An estimated 2,500 hospitalized patients were waiting Wednesday afternoon to be taken from New Orleans as rising floodwaters forced a general evacuation.
Many of the patients were the most critically ill who could not be evacuated before Hurricane Katrina struck. Others were injured survivors who sought help after the storm's initial impact.
Many of the patients will be taken temporarily to an evacuation center set up at Louisiana State University, 75 miles northwest of New Orleans.
In one evacuation, 25 newborns in a makeshift neonatal intensive care unit at the Ochsner Clinic were airlifted Wednesday to hospitals in Houston, Baton Rouge and Birmingham, Ala., according to Associated Press. Their parents had been evacuated earlier. The helicopters had to land on the roof of the parking garage because the clinic's landing pad was underwater.
Nearly 500 patients from three Tenet Healthcare Corp. hospitals that have been closed will be taken to that company's NorthShore Regional Medical Center in Slidell, said company spokesman Steven Campanini. Most of those will eventually be sent on to Brookwood Medical Center in Birmingham.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has identified 2,600 available hospital beds in 12 surrounding states where the patients could be taken, said Bill Hall, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The agency has also identified about 40,000 available beds nationwide "should that ever be needed," he added.
FEMA is sending 40 field hospitals into the area, Hall said, and one has been set up -- a 250-bed facility at Louisiana State. The others will be scattered around the region over the next week, he said.
Thirty-eight physicians from Health and Human Services are staffing the LSU field hospital. Hall said an additional 4,000 healthcare providers will be brought in this week for the other facilities. Those will come from the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and the National Disaster Medical System, which keeps medical personnel on call for emergencies. At the moment, the agency is not soliciting other volunteers, Hall said.
Some patients are being treated in the hospital of the Navy's amphibious assault ship Bataan, which sailed into the area this week. Helicopters from the ship have been helping with search and rescue and may be used in the evacuations.
The Navy hospital ship Comfort left Baltimore on Wednesday for New Orleans, but was not expected to arrive for seven days.
At hospitals that are still open, conditions have worsened because of the lack of electricity, water and sewage treatment.
Many of the patients have injuries and infections caused by the storm; those rescued from rooftops are often dehydrated. The hospitals are also treating patients who need medical care unrelated to the hurricane.
At NorthShore Regional, Campanini said, Tenet has sent in more generators to provide power, and two cooling units to provide air conditioning for critical areas.
Food, water, medical supplies and diesel fuel for the generators have brought in by helicopter, he said. A convoy of trucks with additional supplies is on its way.
Looting has been occurring at many of the hospitals, and officials are concerned that there are too few police and National Guards troops to provide effective security.