New VA Medical Center Makes Emergency Preparedness a Priority

NEW ORLEANS — The Department of Veterans Affairs is currently building a 21st-century, world-class medical center for the Veterans of southeast Louisiana to replace the old hospital destroyed in the flooding that occurred after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Located in the emerging biomedical district next to downtown New Orleans, the new VA medical center is a model for not only the health care of the future, but also for resilience in an emergency.

Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care Center, the local VA health care provider, planned for the future by building adaptability and flexibility into the facility’s design.

VA has a full array of missions including health care to America’s heroes, education, research and national preparedness. In the event of a disaster, VA can be called on to provide health care to both civilians and Veterans.

The number one lesson SLVHCS learned from Hurricane Katrina is that self-sufficiency in disasters is a paramount concern. Just as New Orleans was ill-prepared for a disaster of that magnitude – basic services like water, power and transportation failed – the physical plant of the old medical center was ill-equipped to withstand the flooding.

To avoid the infrastructure failures experienced at the old hospital, the new medical center was designed “upside-down.” Functions typically found in the basement of major facilities, such as the kitchen, server room and primary utility distribution, will be located on the fourth level. All mission-critical services, such as the emergency room, are located at least 20 feet above base flood elevation.

“The VA medical center is one-of-a-kind among health care facilities,” said Doug Parris, NBBJ partner and Studio NOVA lead designer. “Everything about the design reflects the unique opportunities and challenges of its location in the city of New Orleans.”

And if the city infrastructure does fail, the new medical center can continue to function independently. The new medical center has a seven-day defend-in-place strategy for up to 1,000 people. The central energy plant stores 320,000 gallons of fuel – enough to provide full power to the medical center for one full week. The medical center has a capacity to collect and store over a million gallons of rainwater on-site to help maintain operation of the cooling systems and reduce the dependence on city water. Additionally, a 6,000 square-foot warehouse is located on-site to store emergency supplies like food and water.

The adaptability and flexibility of the design is especially important during a natural or manmade disaster. Patient rooms in the new medical center are designed to be singles, but are large enough to hold 2 patients if necessary. Everything is doubled at the headwall, such as oxygen, vacuum, and power, allowing for multiple patients to use the same space as necessary.

“We built redundancy into the VA medical center,” said Parris, “to ensure that Veterans can be cared for without interruption, no matter the circumstances. This is an extremely flexible, adaptable, resilient facility.”

One of VA’s four missions is to provide support in the event of a federal emergency or natural disaster. The new medical center ensures patients can receive treatment even in the midst of disaster, and the building’s architecture will support the staff as they treat Veterans and the community as necessary. The windows will be able to sustain at least Category 3 hurricane winds and meet federal blast standards. The central concourse provides for safe and protected indoor pedestrian travel from building to building and the medical center will be accessible by both helicopter and boat.

Located on a 30-acre site in the historic Mid-City neighborhood, the campus strives to blend into the neighborhood but maintains a fully securable perimeter in the event of civil unrest or national emergency.

The replacement medical center in New Orleans will be one of the most advanced in the VA system, setting the standards in patient centered care. It will house comprehensive primary and specialty care clinics alongside state-of-the-art rehabilitation and research facilities and will serve over 70,000 enrolled Veterans throughout the region.

“Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast and left the New Orleans health care system in ruins,” said SLVHCS Director Julie Catellier. “What we’re building today ensures care for Veterans in the future.”

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