Autopsies Planned for New Orleans Hospital Bodies

Autopsies will be conducted on the bodies of 45 patients discovered at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans two weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck. Officials believe some of the patients may have died as they awaited assistance from emergency agencies. Robert Siegel talks with The Washington Post's Doug Struck.

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Tenet Healthcare, which operates Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans, issued a statement today about what happened there two weeks ago. On Sunday, 45 dead bodies were removed from Memorial. Tenet's statement says, `No patients drowned, nor did any die as a result of lack of food or drinking water.' It says that some mostly very sick adult patients simply did not survive four days despite the heroic efforts of physicians and nurses. Well, reporter Doug Struck of The Washington Post is working on this story in New Orleans, and he joins us from there.

Doug Struck, what have you been able to find out about what happened and who those 45 people were who died at Memorial Medical Center?

Mr. DOUG STRUCK (The Washington Post): Well, unfortunately, it's still--much is clouded in mystery. The complication is that everyone who was there has scattered to the winds, everyone who's still alive. We still do not know exactly what happened in those last days, but from the accounts that we have learned so far, it was a desperate and chaotic scene in the hospital after the water started rising. The electrical system started to fail, the emergency power was only enough to keep the corridors fairly dark and the medical supplies were running out very quickly. The hospital had become a refuge for hundreds of people who came from the surrounding area, and so it was crowded, it became unsafe. There were fears and perhaps even accounts of assaults in the hospital and certainly around the hospital, looting was going on. So we know it was a dark and nightmarish situation there. What we don't know yet is exactly how the people who were there died and when.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm. Tenet Healthcare says that many patients were evacuated before the storm hit, but that also people were brought into Memorial Medical Center before the storm hit because it was considered a major facility. It was a better place to be than other places.

Mr. STRUCK: Well, it is a major facility downtown, and certainly people came from the surrounding area as the water started to rise. In addition, the hospital was stuffed with families of patients and families of staff members who were staying there, too. But I think that is only part of the situation that faced the hospital and the staff that was there.

The question is: Were they adequately prepared for what happened, and should there have been an evacuation done either by the city or by the hospital owners earlier? Now the hospital owners apparently believed that under normal circumstances, if an evacuation of a hospital is required, that they would have help, if not major help, from the local authorities. They got a call a couple of days after the floodwaters started rising from the Louisiana Office of Emergency Preparedness saying, `How are you going to use your resources to get your patients out of there?' and it came as quite a surprise to the owners of the hospital who were then in Dallas, Texas.

I think to their credit, they mobilized a very hectic and, in some cases, successful airlift operation that did get most of the people out, perhaps all of the people out who were alive, but that still leaves the question of whether or not that should have been done by somebody earlier or whether or not the hospital should have been prepared for a siege of these floodwaters.

SIEGEL: Do we now assume, by the way, that all the hospitals in New Orleans have been visited by the Guard, that at least the living have all been evacuated and people are aware of where there might be dead bodies and where there are not?

Mr. STRUCK: We assume that. I am not confident that that assumption is 100 percent. Certainly, the hospitals have been visited by National Guardsmen in boats if they're still waterlogged. But as the waters recede, people can get greater access, can go through more thoroughly the buildings and it is possible that other grim surprises might come about.

SIEGEL: Doug Struck, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. STRUCK: You're quite welcome.

SIEGEL: That's reporter Doug Struck of The Washington Post talking with us from New Orleans.

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