VA Secretary Tours Veterans Clinics Hit by Hurricane Florence

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie testifies during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie testifies during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Fayetteville VA leaders said the region might need weeks to fully recover from last month's Hurricane Florence.

The storm, which dumped dozens of inches of rain on southeastern North Carolina, caused clinics to close, canceled appointments and ravaged the homes of untold numbers of veterans from Fayetteville to the coast.

Local Department of Veterans Affairs officials continue to play catch-up with thousands of rescheduled appointments, and the Wilmington Health Care Center -- which partially reopened last week -- might not be fully operational for another four to six weeks.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie received an update on those recovery efforts on Monday, during a tour of VA facilities impacted by Florence in Fayetteville and Wilmington.

Afterward, the Fayetteville native, returning to his hometown for the first time post-hurricane, praised the efforts of local leaders and VA staff.

"We are the ultimate good news story," Wilkie said after meeting with Fayetteville VA Director James Laterza and Mid-Atlantic Healthcare Network Director DeAnne Seekins.

Wilkie also met with emergency VA employees who responded to Fayetteville from across the country and who continue to work to help local officials cope with the storm's affects. He toured the Fayetteville and Wilmington health care centers, as well as the Wilmington National Cemetery.

The Wilmington and New Bern national cemeteries were heavily damaged by the storm and remain closed, Wilkie said.

The Wilmington Health Care Center and a clinic in Morehead City also were severely damaged but have partially reopened.

Wilkie said local officials would have the resources they need to recover from the storm.

"This is my home. This is my wife's family's home," he said. "We have had relatives and friends impacted by this hurricane. A lot of veterans I grew up watching as a child... their lives were impacted by this storm."

The Fayetteville VA, which spans communities around Fort Bragg, Camp Lejeune, Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point and Wilmington, is among the fastest growing regions in the VA, Wilkie said.

Fayetteville is the "fastest growing single area in the VA," with 2,000 veterans added each month, he said.

Florence caused 17,000 appointments to be canceled, Laterza said. Half of those have already been rescheduled. Officials are working to reschedule the rest as soon as possible.

"We have been proactively calling them," he said.

Emergency employees, part of the VA's Disaster Employee Medical Program, are helping reduce wait times for those affected, Laterza said.

Seekins, who oversees VA facilities across North Carolina and in parts of Virginia, said 95 employees, including 72 in Fayetteville, Wilmington and Jacksonville, have traveled from out of state to assist.

Wilkie said those VA employees, including medical and administrative staff, came from as far as Juneau, Alaska, with others hailing from Arkansas, Texas and Tennessee.

And in Wilmington, he said, four mobile medical units are on the ground serving the veteran population until the health care center can fully reopen.

He said there is no dollar estimate yet for the cost of the damage wrought by Hurricane Florence, but said engineers have been in clinics in Wilmington and Morehead City to assess damage.

Wilkie praised local VA leaders for ensuring the safety of patients before, during and after the storm.

The VA Medical Center on Ramsey Street remained open during the hurricane, despite being located along the Cape Fear River.

Laterza said officials assessed the situation and determined the best course of action was to keep patients in the hospital, located more than 140 feet above the river's bank.

Wilkie said VA leaders had enough fuel, food and oxygen on hand before the storm hit to last through the end of September, if needed.

He said the Fayetteville VA has resources most other veterans communities don't have, citing support from Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune. He also praised cooperation between the VA and community partners and said the response was a template for how the nation can respond to a crisis.

"I could not be prouder of VA," Wilkie said. "I could not be prouder of my hometown."

This article is written by Drew Brooks from The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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