Katrina & Beyond

Fire Destroys Rural Clinic Hit Hard by Katrina

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The burned-out clinic in Bayou La Batre, Ala. i

Fire destroyed Dr. Regina Benjamin's clinic just after flood damage was repaired. hide caption

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The burned-out clinic in Bayou La Batre, Ala.

Fire destroyed Dr. Regina Benjamin's clinic just after flood damage was repaired.

Dr. Regina Benjamin with 10-year-old Jamis Shultz

In September, Dr. Benjamin was patching up people injured in Katrina's aftermath, including 10-year-old Jamis Shultz. Tracy Wahl, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Tracy Wahl, NPR

On Jan. 1, Dr. Regina Benjamin's rural health clinic in Bayou La Batre, Ala., was destroyed by a fire. The clinic was preparing to reopen after repairs that followed severe damage from Hurricane Katrina. The doctor tells Debbie Elliott what she'll do next.


Some of you may remember our profile last fall of Dr. Regina Benjamin, the south Alabama doctor who was struggling to get her rural health-care clinic back open after Hurricane Katrina. After months of cleanup, fund raising and rebuilding, she was all set to reopen the clinic in Bayou La Batre, but she got a call early New Year's Day with bad news: The building was ablaze. Dr. Regina Benjamin joins us now.


Dr. REGINA BENJAMIN (Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic): Hi, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: Sorry to hear about your building.

Dr. BENJAMIN: Well, thanks.

ELLIOTT: Can you tell us what happened?

Dr. BENJAMIN: I got that phone call that you just described. You know, we had gotten all of our renovations going since Hurricane Katrina, and it really looked nice. And on Saturday, New Year's Eve day, we were starting to move over our medical records, our charts, our files, some of the heavier furniture like exam tables and things like that, our computer. And I worked my staff until about 3, and, of course, they said, `It's New Year's. We want to get off.' And about 3:30 I did a walk through the building to make sure everything was ready, was clear. Turned off each light in the room and turned off the air conditioning and checked everything and then left. And I was on call, so I worked that night and was home, and about 6:30 got a phone call saying, `We need a key-holder to come to the clinic.' And so I drove down to Bayou La Batre to give them a key, was what I was thinking, and when I got there, you didn't need a key. There was no building, much. A couple of walls on the side were kind of standing, and so it was a real letdown, kind of sunk and saw the smoke coming. It was pretty devastating.

ELLIOTT: Was everything lost?

Dr. BENJAMIN: Yes, it's a total loss. All those records, we had re-created about 2,000 of our medical records. It's...

ELLIOTT: These are the ones that had been soaked by Katrina.

Dr. BENJAMIN: Right, the ones that had been soaked, and we had to redo them. And we had redone about 2,000 of them, and we kept about three or four boxes we were getting scanned into a computer. So we had about three or four boxes of those. Other than those, they're all gone. And, you know, we always see patients regardless of their ability to pay but some people had insurance, and so we were going to bill the ones that had insurance. The others we did not charge, but all those billings are lost, too, and so we just start over.

ELLIOTT: Do you have any idea what caused the fire?

Dr. BENJAMIN: No. The investigations are going on. The fire marshal and ATF are investigating but haven't found a source yet.

ELLIOTT: You know, you've been in that community for a long time now. Bayou La Batre is a little--call it a fishing village. The seafood industry is prominent there. It's a very small town. How have your patients reacted to this news?

Dr. BENJAMIN: They've been so caring, you know? They'll walk up and they'll hug us. They'll cry. One mother and her daughter yesterday brought us a card by and I was just--actually I was just looking at it. She brought us a card and--with cash in it, almost $200. This family does not have money to be giving away, and they brought it to us and we were just so touched, because the mother is basically disabled with arthritis and the daughter, you know, she has her own medical problems, too. And we were all in tears 'cause this family took what little they had to give us.

ELLIOTT: Your clinic was first damaged by Hurricane Georges back in 1998. You got it back together. Then Hurricane Katrina washed through it and now this. How do you cope with all that?

Dr. BENJAMIN: One day at a time. I had the opportunity to go to Thailand at the--as a guest. The Ford Foundation, they sent about five or six of us to Phuket, Thailand, to look at how they responded to the tsunami. And what I saw there was that they had so many deaths. They had hundreds of thousands of people die. We didn't have any deaths, and they're rebounding. And I figure if they can overcome their adversity, we certainly can do the same.

ELLIOTT: Dr. Regina Benjamin of the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic in south Alabama.

Thank you so much for sharing with us and good luck to you.

Dr. BENJAMIN: Thank you, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: This is NPR News.

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