Coroner, EMS expected to be in new offices in a year

After being consigned to temporary and unsuitable quarters since Hurricane Katrina, the city’s Emergency Medical Services and Coroner’s Office should be occupying a new, permanent building by this time next year, officials say.

Work on the $11.2 million, 37,000-square-foot building at Earhart Boulevard and South Claiborne Avenue began in July after years of delays caused by design, money and environmental remediation issues. Construction is expected to be completed by mid-October 2014, Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant said.

The new facility is particularly important for the Coroner’s Office, which has had a transient existence since Katrina flooded the courthouse at Tulane and Broad, where autopsies were done from the time the building opened in the early 1930s until the 2005 hurricane.

A former Rhodes Funeral Home building at 2612 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in Central City has served as a retrofitted but deficient base of operations for Dr. Frank Minyard and his staff for the last seven years, even after it caught on fire two years ago.

FEMA has paid the monthly rent of $11,762 for the space, City Hall spokesman Tyler Gamble said.

Pathologists continued to perform autopsies in the building after the fire partially destroyed it, while administrative functions were temporarily moved to a building next to the New Orleans Police Department’s 1st District station on North Rampart Street.

Bodies have been stored in refrigerated trucks in the old funeral home’s parking lot since the coroner moved into the building. Each truck holds between 25 and 30 bodies. The total storage capacity is about equal to the roughly 100 bodies that fit in refrigerated vaults in the coroner’s former office on the ground floor of the Criminal District Courthouse — an office that was already outdated when Minyard was first elected coroner in 1974.

“I have waited 40 years and worked 40 years on getting a new office,” Minyard said last week. “It took the tragedy of Katrina to really put it all together.”

The coroner’s portion of the new complex will be 23,000 square feet, divided between two floors, and will include administrative offices and a state-of-the-art morgue, a far cry from the space in which autopsies are conducted now. Before the fire in April 2011 at the temporary office, there was not even proper ventilation in the morgue.

Minyard described the current morgue as so crude that doctors in medieval times had better facilities.

“Something as basic as hot water, every now and then it goes off,” he said. “And we have broke pipes. The building is very old.”

There also is no lab at the site, meaning that toxicology and blood tests must be completed at a lab in St. Louis. Results often take two weeks or longer to be returned, and the bill for that third-party service is at least $100,000 a year, Minyard said.

With an in-house lab, results will be available much quicker.

“We’ll be able to get results back almost the same day,” Minyard said. “That has slowed down the wheels of justice. The wheels of justice will definitely be oiled.”

Minyard’s office has sometimes come under fire for questionable death classifications before and after Katrina and has at times been criticized for its operations, while other local coroner’s offices, such as in Jefferson Parish, have been held up as examples of how such an office should operate.

Any perceived inadequacies might be cleared up with national accreditation, but Minyard said seeking that designation has not been a priority while efforts were concentrated on getting a new building constructed.

“We just gave up on that the past eight years,” he said. “We’re just trying to keep up on the work required.”

That has been a struggle since the coroner’s pre-Katrina staff of 35 people has been cut to about 14.

Four psychiatrists evaluate mental-health patients, but Minyard said he could use another two. Two investigators do the work of the eight who used to be employed by the office, while four board-certified forensic pathologists are on staff compared with seven before the storm.

National standards say each pathologist should do no more than 250 autopsies a year. Minyard said his pathologists each perform more than 300 a year. Once in the new office, lab techs and toxicologists will have to be brought on to handle the tasks now performed in St. Louis.

Minyard has not been aggressive in requesting additional funding for his office during his appearances at the City Council’s annual budget hearings. One year he actually took back a request for two more staffers, and in 2010 he asked for only an extra $33,000. That money was not approved.

The Landrieu administration has proposed a budget of $1.7 million for the office in 2014. It received $1.6 million this year.

Minyard said Friday he had met the day before with the administration to discuss the staffing problems that he hopes will be remedied once the new office is operating.

“It’s really outrageous. It’s immoral — any word you want to think of that is not good,” Minyard said of the temporary office and the effects he said it has had on the quality of the work his staff performs.

The city’s Emergency Medical Services, headquartered on Moss Street across from City Park before Katrina, are now housed in trailers near Bayou St. John in Mid-City and under the Pontchartrain Expressway near the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Its offices all will be under one roof in the new building.

EMS’ 14,500-square-foot wing, separated from the Coroner’s Office by a lobby, will consist mainly of office space.

Having the entire department working in one location again will create greater efficiencies for EMS, Grant said.

The city did not make anyone from the department available for an interview.

Work on the new building was supposed to begin last year but was delayed because of environmental remediation work, FEMA funding issues and design problems.

Vince Smith, director of capital projects for the city, said there was some contamination on the site because it was the former location of a railroad roundhouse. While the work caused delay, the contamination was remediated, he said.

Also causing delay was the decision, after planning had begun for just a coroner’s building, to add EMS to the site.

Officials with the Landrieu administration told a City Council committee two years ago that the estimated cost of the project would be about $6 million. That figure has almost doubled since then.

The $11.2 million building is being paid for through a combination of funding sources.

FEMA will pay $3.8 million for the EMS portion of the complex and $2.9 million for the coroner’s portion, supplemented by $4.5 million in local Law Enforcement District money.

Construction Masters of Metairie was the low bidder to build the new structure.