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Los Angeles Clinic Reopens Just Days After Flooding

After a deluge of water swept through Universal Community Health Center during winter storms, staff and others pitched in to restore services quickly for vulnerable patients.


Extreme Weather

The clinic's conference room following the roof collapse earlier this year. (Photo courtesy of UCHC)

Editor’s note: This article is part of a joint editorial initiative between the National Association of Community Health Centers and Direct Relief.

LOS ANGELES — Dr. Edgar Chavez was sleeping when the call came in just before 1 a.m. early Sunday morning in late February amid a series of historic rainstorms. He dressed immediately and drove towards one of his safety net health care clinics in downtown Los Angeles, which was just about finished with significant renovations.

“I opened the (conference room) door, and it was like a river. It looked like a disaster movie,” Chavez, the founder and CEO of Universal Community Health Center (UCHC), said to Direct Relief. A section of the roof from UCHC’s O’Neill Clinic collapsed, allowing a deluge of rainwater into the building. Adding to the chaos, a rafter crashed into a fire sprinkler, expelling more water into the 15,000 square foot health care clinic that had opened the previous October.

The roof and structural failures, along with the water, ejected chairs from the room into an adjacent room and flooded the space with about six inches of water within 30 minutes of the collapse.

A flooded section of the downtown L.A. clinic (Photo courtesy of UCHC)

UCHC COO Freddy Reynoso, who was first on the scene and contacted Chavez, recalled seeing water flowing out of the clinic’s doors while driving up. “Oh no,” he recalled thinking. All of the electricity was out.

Chavez, who was named one of L.A.’s top doctors by Los Angeles Magazine this year, and Reynoso grabbed brooms and started to clear water out of the clinic as they waited for the cleanup crews to arrive. They were at a local Home Depot as soon as it opened at 7 a.m. to buy sandbags, blowers, and wet and dry vacuums before returning to the locations and continuing their work.

Driving their efforts, Chavez and Reynoso said, was the goal of getting the clinic, which sees over 2,000 patient visits per month, open as soon as possible.

“It was a huge mess…. I was soaking wet the whole time, but we got it done,” Reynoso said. “For me, it was a full range of emotions. I was saddened that something that was just built was damaged so badly, but ultimately, we just focused on ‘how do we operate, how do we open?’ This clinic is within walking distance for many patients, and the other clinics nearby are saturated.”

 The O’Neill Clinic serves what Chavez described as a “working poor” community. It’s where he grew up. Many residents do not have access to private transportation, making it very difficult for them to go to alternate locations.

“The goal is for this to be a medical home for them, and this is their clinic,” Chavez said, noting that he especially did not want to cancel appointments for people who were post-operative or diabetic, among other chronic conditions. Moving their care to another location, he said, might decrease the likelihood of them being able to make it due to lack of transportation, needing to take more time off work, and other logistics-based reasons. As a Federally Qualified Health Center, UCHC’s six locations and a school-based center treat all patients regardless of ability to pay. The system sees about 5,000 patient visits per month.

The initial consensus among the cleanup crews and contractors was that the clinic would be reopened within a month or two. For Chavez, Reynoso, and the staff at UCHC, such a timeline was unacceptable given the acute needs and lack of alternate viable options for so many of their patients in the community.

It took three days, and all preexisting appointments were kept, according to Chavez.

Dr. Edgar Chavez points out the water line at UCHC’s O’Neill Clinic. (Noah Smith/ Direct Relief)

“I’m amazed, I’m quite surprised, not for the work we did, but just for everything coming together. It really took a small village to get everybody here. Nobody said no. Everyone we asked came over,” said Reynoso.

However, the building’s damage was extensive and uninsurable due to being under construction, said Chavez. UCHC is a tenant, which further complicates matters. While some expensive equipment was saved, such as the X-ray machine, much was lost or rendered unusable, including all their on-site servers and exam tables. In a stroke of luck, about $300,000 worth of dental care gear arrived the Monday after the roof collapsed.

Chavez said his team was able to share supplies for other locations to shore up the most critical equipment as they worked to replace it.

Pouya Ansari, a dentist who started working at UCHC the week before the flooding, said he and his team improvised after the flooding to ensure they could keep seeing patients, even if that meant repurposing a podiatry exam chair.

“The team came together, and we came up with some good ideas to be able to see about 15 to 20 patients a day, which I think is really successful,” he said.

The clinic’s front desk shows water damage. (Noah Smith/ Direct Relief)

Walking through the facility’s patient-facing areas about six weeks after the flood, the only evidence of the flood was water lines on some walls and some warping on desks. The clinic otherwise looked newly renovated, a testament to the hard work of its staff and contractors, which was reflected by a perspective shared by Chavez as he walked through the halls of the clinic.

“We’re providing medical care to people who need it,” said Chavez.

Direct Relief has supported UCHC with a $100,000 grant to help repair their roof and medical supplies. The organization’s fundraiser can be found here.

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