How New Orleans’ Health Clinic for Musicians Survived the Storm

The local healthcare provider weathered Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.

Legendary New Orleans bluesman Rooster plays near Bourbon Street, via Flickr user Brandon

Tourism lies at the heart New Orleans’ recovering economy. Visitors spent a record $6.5 billion in the city in 2013, up from $2.8 billion in the year after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Big Easy. And tourism, one could argue, might not be possible without some of the city’s most talented and hardworking denizens: its musicians.

Unfortunately, many of New Orleans’ artists fall in what’s called the “sacrifice zone”: They make too much to qualify for Louisiana’s less-than-generous Medicaid program, but too little to tap into federally funded Obamacare.

Enter the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic, founded in 1998 as a more cost-effective option for the city’s music community. As co-founder and director Bethany Ewald Bultman writes in a moving essay on NextCity, “The NOMC proudly serves a culture which was bent by slavery, poverty, disease, and flood and who responded un-broken with the USA’s only indigenous art form, Jazz.”

But NOMC’s mission was seriously threatened ten years ago, when rising waters overcame the levees protecting New Orleans, flooding a full 80 percent of the city. In the aftermath of Hurricaine Katrina, the waters destroyed many of the medical records of the clinic’s 837 patients, and staff, patients, and their families were scattered across the state and the country.

Bultman writes of her 2005 efforts to save the clinic after Katrina:

I borrowed $15,000 from my mom and boarded a standing-room only bus for the seven-hour trip to Lafayette the day after Labor Day, to open a new bank account for the NOMC at the Iberia Bank. A community medical center gave me a broom closet and a computer. I emailed our banking information to folks who wanted to assist musicians by wiring us funds. With the help of friends in Lafayette we took the money to Walmart, bought $250 gift cards and Fed Exed them to our musicians in shelters all over the country. We worked with assessors in rural Louisiana Parishes who “loaned” homes to musicians who wanted to come back to their home state. We funded gigs at $100 a man first in Lafayette and then back in New Orleans. It took a month to completely drain the water out of our city so that residents could begin the process of rebuilding their lives.

By Thanksgiving 2005, much of the city still lay devastated by the floods, its inhabitants dispersed—but NOMC became one of the first health clinics to reopen in New Orleans.

In the ten years since Katrina, the clinic has thrived. Bultman reports that NOMC now serves 2,500 patients in a new facility in uptown New Orleans, with an expanded staff of seven. Still, she notes there is still much more work to do to care for the city’s musician population.

“[U]ntil we can overcome health disparities, we will still be dancing in the streets at funerals,” Bultman writes.

Read Bethany Ewald Bultman’s entire essay here.

Screenshot via (left) Wikimedia Commons (right)

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