WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs officials said department health care facilities in North Carolina escaped relatively unscathed from the damaging winds and rains of Hurricane Florence last weekend, and could be fully reopened in coming days.
But first, the floodwaters have to recede.
“The issue for us right now is all the water flowing around our sites,” said James Laterza, director of the Fayetteville VA Medical Center in North Carolina. “Some of our staff live across rivers that are flooded, some of the roads still aren’t open. We don’t want to do anything that would be unsafe.”
Numerous VA medical sites along the state’s coastline remain closed days after the powerful storm dumped up to 30 inches of rain on some sections of the state.
At least 36 deaths have been blamed on the storm, and nearly 200,000 state residents are still without electricity as officials work to clean up the damage.
In advance of the storm, officials at the Hampton VA Medical Center in Virginia evacuated 214 patients to facilities further north as a precautionary measure. Other sites in several coastal states were shuttered in the days leading up to the hurricane’s landfall.
Laterza said officials in the Fayetteville system had similar discussions, but opted not to move any ailing veterans out of concern the transportation posed more risks than sheltering in place. The main hospital experienced minor power issues during the storm but no significant threat.
And despite the widespread damage around the state, Laterza said VA officials have found only minor damage at affected facilities, with the exception of one building at Camp LeJeune where a roof collapsed. But that location only handles disability ratings and not medical emergencies.
“One or two other sites may need some dry wall replaced, but it’s all minimal damage,” he said.
More than 5,000 patient appointments were cancelled because of the hurricane and its aftermath. Laterza said officials are working with VA surge teams to make up those missed visits and reach out to individuals who may have been affected.
For example, a VA Mobile Medical Unit will deploy to Havelock, North Carolina, on Thursday to assist locals there with any medical needs. The VA clinic in Morehead City saw only minor damage, but is expected to be closed for the foreseeable future because of flooding in the area.
The mobile unit includes two exam rooms, telehealth capability, and an arrangement with local pharmacies to provide veterans their medications.
Along with remaining flooding issues, Laterza said the biggest challenge to reopening all of the region’s VA clinics is the power grid. Larger facilities have generator backups, but smaller sites will have to wait until utility crews get electricity working again before welcoming back patients.
Laterza said supervisors have also been reaching out to employees to make sure their families are safe, and to see when they’ll be able to return to work. The Fayetteville system has about 2,200 staffers. Already, 140 have reported significant home damage, including two whose houses were destroyed.
“We had a few folks who had to shelter in our facilities during the storm, because it wasn’t safe to get home,” he said. “We emphasized to supervisors to listen to their employees, make sure their staff was safe. Now, our sense is a lot of folks are motivated to get back to work to help.”
Veterans looking for the status of their local VA facilities can check their status online or call the National Veteran Hotline at 1-800-507-4571.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.