Shut down by Hurricane Laura and mired in controversy, Cameron Parish’s only hospital remains closed

The entrance of a damaged hospital stands unused with boarded up windows and doors.
The South Cameron Memorial Hospital, damaged by Hurricane Laura in August 2020, sits in disrepair on Tuesday, April 11, 2023, near Creole, La. Photo by Alena Maschke

Kim Fawvor grew up in Grand Chenier and is well aware of the dire straits the coastal community is usually left in right after a storm, especially when it comes to medical care.

“When a hurricane comes through and tears everything up, you have to be aware that there’s no access to medical care here, at all,” the 63-year-old said. Trying to take a chainsaw to the trees blocking your driveway? Don’t hurt yourself — because you’re on your own.

When Hurricane Laura made landfall in August 2020, its official entry point was the small community of Creole, not far from Grand Chenier and just miles away from the only hospital serving residents of lower Cameron Parish. The hospital suffered substantial damage and now, more than three years later, is still out of commission.

As was the fate of southwest Louisiana as a whole after two major storms hit within months of each other, slow moving insurance payouts and lagging federal assistance hindered the process of reopening the hospital, and in the wake of those challenges, political turmoil further upended the process.

In the meantime, residents are left without access to an emergency room or any substantial primary care, with the closest hospital located in Lake Charles, about an hour’s drive north.

Fawvor and his wife had spent years in her hometown of St. Martinville, before they decided it was time to relocate to their camp down in Grand Chenier. But when Laura hit and took out the only hospital, it was a deal-breaker for the couple.

Fawvor’s wife was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 1997 and was given only six months to live at the time. Still, the couple powered through decades of treatment, and shared over two more decades together. But the radiation had left its mark on her health, and living somewhere without access to even the most basic emergency services was out of the question.

“If there was at least an urgent care, that would have helped,” Fawvor said. “It would have made her feel comfortable to know that there was more than just an ambulance here.”

For a while, the hospital’s operator at the time, Stonebridge Health LLC, provided basic services out of an emergency tent set up on the grounds of the damaged hospital. Then, in February, a windshear took out that temporary structure, as well. Around the same time, Stonebridge gave the hospital board — the governing authority whose members are appointed by the local police jury — its 30-day notice of withdrawal.

The move came after months of upheaval on the board, following the appointment of a new member, former school board president Stephanie Rodrigue. After Rodrigue was appointed, several members of the board, including its former chair, resigned over the span of a few months in the latter half of 2022.

Since then, leadership of the hospital’s former operator, former hospital board members, and supporters of the newly installed hospital board have traded accusations by way of letters published in the local Cameron Pilot newspaper.

Supporters of the new board accused the old board and operator of inaction and nontransparency (including on the spending of $3.9 million in federal aid the operator received from a pandemic assistance fund for providers).

A former board member, Margaret Jones, and Stonebridge Vice President of Property and Development Management Leslie Trahan in turn said the new board shot down plans that would have led to operations being restored by now. Trahan filed a defamation lawsuit against an opposing letter-writer, Sheila Miller, in October, and declined to comment for this story citing that ongoing litigation.

Former board member Margaret Jones, who knew Rodrigue from her time working for the school district, said this turmoil is partially to blame for the delays in returning the hospital to an operative state.

“We would have a hospital rebuilt now, if things had been left alone,” Jones said. The previous board, five members of which resigned in 2022, had been in communication with FEMA to provide a temporary facility while the hospital was being repaired, according to Jones. This avenue, she said, was abandoned by the new board, in favor of suing the insurance company for bad faith, which can result in significantly higher payouts than insurance claims alone.

The hospital board filed a lawsuit against the insurers, Independent Specialty Insurance Company and Interstate Fire & Casualty Company in state court on August 26, 2022, just days before the deadline to file lawsuits against insurance companies for Hurricane Laura damages.

The lawsuit provides a damage estimate of only $494,000, but bad faith penalties could triple the payout amount if the lawsuit, which has been moved to federal court and is still ongoing, is successful.

The old board, in an effort to save money, had gone through great lengths to avoid a complete rebuild of the property, which would have forced them to comply with new elevation requirements. Instead, the board hoped to repair portions of the existing hospital and use a temporary facility in the meantime, then reopen at a smaller scale once the repairs were complete.

Spending tens of millions of dollars to elevate the structure didn’t make sense, according to former board chair Timmy Dupont. “Who knows what's gonna hit us?” Dupont said. “We built to code last time and that didn’t work.”

It’s unclear exactly what the new board’s plans for the hospital are. Three of the board’s current members could not be reached for comment. One member, Shawn Bonsall, referred to the board’s new chair, Rodrigue, who herself declined to comment.

There are plans to provide some health care services to Cameron Parish residents in the near future, however. In September, the hospital district and Lake Charles Memorial Health System in a joint press release announced plans to provide primary care services to Cameron Parish residents in a temporary facility and later enter a lease to operate a health clinic.

Under the current plan, the new health clinic would be located in the still-defunct public health unit in the town of Cameron. The public health unit was also destroyed by Laura. Regional staff with the Louisiana Department of Health has been working out of a small office inside the parish administration building, providing services currently limited to immunizations and WIC, a federal supplemental nutrition program for women and children.

“The partnership allows Lake Charles Memorial to reach out to the peripheral of the 5-parish region, connecting the people of Cameron Parish to a strong network of providers and specialties, affording a healthcare home in their home parish,” Jason Rashall, Chief Strategy Officer with Lake Charles Memorial Health System, said in the press release.

Local police juror Scott Trahan too expressed his appreciation for the partnership. “Storms may come our way, but knowing we have a strong partner to weather the storms with us is what we have been waiting for and what the residents deserve,” Trahan said in the press release.

It likely won’t be under his watch, however, at least not as a police juror. Trahan, along with six other incumbents on the eight-person jury, was voted out of office in the most recent election. He attributes his loss at least partly to the turmoil surrounding the hospital board.

“I did the right thing,” Trahan said, referencing his appointment of Rodrigue. “And I think the right thing cost me the election.”

Despite his loss, Trahan believes in the new board. According to him, the board plans to elevate the structure, a decision he supports, no matter how costly it will be.

“We've got these LNG companies that are down here,” said Trahan, who has been an advocate of the LNG expansion in Cameron Parish and works at one of the local export facilities himself. “In a few more years, we're gonna be getting enough money off these LNG plants that we'll be able to afford whatever we want.”

At the moment, the local LNG facilities still operate under tax exemptions meant to spur economic development by providing tax breaks in exchange for jobs created.

In September, the Cameron Pilot newspaper reported that there had been discussions between Trahan, Commonwealth LNG Chairman Paul Varello and District Attorney Tom Barrett — who serves as general counsel to the hospital board — regarding a potential donation by the LNG company to help fund the new hospital.

Whether that deal is still on the table is unclear. Commonwealth did not respond to several requests for comment.

One of the candidates in the run-off for Trahan’s seat, Tina Horn, said she’d be willing to sit down with anyone open to providing funds. “I'm gonna pursue anybody that wants to invest in Cameron Parish,” Horn said. “We have so many things that we need down here.”