VA stands strong as Hurricane Isaac batters the Gulf coast
With the predicted path of Tropical Storm Isaac headed toward Louisiana, Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System established an emergency operations center and put hurricane plans into motion Aug. 27, 2012. The first step was to contact high risk Veterans that were identified at the start of hurricane season.
As forecasters made predictions that the storm would develop into a category 1 or 2 hurricane, evacuation orders were underway for part or all of Jefferson, St. Bernard, Plaquemines, St. Charles, Lafourche and St. John parishes. High risk Veterans, including those on home oxygen, in need of assistance getting out of the area were transferred to Alexandria’s VA medical center out of harm’s way. SLVHCS drivers Olander Cassimere and Earl Addison, along with Registered Nurse Leachel McMillan and Occupational Therapist Mary Green-Keys, used dual use vehicles to transport four Veterans over 200 miles to safety.
“We acquired five of these vehicles in 2005 after Katrina and the VISN recently gave us five more,” said Welton Corey, deputy chief of Logistics. “These vehicles have the capacity to transport stretcher, wheelchair and ambulatory persons. We use them daily as part of our Vet-Tran transportation service, which helps Veterans navigate our health care system since we operate as a widespread system of clinics. The dual use vehicles are very efficient and practical because they have an undercarriage storage area and some have refrigerators for transporting medications.”
Jim Tardie, manager of the Health Care for Homeless Veterans, along with city of New Orleans Homeless Director Stacy Horn-Koch, worked diligently through the night to get homeless Veterans and non-Veterans to safety. SLVHCS even donated 100 toiletry kits to the city of New Orleans for use in their homeless shelters and gave out 1,500 hot meals to the homeless at St. Jude’s Emergency Shelter.
“We found a homeless Vietnam Veteran who was a danger to himself and gravely disabled, but he did not want to go to the shelter,” said Tardie. “He did agree to talk to me only after I was able to locate a Bible because he said it was the only thing that eased his PTSD memories from Vietnam. But after he got his Bible, all he wanted to do was go sit by the river. He refused to go in to a shelter, even after talking and listening to him for several hours while pushing him around in his wheel chair.”
Eventually, Dr. Dean Robinson had to issue a Physician Emergency Certificate, assessing him in the rain on the sidewalk just blocks from the river.
“After this, we continued to work to get people off of the streets,” said Tardie. “We helped stranded motorists and transported over a hundred persons - Veterans, non-Veterans and families - to shelters. We worked in the wind and rain for about 12 hours.”
But they didn’t stop there. They continued to work as long as it was safe to do so. And as soon as the worst had passed, they were back out again.
For the safety of the patients and employees, Director Julie Catellier made the decision to close all community-based outpatient clinics and administrative offices, with the exception of skeleton crews at Baton Rouge, Urgent Care in New Orleans and the emergency operations center, for the next three days. As she laid out the emergency plans for the week, Catellier reminded employees that while clinics were open Monday prior to the storm, supervisors should grant liberal leave as necessary and, above all, “stay safe and protect your families, yourselves and your pets.”
As Isaac strengthened and moved closer to the Louisiana coast, SLVHCS continued to serve Veterans.
Though most of downtown New Orleans was quiet as residents prepared for the onslaught of winds and rain, Urgent Care was open and helping Veterans with non-emergent issues. Meanwhile, Baton Rouge, a city 90 minutes north of New Orleans, bustled with evacuees and residents prepping for Isaacs expected move northward. Baton Rouge clinic staff continued to serve Veterans in the Baton Rouge area until 4:30 p.m.
Hunkered down in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, a total of 54 staff rode out the storm overnight to ensure buildings remained safe and to handle any infrastructure problems. Clinical and administrative staff also stayed overnight since no one knew for sure if staff could get back to work the next morning and serving our Veterans is a priority. Through the night, staff watched category 1 Hurricane Isaac make its first landfall around 6 p.m. in Plaquemines Parish.
Wind and rain continued as Isaac made a second landfall in the early morning hours in Lafourche Parish, and then stayed nearly stationary over southeast Louisiana, filling streets, homes, lakes and rivers with several inches of rainfall.
Though New Orleans remained protected from storm surge, Plaquemines Parish was flooded and water levels persistently rose in parts of St. Tammany and St. John parishes, causing last minute mandatory evacuations and forcing residents to leave in the middle of the storm. Many were evacuated by boat from their homes and then bused all over Louisiana, including Alexandria.
“As acting director of the Alexandria medical center, I have asked the staff there to go shelter to shelter looking for both VA employees and Veterans and to bring them back to the medical center for care,” said Catellier in one of the twice daily conference calls with SLVHCS service chiefs.
Life after Isaac
Nothing kept the dedicated employees from the mission of caring for our Veterans. Clinics opened Aug. 31, with the exception of those without power, and all clinics were back up and running after Labor Day.
Showers were made available in New Orleans for any employee needing it, since many were without power and some without water.
While the rain forced the Tangipahoa River to overflow it’s banks, flooding some homes, the dam held and residents were able to return home Sept. 1.
Once assured that all had habitable homes, the four patients transported to Alexandria prior to the storm were brought back to New Orleans via the dual use vehicles. Drivers Cassimere and Addison, along with Registered Nurse Zidia Kelly and Occupational Therapist Melinda Castro, brought back two additional patients as well. The two ‘extras’ included one who had made the trip by ambulance, but had improved enough to return home in the van, and the other was admitted to Alexandria VA medical center from a shelter in Alexandria.
SLVHCS leadership contacted over 40 employees who reported catastrophic losses to their homes to ensure their safety and find out their needs. Many other employees asked what they could do to help and those needs were communicated.
At SLVHCS, communication was key throughout the event. Catellier kept patients and employees up to date through the SLVHCS website and social media.
“Thanks so much for all the employees at the VA medical center in New Orleans,” said one Facebook friend and daughter of a Veteran who needed VA help getting medication during the storm. “Every time I come to the clinic, all employees are so friendly, caring, helpful. Thanks so much for taking such great care of our Veterans!!”
But SLVHCS couldn’t do it alone. Throughout the storm, any patients who called were routed Houston to speak to a live medical provider and those wishing to speak to a pharmacist were routed to Little Rock.
“The VA family is wonderful. The VISN pitched in during our time of need and at SLVHCS, employees want to help each other get back on their feet. It’s the innate nature of this team and I am so proud to be a part of it,” said Catellier.