When the Next Hurricane Hits

The hospitals of the metro area plan to be ready for the next big one. Some have dug wells and bought satellite phones and erected their own antennas, and have stockpiled food and medicine in advance of the next hurricane to hit this city.

The lead front-page article in Sunday’s Times-Picayune focuses on steps the various medical centers have taken to make sure that the chaotic situation that developed after Katrina’s winds and the subsequent flooding will not occur again. Previously, even though all hospitals had disaster drills, no one thought such a catastrophe could really happen.

There are no unbelievers this time.

Some hospital administrators say they have not ruled out evacuation, but most still plan to stay open to some degree. Elective surgeries will be cancelled the moment a hurricane even hints at choosing our city, and patients such as intensive-care babies and high-risk pregnant mothers will be moved northward.

In the 21 months since Katrina, hospitals have had their people busy reinforcing their buildings against wind and water. West Jefferson Medical Center on the West Bank has raised its generators 20 feet above sea level, and has dug two wells to supply drinking water in the event the parish water system fails. On the North Shore, St. Tammany Parish Hospital installed windows guaranteed to take winds up to 145 mph. Tulane Hospital and Clinic in Downtown New Orleans spent truckloads of money flood-proofing facilities where the emergency generators are stored. Tulane bought a rooftop antenna that can be removed prior to a storm and set up afterwards.

Touro Infirmary in the Uptown area has built a command center equipped with satellite phones and radios where leaders can plan strategy in the wake of a disaster.

Prior to Katrina, we’re told, most medical centers in the area stockpiled enough supplies for 3 to 5 days. Since that proved woefully insufficient, they’re now going for a week or more. Ochsner Foundation Hospital–which has taken over the old Baptist Memorial Hospital and Kenner Regional and several others, and is now the largest provider of medical services in the region–plans to have two weeks of supplies available. Children’s Hospital in Uptown will have three weeks’ worth.

The only hospital announcing a full-evacuation is River Oaks Psychiatric Hospital in the River Ridge-Metairie area. Patients and staff will relocate to a psychiatric hospital in Memphis.

When these issues were being discussed a year ago, some medical people warned that doctors and nurses would not be willing to stay through a hurricane after what happened at Baptist Memorial in New Orleans. The attorney general has accused a doctor and two nurses of euthanizing a number of patients as the floodwaters rose and the situation deteriorated. No charges have been filed, however, and the medical community has closed ranks around these women.

These days, hospital administrators indicate they are encountering no resistance from their staffs concerning hurricane duty as the season begins next week.

Leaders of the Metropolitan Hospital Council say members of the medical community have participated in drills to plan their coordination in the event of a hurricane. When a storm appears headed this way, hospitals around the state will go to a website and post the number of available beds so patients can be brought that way.

Cynthia Matherne, regional coordinator for the MHC, told the newspaper, “Most of the hospitals have taken steps to harden their facilities.” Harden? That’s what she said. “They certainly are planning to stay in place for a longer period of time. A lot has been done in the nearly two years since Katrina.”