By Cindy Munn, CEO

Nine years ago today, Hurricane Katrina arrived on the Gulf Coast. The storm brought with it death and destruction, fear and sadness, grief and misery, and even now, nearly a decade later, most Louisiana residents have horror stories about their experiences during and after Katrina.

In Louisiana, in many ways and on many fronts, Katrina will forever be a benchmark by which we measure ourselves.

The Costliest Disaster in U.S. History

Katrina made landfall at about 6 a.m. on Aug. 29, 2005, near Grand Isle, La. Within hours, there was severe flooding in New Orleans and the levees had begun to give way to rising floodwaters that would not recede for several weeks. 

The destruction left in Katrina’s wake was immediate – homes and businesses destroyed, lives lost, families displaced – and expensive. More than $127 billion in federal funding was provided for infrastructure repairs, temporary housing and aid to victims, and insured losses attributed to Katrina are estimated at approximately $60 billion. Even now, almost a decade later, we still have no precise figure for how much the storm cost, but for many Louisiana families, no estimate will ever be enough to adequately cover the lost lives.

The Stories We Tell

The stories about lost lives, missing persons, destroyed homes and infrastructure and political fallout were covered from nearly every angle by media around the world in the days, weeks and months after the hurricane. Thousands of evacuated Louisiana residents watched these stories unfold from afar on televisions in motel rooms, in their relatives’ living rooms and in temporary shelters in distant cities and states. The ones who remained were interviewed at length about their experiences and shared heartbreaking stories that left the world in tears.

For most of us in south Louisiana, the question, “Where were you when Katrina hit?” yields a torrent of these tales, and it probably always will. Someday, much as grandparents today tell their grandchildren about where they were and what they were doing on the day President John F. Kennedy was shot, the future generations of Louisiana will hear stories from their grandparents about the day Katrina arrived in our beautiful state.

The Untold Story

Yet in the midst of the stories told about Katrina, the one story that never received quite as much attention is the one about what the storm did to health care in our state.

Even before Katrina made her entrance, there were problems with health care in Louisiana. More than one in five residents lacked health insurance – the state had one of the highest uninsured rates in the nation. Louisiana also ranked as among the highest in the country in per capita health care costs and among the lowest in clinical quality and outcomes.

In the aftermath of Katrina, these problems became even clearer. The storm virtually wiped out the state-operated safety net hospital system in the Greater New Orleans area, leaving many of the region’s residents without access to care for more than a year after the storm. Charity Hospital, which had provided more than 80 percent of the inpatient and outpatient care to the area’s large Medicaid population, was closed, and only three of the nine acute care hospitals in Orleans Parish were operational and only at limited capacity. In adjacent Jefferson Parish, only three hospitals were operational throughout the hurricane. Approximately 4,500 physicians were dislocated by the storm and unavailable to treat their patients. Many long-term care facilities closed, and mental health services – already inadequate for the need - were drastically reduced.

Residents found their problems compounded by the devastating and irreparable loss of their personal health records. Thousands of those evacuated to other areas were in need of immediate treatment for chronic conditions and injuries sustained in the storm, yet care was delayed in many cases while medical personnel scrambled to gather the information required to provide care.

The Dawn of a New Age

Katrina unarguably devastated an already fragile health care system in Louisiana’s coastal regions, yet that devastation left behind an unparalleled opportunity to initiate the change necessary to repair that system.

Our state’s leaders commissioned the Louisiana Health Care Redesign Collaborative in 2006 and tasked it with identifying strategies to not just rebuild the state’s health care system, but to improve it. The result was the creation of the Louisiana Health Care Quality Forum, a private, not-for-profit organization, which was given the mission of accomplishing these changes.

Among those improvements were the need to transition Louisiana’s health care providers from paper-based records to electronic health records (EHRs), and the need to connect those providers via a central, neutral health information exchange (HIE) to ensure the availability of critical health data even in times of disaster. The Quality Forum was named the State-Designated Entity to lead these health information technology (IT) improvements for Louisiana.

Through the Louisiana Health Information Technology (LHIT) Resource Center, the state’s only Regional Extension Center (REC), more than 1,900 health care providers across 37 specialties throughout the state have switched to EHRs. A growing number of these providers are now connected to the Louisiana Health Information Exchange (LaHIE), which currently features nearly 800,000 unique patient records and processes more than 32 million transactions per month.

While the rebuilding of Louisiana’s health care system is far from complete, it now has a strong health IT infrastructure in place to support it for future generations, who will hopefully never have Katrina-like tales of their own to share.

The Lessons We Learned

I’m not sure who said it originally, but I’ve always heard that experience is a hard teacher because it gives the test first and the lesson later. Nowhere is that truer than here in Louisiana in the years after Katrina.

Katrina tested us mightily and in the nine years since that test, she has taught us many lessons – the necessity of preparation and planning, the value of community spirit, the importance of neighbors, friends and family among them. Even now, we continue to learn from our experiences in Katrina, and we continue to rebuild – not just our lives, properties and communities, but also our health care system, our disaster planning and recovery strategies and in general, our future.

Here, it remains the dawn of a new age, and while much success has been made, there is still much to do. Today and each year on the anniversary of Katrina, we do not just look back in remembrance.

We look forward.

We plan.

We learn.

We rebuild.

For that is the spirit of Louisiana.

Follow Cindy Munn, CEO of the Louisiana Health Care Quality Forum, on Twitter at @CindyMunnCEO