New Orleans residents consider legal action over noise from medical helicopter

The Audubon Riverside Neighborhood Association has hired a lawyer after a children's hospital's helipad was moved during renovations

Emily Woodruff
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans residents living near Children’s Hospital have been unhappy for months about the hospital’s decision to move its helicopter operations from one side of the Uptown campus to another during its $300 million renovation.

Now a City Hall decision that made the move permanent has further upset them, enough to consider legal action, a lawyer hired by the Audubon Riverside Neighborhood Association said.

From front porches on Tchoupitoulas Street, neighbors can see the helicopter when it lands at the edge of the hospital campus. Before they see it, they hear it.

“It’s like it’s inside the house,” said Arthur Wisdom, 59, who lives across the street from the new landing pad. When the helicopter comes in, it’s loud enough to shake windows and stop conversation, neighbors said. Usually there is about one landing per day, but sometimes there are two or three, they said.

Children's, which is operated by LCMC Health, owns a blue-and-white striped Eurocopter, a twin-engine aircraft nicknamed Abby that is used to ferry young, often critically ill patients for medical treatment. For years, the hospital's helipad was located on the far side of the hospital campus near the Mississippi River and the Henry Clay Avenue Wharf. But during the hospital's renovation, which began in 2017 and has been projected to end in 2021, take-offs and landings of the helicopter were moved to a helipad closer to Tchoupitoulas Street between Henry Clay and Calhoun Street.

That puts it about a block closer to the neighborhood and right across the street from some homes.

Wisdom said he and almost 100 other neighbors aren't against Children’s use of a helicopter. They want the hospital to go back to using the older landing pad, which they said never bothered anyone who lives nearby.

Children’s Hospital said that the change of the landing site was related to patient and crew safety. The hospital would not provide more specifics, though it appears that the former site of the helipad was low to the ground and near the hospital's main entrance, while the new site is atop a multi-story building and closer to the ambulance entrance.

“Children’s Hospital relocated the helistop for our pediatric critical-care air transport to enhance the safety of our critically ill patients and flight crew,” LCMC communications director Kristen Robinson said.

She added that Children’s officials met and discussed the new location of the landing site with neighbors "through a series of town hall meetings, regular email updates and providing complete and accurate information.”

Charlie Monge, a New Orleans resident, spent more than 100 days in Children’s Hospital in 2017 while his son, born premature at 25 weeks, gained strength. He spent many nights watching the helicopter bring in kids at the former landing site.

“Before the helicopter would even land, there would be doctors and nurses waiting,” said Monge. “A lot were NICU babies born at small hospitals across the country. They had little empty cases for the babies to put them into.”

After defending Children's in an online post, Monge heard from an old acquaintance who lived nearby. She invited him to her house so she could explain the association’s point of view.

While their children played, a helicopter landed on the new pad directly across the street. Monge, a self-described heavy sleeper and son of a pilot, said it probably wouldn’t bother him. But if there’s a solution for the people whom it does bother, he said, the hospital should compromise.

“If they still have the pad in the back, they should switch to using it,” said Monge. “Moving that pad, unless they had a good reason to do it, was a pretty dumb idea.”

Not all the neighbors are bothered by noise from the helicopter. Martha Landymore, 55, is a dialysis nurse who has lived a block away from Children’s for four years. She doesn't work for the hospital, and she said the sound of the helicopter reminds her that children are getting medical care and people are working to save their lives.

“If I hear it, I know what it’s doing, so I don’t care,” said Landymore. “I think it’s awesome.”

But others said they’re concerned about their health. Using a smartphone feature that measures sound levels, they’ve registered the helicopters at 104 decibels in their yards. That's equivalent to a motorcycle, subway or shouted conversation.

Children’s Hospital announced it was conducting sound surveys in July. It has not released the results, neighbors said.

The legal fight that's brewing between the hospital and the neighbors concerns a zoning issue related to how the landing site is used.

The city's Department of Safety and Permits verified the use of the site as a "helistop" in August. At the heart of the decision was whether the landing location was a helistop, a minimal space built for unloading and loading passengers and cargo, or a "heliport," a permanent storage place for the helicopter. Helistops are permitted in that area of the city, but heliports require special permits.

The hospital maintains that the site is a helistop, although the helicopter is often there. Children’s owns the helicopter but leases it to Acadian Companies, which has Lakefront Airport space that it says acts as a permanent base for the aircraft.

“Because of the time sensitivity of pediatric critical care air transport activity, Acadian frequently positions a helicopter at the Children’s Hospital helistop so that the Children’s clinical transport team can access the air transport vehicle quickly,” counsel for Children’s Hospital wrote in emails to the city on July 24.

But the neighborhood association’s lawyer, Henry Kinney, said the classification incorrect, based on how often the helicopter is stored at the new landing pad and the amount of jet fuel and supplies on hand at the hospital location. Further, he said, the hospital did not secure permits for such the six-story tower.

“There is no building permit issued for either one of those applications,” said Kinney. “They are operating with no building permit or any certificate of occupancy.”

The neighbors appealed the decision classifying the site as a helistop earlier this month. The appeal is still pending.

“Nobody wants Children’s Hospital to be without helicopter service for patients,” Kinney said. “For the last 10 years, they have operated the heliport without any objection from my clients. They need to go back to using that facility.”

A letter from John Nickens, the president and chief executive officer of Children’s, to neighbors on Aug. 27 said the hospital would limit its communication with neighbors after the group sought legal counsel.

Wisdom said he and other neighbors care about the hospital's mission of serving the region's children. But he thinks the hospital kept neighbors in the dark about a decision that is disrupting their lives.

“The last two years of construction, there were neighborhood meetings. Not once did the matter of a helipad come up,” said Wisdom. “I want to be able to support Children’s Hospital, I really do.”


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