To say the Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office labored under trying conditions in the wake of Hurricane Katrina would be a gross understatement. The storm flooded its offices in the basement of the Criminal District Courthouse, consigning local autopsies to the embalming room of a former funeral parlor in Central City.
That cramped facility on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard offered little privacy to grieving families and those seeking to have loved ones taken into protective custody due to mental illness. Bodies were stored in refrigerated tractor-trailers.
New Orleans Emergency Medical Services endured a similar ordeal, occupying makeshift quarters around the city for a period of time that gave new meaning to the term “temporary.”
“For the last 10 years,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said Wednesday, “all of these folks have literally been working in trailers and doing the best that they could under difficult circumstances, trying to make sure that the city recovered first before their recovery.”
That all changed this week, as the Coroner’s Office and EMS opened a modern joint headquarters building near Earhart Boulevard and South Claiborne Avenue, a long-delayed move that ended an arduous chapter for both agencies.
The $14.8 million facility, containing 37,000 square feet, was paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Orleans Parish Law Enforcement District, a local entity that levies property taxes to pay for criminal-justice buildings. Construction was delayed for years due to funding issues and environmental remediation work at the site.
Dr. Jeffrey Rouse, the Orleans Parish coroner, touted the three-story building as a “sea change” for both the people working in it and visitors, most of whom encounter the coroner in times of tragedy.
Rouse expressed guarded hope that the new digs eventually would become “the least busy” place in New Orleans, even as he described his office as “the final destination for the ills of humanity, the violence, the drugs, the accidents, the unexpected and premature departures from this earth.”
The facility features an autopsy suite with four stations and a separate room set aside for decomposed bodies — a drastic improvement over the funeral-home embalming room in Central City, which emitted a gag-inducing stench. The Coroner’s Office performs about 1,000 autopsies a year for New Orleans deaths and a few hundred for neighboring parishes.
Families who have business at the office will be ushered into a private room to identify loved ones and recover property. Other amenities include a spacious mental health wing and a toxicology laboratory, although the latter will be mothballed until Rouse can come up with funding to hire additional staff.
“I’m beaming like a new father because we are now in a state-of-the-art medical facility, the envy of coroners around the country,” Rouse, a father of three, said at a crowded ribbon-cutting Wednesday. “The deceased can rest peacefully in state-of-the art coolers rather than refrigerated trailers, and they will be examined by doctors in a space that is clean, organized and respectful, just like a surgical-level operating room.”
The complex is close to the site of a 2009 fatal shooting — 25-year-old Omar Breaux was slain in a car chase near Earhart and South Roman Street — a case that involved both the Coroner’s Office and EMS paramedics. But it is centrally located, city leaders noted, and sits on land that did not flood in Katrina.
Dr. Jeff Elder, the EMS director, said the agency’s new headquarters is storm-resistant — it also has a backup generator — and is designed to allow EMS to remain on duty even in the event of a citywide evacuation.
“With the opening of this complex,” he said, “EMS finally has a home.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.