The Department of Veterans Affairs is surveying damage at the Fort Howard VA Outpatient Clinic today in hopes of getting the facility open again in 90 days after it was extensively damaged by flooding from Tropical Storm Isabel.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony J. Principi agreed to send an assessment team to the Baltimore County site to expedite repairs at the urging of U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who said the clinic should be reopened as soon as possible.
"I was shocked when I heard that the Fort Howard VA clinic could be closed for six months because of flood damage caused by Isabel," Mikulski, a Democrat, said yesterday. "I told Secretary Principi that six months is too long for veterans to travel out of their way for medical care. Secretary Principi agreed with me.
"In response, he is sending a team to Fort Howard to evaluate the clinic and determine what needs to be done to open it more quickly," she said. "Maryland veterans should know that I will be following up with Secretary Principi to make sure the Fort Howard Clinic is reopened as soon as possible."
The VA will be awarding an emergency contract so the facility could open in 90 days, David Edwards, a spokesman for the VA Maryland Health Care System, said yesterday. More than 10,000 veterans are treated at the Fort Howard outpatient clinic each year.
Edwards said there was no estimate of damages, but the initial time frame for repairs was four to six months.
In a letter Thursday to Principi, Mikulski wrote: "Many of our veterans who use services at Fort Howard are suffering from the effects of Isabel. Some of them have lost their homes. Making these veterans travel for healthcare is the last thing the VA should be doing. You should be bringing services to them."
Mikulski also requested a detailed plan for quickly reopening Fort Howard, including plans for providing transportation to the veterans from Fort Howard to Loch Raven and Glen Burnie.
The Fort Howard veterans were temporarily transferred to VA outpatient clinics at Loch Raven, 3901 The Alameda in Baltimore, and at Glen Burnie, 1406 S. Crain Highway. All of Fort Howard's staff members and care providers also were temporarily transferred to these locations.
The Fort Howard clinic is on the grounds of the old VA Medical Center on the North Point peninsula at the southeastern tip of Baltimore County. The 95-acre site overlooks the Patapsco River and the Chesapeake Bay, where floodwaters surged over the banks during the height of the storm.
Edwards said most of the equipment and computers were removed from the building at the end of last week when a damage assessment was started.
There was 3 to 5 inches of water throughout the clinic during and after the storm, he said. When the clinic was closed Sept. 18 because of warnings about the impending storm, staff members saved a lot of the equipment when they moved it to the tops of desks and cabinets to keep it from being damaged.
The old hospital building and century-old officers' houses were not damaged, Edwards said.
However, the guard house at the main entrance also was under 5 feet of water in the early morning of Sept. 19. VA Assistant Chief of Police Service Ken Stone had to be rescued from the grounds when floodwaters covered North Point Road, the only road out of the complex.
The hospital was closed in September last year, because VA officials said the facilities were outdated and underused. The outpatient clinic was opened about two weeks later.