I've been covering New Orleans and the Gulf Coast on a regular basis since Katrina. That's about 19 months. Whenever one of my stories makes Nightly, I get two very different reactions. Locally, people say "Thank you" to me and NBC for continuing to keep the city's plight before the eyes of the nation... from that nation I get, "Enough already! I am sick of hearing about New Orleans!"
Outside New Orleans the rest of the country has Katrina fatigue. Understandable, but if you think you're sick of it, then you can just imagine how the folks here are sick of living it. But there is little choice. Moving is not an option when you can't sell a house that's gone and still have to pay the bank back.
Experts here say instead of thinking of New Orleans as a national pain in the backside, Americans should realize there are great lessons to be learned, because it could happen somewhere else. If not a hurricane into a major city, how about an earthquake, or a massive terrorist attack that leaves a city and its society in ruins?
That said, tonight's lesson is health care. It's the current crisis in the Big Easy. Patients can wait up to eight hours in an emergency room to see a doctor. Ambulances sit parked at ER entrances unable to offload their latest case, and unavailable for another emergency run. In hallways and emergency rooms, patients lie on gurneys sometimes for days waiting for a hospital room to open.
What's the cause? Like most crises, it's not one big thing but the snow-balling impact of a number of little ones. Before Katrina metro New Orleans had 15 hospitals. Today only 10 have reopened. Before Katrina the city had 2,800 hospital beds. Today it has 635.
But those numbers don't tell the whole story. As Mike Hulefield, chief operating officer at Ochsner Medical Center puts it, "The biggest challenge is not physical capacity, it's human capacity."
What he means is in addition to the lack of buildings and beds, staff is bleeding away. Many are themselves fed up with the daily struggles of life in this city. New Orleans before the storm had about 4,000 doctors. Now it's down to 1,900. In even shorter supply are nurses. There is a shortage nationwide so those that were here have been lured away to other cities where the infrastructure works, the schools are better and the hospitals can afford to pay more. Recruiting people to take their place is hard, because affordable housing is in short supply, the schools are weak and many worry about crime.
So health centers here are recruiting overseas in the Philippines and India -- importing their staffs. But that is an expensive and short-term solution and money is another thing in short supply.
"In Orleans Parish prior to the storm, it was somewhere around 40 percent of our population was uninsured." says Dr. Kevin Jordan, chief medical officer at Touro Infirmary. "That percentage is at least 50-52 percent now."
Part of the reason for the rise of the uninsured is the post-Katrina economic downturn. Jobs were wiped out and with them health-care benefits. So with nowhere to go, the uninsured join the lines at the area's remaining emergency rooms, which are obligated to care for all patients. But the uninsured drain away money that hospitals need to pay for more beds, more doctors and more nurses.
We asked Dr. Jordan of Touro Infirmary what he would say to America if he could.
"Be very careful, because what happened here could happen to any community at any given time, given any natural disaster or given any kind of interruption in what they consider their daily lives," he said. This could be your future if in fact you're not prepared for it."
New Orleans has lots to teach, as long as everyone else isn't sick of listening.