Air Force veteran Ernest Hoitt points to a model of the future New Orleans VA Medical center at a groundbreaking ceremony for the complex in New Orleans. Photo by Patrick Semansky

A 'historic day' for New Orleans

Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, nearly destroying the New Orleans VA Medical Center in the process. But the city's new 1.5-million square-foot medical center, set to open in late 2013, is another example of the city's residents' determination to recover from Katrina.

"This is a historic day for all of Louisiana," VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said during the project's groundbreaking ceremony this morning. "With this groundbreaking, we begin rebuilding a new legacy, a new chapter in the history of this proud city."

Shinseki was one of several dignitaries at the ceremony, joining Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, among others. Also present was American Legion Past National Commander William Detweiler, a New Orleans resident who led the Pledge of Allegiance during the ceremony. Shinseki took the time to thank The American Legion for its support of the project, singling out Detweiler, who served on the advisory committee for the project's design team, and Peter Gaytan, executive director of the Legion's Washington office.

"This facility will become a cornerstone in New Orleans' medical research community, which will ensure the best care is available for our Louisiana veterans," Shinseki added. "VA is proud to bring this state-of-the-art facility to New Orleans."

Landrieu said the groundbreaking was, "a day of reckoning to pay a debt owed to so many veterans that have sacrificed life and limb. It is a debt that is ongoing and one that this nation will honor."

Jindal said that if Hurricanes Katrina and Rita could have a silver lining, it was the rebuilding process. "After the hurricanes, we had a decision to make: How did we want to rebuild?" he said. "We absolutely wanted a world-class health-care system - not only for our veterans, but for all the people of New Orleans and in Louisiana."

Once operational, the facility will have 120 inpatient beds in addition to 60 transitional care beds that provide rehabilitation, hospice and palliative care and mental illness research. The hospital will accommodate a half million outpatient visits annually.

The new medical center will also be suited to serve veterans and the citizens of southern Louisiana during emergencies. Once construction is complete, the new medical center will be able to operate independently for seven days without resupply. All mission-critical services will be 20 feet above ground level, and the facility will have a heliport and boat dock for evacuations.

"When asked to fight for our freedoms, the veterans we serve did not hesitate," said Julie Catellier, director of the new VAMC. "After Katrina, our federal leaders responded in kind. They acted decisively and without hesitation to rebuild VA health care. This hospital is proof of a grateful nation. It will be a model for health care of the future." Check back at on Monday for an interview with PNC Detweiler about the New Orleans VAMC.