HOUMA, La. (AP) — The wind ripped chunks off the hospital’s roof and the entire building rumbled. One nurse said the cement pounding into the walls sounded like the loudest bowling alley she could imagine. Another felt like she was inside a meteor shower.
One of the most powerful hurricanes in the nation’s history was barreling into south Louisiana. Fifty miles (80 kilometers) southwest of New Orleans, the staff at Leonard J. Chabert Medical Center in Houma was already weary from a year and a half of caring for patients with COVID-19.
Now water was pouring from the ceiling tiles. A giant metal beam tore off the building and thumped into a glass door, over and over, like a battering ram. The medical staff prepared to keep patients on ventilators alive by hand if the worst were to happen.
Hurricane Ida was colliding with the country’s out-of-control pandemic. Hospitals facing a Category 4 storm typically either evacuate or discharge as many patients as possible. But this time, amid the community’s fourth, brutal surge of COVID, many of Chabert Medical Center’s patients were too sick to be sent home. And hospitals that lay outside the hurricane’s most destructive path were too full of COVID patients to absorb any more. So here they stayed — nurses, doctors, paramedics — exhausted from battling one catastrophe, watching through the windows as a second one tore into town with 150 mph (240 kph) winds.
“The mental stress on our employees is much worse now than it’s ever been,” said Richard Zuschlag, the owner of Acadian Ambulance Service, the state’s largest emergency medical outfit. “COVID set us up for that. And the hurricane is the icing on the cake.”
Some nurses wept. The staff stood in a hallway, held hands and asked God to protect them. They feared any minute the building might collapse.
Across town, huge sections of the roof blew off Terrebonne General Health System, the largest hospital in Terrebonne Parish, whose bayous brimming with sinewy cypress trees run through the region like veins. Water poured in so quickly it looked like it was raining inside. The windows shattered, the walls shook and it sounded like a freight train.
As the hours passed, some nurses began asking the same question about the storm that they’d been pondering about the pandemic for months: “When is this ever going to end?”
By the time the sun came up, both hospitals in Houma had endured so much damage, they had to coordinate a massive evacuation.
Dr. Chuck Burnell, the chief medical officer of Acadian Ambulance, was in the basement of Terrebonne General sorting out how to move more than 100 patients, many of them infected with COVID, some on ventilators.
Burnell has been an emergency physician for almost 30 years, and he said this is among the worst storms he’s been through, arriving as it did just as the state’s COVID deaths soared and its vaccination rate remained among the lowest in the country.
“We have the perfect twin-demic going on,” Burnell said. “This could not have happened at a worse time. Mother Nature was not kind to us.”