

“We couldn’t get police; we couldn’t get the National Guard; there were reports of looting; we had to go,” says Cindy Nuesslein, vice president of hospital operations. “It was no longer safe for our patients to stay.”

On Aug. 31, children’s hospitals near and far stepped in to offer help. Children’s Hospital in Miami sent a helicopter and Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock sent two planes and a helicopter to transport patients back to their facilities for care.Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City arranged for two C130 cargo planes, plus another plane loaded with staff and physicians to pick up more than 30 of the patients and their families; Texas Children’s Hospital provided two planes that made multiple trips to move out intensive-care children.

“We owe an incredible amount of gratitude to so many of our children’s hospitals across the country,” Worley says. “The call went out for assistance and the response was overwhelming.”

By day’s end, the emergency staff and medical personnel had evacuated the children and their families by helicopter, military plane and their own car convoys. All children arrived safely.

In the immediate aftermath, the hospital relocated, setting up two clinics, one in Baton Rouge and one in Lafayette. On Oct. 10, Worley and staff were back at Children’s, the first fully up-and-running hospital in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Children’s Hospital is currently operating at about two-thirds capacity. About two-thirds of its employees have returned.

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