BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - Two years before Katrina ransacked Gulfport VA buildings, VA administrators were making plans to shut down that facility, and relocate its services to Biloxi. That $310 million consolidation program took a giant step forward Friday morning.
The ceremonial shovels needed to be put away. Ceremonial dirt was no longer necessary. After five years of planning, Project Acorn was about to take root. Charles Sepich heads up the Biloxi VA, the property that was about to expand to meet veterans' needs.
"What it really means is for the veterans here in Mississippi, in Alabama and certainly on the panhandle of Florida, we'll actually be providing more services," said Sepich.
Biloxi first learned it would take over some of the Gulfport VA's services in 2003. That year, the CARES commission determined that consolidating the two VA centers would "improve access to care and enhance efficiency."
The five facilities being built on the Biloxi campus became necessary when the Gulfport VA closed.
"It is a sign of commitment. It is a sign of rebirth," said Sepich.
A mental health center will be the first building constructed. That work begins in a couple of weeks. Right after that, a 96 bed community living center will be added. Patients assigned to the nursing home will have a picturesque view of the Back Bay.
Roy Griggs is the Biloxi VA's public affairs director.
"We're doing everything we can to minimize the destruction of current property," Griggs said.
To make sure there's enough space on the campus for Project Acorn's five new buildings, the VA must remove 23 trees. Some of those trees are diseased. Some, the VA director says, are simply in the way of progress. But Sepich also says that for every two trees that are cut down, three new trees will be planted.
"With the new buildings will come new jobs, will come new programs," Sepich emphasized. "And we'll be able to give better care to our veterans."
When it's done, the Biloxi campus will have a blind rehabilitation center for veterans. A parking garage will also be built, to handle all the new patients from Gulfport who drive in for medical treatment at the Biloxi VA.
Originally, the VA's plan was to spread out the new construction over 10 to 15 years. But Katrina accelerated that schedule. In fact, a statement from CARES says, "Hurricane Katrina compressed the move from several years to several days."