Hospitals Tune Disaster Plans in Wake of Hurricanes

Affect of storms on coastal hospitals causes unaffected facilities to reexamine their own concerns

After seeing how emergency plans failed at New Orleans hospitals during Hurricane Katrina, local hospital officials are taking a second look at their own disaster plans.

“All of us in safety have been fascinated by seeing what’s going on in light of Katrina,” said Sue Grace, director of safety for Parkview Health.

David LeMonte, chief operating officer of St. Joseph Hospital, agrees. “It was very sobering. I kept thinking, ‘What if that were my hospital? What if that was me down there?’ ” he said.

Among the many topics they are discussing:

- At least 45 deaths at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans, a private 317-bed hospital owned by the nation’s second-largest hospital chain, Tenet Healthcare Corp. Ventilators, dialysis machines and cardiac monitors failed when the hospital’s entire electrical system shut down.

- At Charity Hospital in New Orleans, patients and staff lived on canned fruit cocktail and consumed every last drop of drinkable water. Dehydration became such a problem that staff began giving each other intravenous fluids to keep going.

- Staff at University Hospital in New Orleans took in hundreds of people from the community while continuing to care for 110 very ill patients. Elevators didn’t work. Food and water was rationed. Ventilators had to be hand-operated around the clock to keep patients alive. Doctors used flashlights to check on patients. When evacuation was first attempted, out-of-control members of the public shot at the rescue helicopters.

- Sixty-five patients in Touro Infirmary in New Orleans were taken to the roof for evacuation. When it didn’t occur that day, doctors kept patients on the roof because the situation was better than inside the sweltering building.

“It’s very difficult to evacuate hospitals. We’re built to keep patients safe and secure inside,” Grace said.

But John Braeckel, director of hospital planning for the Indiana State Department of Health, said full evacuation plans should be a part of hospitals’ preparedness, whether it’s for natural or man-made disasters.

“There needs to be an evacuation hospital in each (state Homeland Security) district,” a facility where other hospitals could move their patients.

After Sept. 11, 2001, the state Department of Homeland Security divided Indiana into 10 districts, with 17 hospitals in District III, which encompasses Fort Wayne and surrounding counties.

Every hospital has been asked to look at their “surge capacity,” the greatest number of patients they could accommodate in an emergency. But more than just beds, they must take inventory of respirators, dialysis machines and other life-saving equipment.

None of the local hospitals has done a large evacuation drill. St. Joe evacuated one floor recently after the accidental discharge of a fire extinguisher. “We have not done a mock evacuation drill at St. Joe, but we’re about to,” LeMonte said.

A scenario requiring a full-scale evacuation “is not very real in this community,” said Lutheran CEO Tom Miller. “It would have to be a devastating tornado, and our buildings are all brick.”

Grace said Parkview had completed an evacuation drill of one floor but said more extensive drills might be considered for the future.

Lutheran Hospital has a surge capacity of 100 additional patients and St. Joe about 40. Parkview could accommodate 40 easily and about 100 in a serious emergency.

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