A year ago, Leonard J. Chabert Medical Center in east Houma was in shambles from the destructive power of hurricanes Gustav and Ike. The roof was virtually blown off, elevator shafts filled with water, operating rooms were contaminated with mold and medical equipment appeared damaged beyond repair.
At a ceremony commemorating the first anniversary of the storms last Wednesday, hospital officials said they are better prepared for nature’s fury. Terrebonne officials echoed similar sentiments about the parish’s readiness for this and future hurricane seasons.
“Given where we were 365 days ago, this feels incredible,” said Rhonda Green, hospital CEO. “Gustav and Ike were bad events, but this hospital has come away 100 times better. We have a brand new roof, new elevators, siding, impact resistant windows and two generators. I’m proud of our people to be up and running again.”
An initial assessment reported that the hospital could not reopen for three months. But the staff worked tirelessly to get Chabert open 18 days after Gustav passed.
“I can’t take credit for that. It’s the employees of this hospital,” Green said. “They not only work here, but they are also patients here, their families come here, they care about this community. They did everything they could, working around the clock to make sure this hospital got reopened.”
Parish President Michel Claudet said the biggest improvements between last year and this year are in communication, pre-planning and higher levees.
During Gustav, there was a complete lack of communication at the parish’s former Office of Emergency Preparedness (OEP) Center in Gray, Claudet said. Sheriff Vernon Bourgeois stepped in to handle emergency response, which ultimately resulted in the creation of the Uniformed Command.
“Right now, we are light years ahead of where we were,” the parish president said. “The next event is not going to be the same, so you always have to roll with the punches. At least we have the mechanisms in place.”
Terrebonne suffered $150 million damages from 2008’s two storms, according to Claudet.
A number of improvements have been made over the past year to better protect the parish and its residents from the next storm.
A new Office of Emergency Preparedness center opened in Houma, the parish’s hurricane plan was finalized and OEP director Earl Eues has joined Claudet’s administrative staff. The parish has pre-position contracts for generators. Levees, roadways, and sewage pump stations are at pre-Gustav condition.
In addition, seven-and-a-half miles of new parish and Terrebonne Levee and Conservation District levees have been built. The parish has assisted with housing for 1,100 residents and raised 400 homes with Increased Cost of Compliance (ICC), Severe Repetitive Loss and Hazard Mitigation funds.
Claudet also announced last week that the state Department of Transportation and Development will be elevating La. Highway 315 from Chet Morrison Contractors to Crozier’s.
He also stated that $75 million of the $123 million in Community Development Block Grant money the parish has received would be dedicated to levees.
“We will have spent in a three-year period almost $113 million on parish levees,” Claudet noted.
He said several news agencies have visited Terrebonne in the past week hoping to see a lot of damage still remaining from the storm.
“I tell them, ‘As soon as money came in from their insurance or FEMA, (residents) got to work cleaning up,'” he said.
The highlight of last week’s commemoration was the dedication of a torn American flag recovered from the hospital by first responders the day Gustav struck, Sept. 1, 2008.
Reminiscent of the American flag rescued from Ground Zero after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the flag is framed and proudly displayed in the front lobby of the hospital.
“The flag represents the battle scars this parish suffered from Gustav and Ike and the resiliency of the employees of this hospital who brought it back so quickly,” said Reggie Dupre, Terrebonne levee director.
The flag was recovered by state Army National Guardsman Staff Sgt. Geoffrey Daunis, TGMC Vice President of Support Services Kevin Ghirardi and Acadian Ambulance Operations Manager Joe Szush.
The trio was in charge of medical assessments for the parish Unified Command, making rounds at hospitals and clinics to determine the damage and how soon parish residents would be able to get medical care.
“When we drove on to the property, Sgt. Daunis spotted all three flagpoles almost down on the ground,” said Szush, a 26-year Acadian employee. “The flag was wrapped around the pole and the rope used to raise and lower it. It probably took us a good 20 minutes to unravel it and separate it from the pole.”
Daunis gave the flag to Dupre at the old OEP center and the former state lawmaker kept it in his closet for about six months.
The flag was framed in mid-May at a cost of $1,200. Dupre’s campaign fund paid half of the cost and Chabert physicians paid the other half. The framed flag now hangs in the hospital’s lobby.
Szush said it is an honor to know the flag he helped save will remain a part of the hospital in perpetuity.
“Whenever a disaster strikes, it’s always an American flag that is resilient,” he said. “It’s a symbol of our country and everything that’s good about it. It was important to all of us that it be preserved.”
“I’m glad that they found such a prominent place to display it,” Dupre said.
Days after Hurricane Gustav ripped the roof off of the Leonard J. Chabert Medical Center and left the lower floor flooded. Hurricane Ike slowed the recovery effort when it pushed more water into the medical facility. * Photo courtesy of CHABERT MEDICAL CENTER