Besieged Hospitals Battle Flood Conditions

Louisiana doctors and hospital administrators, hampered by a lack of power, clean water and transportation, are overwhelmed by Katrina's medical demands. Efforts are under way to move some patients and to tend to flood survivors. For the moment, the dead are ignored. State official Charles Castille explains.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Rising water and power outages are forcing hospitals around New Orleans to move thousands of patients out of the flooded city. Patients and staff members are dealing with flood waters inside the buildings and on the city streets, and many hospitals don't have enough fuel for generators. Charles Castille is the undersecretary for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. He joins us from the command center in Baton Rouge.

And good morning to you.

Mr. CHARLES CASTILLE (Undersecretary, Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: What are the hospitals in New Orleans having to cope with?

Mr. CASTILLE: They're coping with rising water. Even though the hurricane has obviously gone further up north, the water is rising. There are a number of hospitals that have determined that they need to evacuate. The problem is that 80 percent of the city of New Orleans is underwater and transportation is very difficult. In fact, we have to get to some of these hospitals by boat and then helicopter patients out from the central business district to a staging area. And that's one of the things that we're going to be working on--actually worked on yesterday and will work on today.

MONTAGNE: Well, how many of these patients are too sick really to move?

Mr. CASTILLE: Well, I don't have an accurate count on the number of patients that are too sick to move. I think the hospitals are evacuating. I think it's been their determination that they're more at risk where they are than if they would be moved. There are several hundred patients that need to be moved from these hospitals.

MONTAGNE: And you say staging area. But what then? How do they--where are they going? What other hospitals?

Mr. CASTILLE: Well, we've discussed the concept with the National Guard where we would, hopefully, try to assemble patients from the various hospitals by boat to a central heliport near the Superdome, and then transfer them to Armstrong Airport which is in the outskirts of the city of New Orleans where some large aircraft are--will be waiting, hopefully, tomorrow around midday, and then transferring those patients to other hospitals in Louisiana.

MONTAGNE: Well, in New Orleans as in other areas hard hit by the hurricane, the mayor has said rescue efforts are the top priority. Workers aren't dealing with dead bodies right now even if they see them in the flood waters. Will that become a health problem?

Mr. CASTILLE: Yes, obviously, it could be a health problem. But the first priority, obviously, we have now is to rescue people, to determine their level of need, to do triage. And then, for those that need hospitalization, to put them in situations where they can go to a hospital in another part of the state. But, obviously, this is just a first step and we're going to have a lot of health-related issues in New Orleans; in fact, in the entire southeastern part of the state.

MONTAGNE: May I ask you what they would be? I'm guessing the flood waters are dirty waters...

Mr. CASTILLE: Yes.

MONTAGNE: ...for starts.

Mr. CASTILLE: There will be issues with sewage. There'll be issue with chemical contamination. There are issues with a lack of power, loss of water pressure, having to do boil notices for consuming water. Because once you lose pressure, water can become contaminated. I know that's happened in several parishes.

MONTAGNE: Thank you for joining us.

Mr. CASTILLE: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Charles Castille is the undersecretary for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, speaking to us from Baton Rouge.

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