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September 12, 2017

Plugging leaks and saving lives: How hospitals fared during Irma

Daily Briefing

After weathering Hurricane Irma, many Florida hospitals are starting to resume regular operations while preparing to care for patients affected by the storm.


Hurricane Irma "hammered" nearly every part of the state over the last few days, the Wall Street Journal reports. The storm led to "wreckage in the Keys" as well as "record flooding in Jacksonville," the Journal reports, though the coastal areas "were largely spared from the catastrophe many had feared."

When a disaster occurs, the whole hospital is our patient

According to the New York Times, Irma—now categorized as a tropical depression, with maximum sustained winds of about 35 miles per hour—was moving around Columbus, Georgia, as of 11 p.m. on Monday.

The Florida Department of Health reports that more than 435 health care centers—including 30 hospitals, 61 nursing homes, and 280 assisted-living facilities—evacuated for Irma. According to the Florida Hospital Association (FHA) health care facilities as of Saturday afternoon had evacuated nearly 1,900 patients. However, FHA said that despite Irma's record-breaking strength, a majority of the association's more than 200 member hospitals in Florida were open as of Saturday afternoon.

Getting back to normal

Hospitals in Miami-Dade and Broward counties have started to return to normal operations, the Miami Herald reports.

For instance, the University of Miami Health System (UHealth) has started to return to normal operations at its campuses, which include UM Hospital, Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, and Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. UHealth also said it had opened outpatient clinics for patients with acute illnesses who need chemotherapy or radiation. According to the Washington Post's "To Your Health," a big concern for medical facilities in Florida is potential overcrowding in EDs for patients who did not receive needed care such as chemotherapy or dialysis at the height of the storm.

Baptist Health South Florida said its five hospitals in Miami-Dade were returning to normal schedules while administrators worked to reopen two smaller hospitals—Mariner's Hospital and Fishermen's Community Hospital—in the Florida Keys. According to the Herald, as of Monday, there were health care facilities in the Florida Keys without water and sewer service.

Broward Health, a public hospital network for the northern part of the county, said all of its hospitals resumed normal operations on Monday. Broward Health's facilities include Broward Health Medical Center, Broward Health Imperial Point, Broward Health North, and Broward Health Coral Springs. The system's urgent care centers in Weston and Coral Springs reopened on Monday as well. Other Broward facilities are set to reopen Tuesday, according to the Herald.

Meanwhile, Cleveland Clinic Florida said its hospital and clinic in Weston and facilities in Parkland and West Palm Beach will return to normal operations Tuesday. The hospital in a statement said patient appointments, elective surgeries, and outpatient care will continue as scheduled.

Coastal hospitals report overall positive conditions

Staff at several hospitals along Florida's Gulf and Atlantic coasts reported that their facilities weathered the storm well.

Cheryl Garn, a spokesperson for Lee Health's four hospitals in Fort Myers, said, "We're wonderful," adding, "We have some leaks where wind or rain blew in, but the patients are safe and comfortable."

Separately, Steve Sonenreich, CEO of Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach, said his facility had also fared well in the storm, citing improvements made to the facilities over the years to prepare for natural disasters. "I think the most important thing we did was that after the 2005 period, when our state saw seven to eight hurricanes, we decided to spend tens of millions of dollars to fortify our facilities," Sonenreich said. The hospital's efforts included installing hurricane-proof glass in its windows and putting generators 30 feet above the flood plain and inside a structure that can withstand 180 mph winds.

Read our interview with Warner Thomas about rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina

According to Sonenreich, the hospital didn't lose power at all this weekend. The hospital tested backup generators on Saturday and left them on—but didn't need to use them. According to "To Your Health," the hospital's "worst damage" seemed to be leaks and fallen trees.

Tampa General also reported a positive experience. John Dunn, director of public relations, said, "We did really well," without flooding or power outages. He added, "The only issue is a number of leaks we're addressing right now."

A birthday celebration

And some hospitals took an extra step for patients weathering out the storm at health care facilities, CNN reports. Nurses at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, over the weekend threw a birthday party for Willow Stine, who spent her third birthday at the hospital.

Willow was diagnosed with leukemia on Friday, and when the storm hit, she and her mother, Jennifer, were at the hospital preparing for chemotherapy. With the storm approaching, friends and family couldn't make it to the hospital, and Jennifer couldn't make it out to get birthday presents or cake.

Nurses stepped in to help, bringing Willow a cake and new toys that were at the hospital. "The nurses were amazing," Jennifer said. "They're so wonderful. [Willow] got to be a toddler again."

Doc returns to 'property in turmoil' after working during storm

However, while hospitals generally fared well under the storm, not all providers could report the same for their personal residences, ABC News reports. Louis Freeman—a Miami-based radiologist who worked 48 hours straight during the storm—returned home earlier this week to find "his property in turmoil." According to ABC News, at his property, trees were uprooted, concrete structures had fallen, and parts of his roof had been torn off.

"It's hard," Freeman said. "You come home after 48 hours straight of working and then you find everything you've worked hard for literally destroyed." But Freeman added that the damaged items are "all material things that can be replaced"—his family, he said, was safe throughout the storm.

Georgia hospitals weather Irma

Meanwhile, hospitals in Georgia did not experience the devastation that they had feared from Irma, with the "worst of Irma" leaving the state Monday night, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports.

According to the Georgia Hospital Association, at least eight hospitals in the state—including Emory Healthcare's orthopedics and spine hospital—used backup generator at some point. But while some staff were unable to get to work because of storm-related transportation problems, officials for Grady Health, Emory, and Children's Healthcare of Atlanta said staffing was largely uninterrupted, thanks to employees volunteering to cover shifts (Chang, Miami Herald, 9/11; New York Times, 9/12; McWhirter et al., Wall Street Journal, 9/11; Ellis Nutt, "To Your Health," Washington Post; Baker, "Vitals," Axios, 9/11;  Allen, ABC News, 9/12; Cohen, CNN, 9/11; Hart, Atlanta Journal Constitution, 9/11).

From bombings to hurricanes: How can hospitals prepare for disasters?

Hospitals must be prepared for myriad disasters that can stress health care systems to the breaking point and disrupt delivery of vital health care services.

Our experts have compiled step-by-step procedures for various threats your facility may encounter

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