How Do Hospitals Prepare for Hurricanes?

Hurricanes are a unique kind of disaster, in that they provide advance notice of their arrival, but no specifics. The unpredictability of the hurricane's path, its strength, its speed and its after-effects make it difficult to know how and when to prepare.

Healthcare providers, however, don't have the luxury of taking a 'wait and see' approach. With their obligation to care for their vulnerable patients, they must take a conservative -- but compassionate -- approach. 

Hospital Operations During a Major Weather Event

Prior to Hurricane Irma, hospitals in the Florida Keys, who were aware that they would experience severe storm effects,  transported some of their patients on the National Guard's C-130 aircraft and discharged other patients who were deemed ready -- so that they could make their own evacuation plans. Other hospitals in South Florida transported patients via ground to other facilities in their network. If the organization's management determines the conditions will be too dangerous for staff and patients during the storm, they close their doors. Larger facilities in affected areas often remain open for the inevitable emergency situations that arise during a major weather event.

Many pregnant women who are near their due date, as well as individuals with chronic conditions like severe asthma, don't want to be without access to a hospital. Often they will  arrange for shelter at a hospital. There are also many individuals who suffer injuries while preparing for the storm: falling off ladders or cutting themselves while boarding up their homes. Needless to say, there will also be a spike in those needing medical care after the hurricane.

The hospital must also make its own preparations, put up shutters, refuel generators, plan for backup phone and internet connections, inventory food and water, remove debris and other loose items that may become a hazard in gale force winds.  The staff must also be allowed to make their personal preparations. While nurses, physicians, technicians and administrative staff are absolutely critical in disaster situations, they also have their own homes, family, friends and pets to look after.

Staffing logistics are complicated, with various shifts coordinating when to take care of personal preparations and when to get ready for the medical work. Some facilities opt to shelter in place. Staff working during the storm are encouraged to bring spouses, children or even pets to the hospital's conference center so that they know their family is safe as they work. Nurses are often required to work long hours and extra shifts during hurricanes. Knowing that family is safe is a huge relief.

Communication with patients and the community is paramount at such times. The entire community must know of the hospital's status before, during and after the storm, as well as the best way to contact the facility during an emergency.  Patients will want to know if elective and semi-elective surgeries will still be scheduled; families will want to know how best to care for loved ones who are in the hospital, and emergency services will want clear communication lines, since hospital needs are a first priority.

With all the focus on getting through the storm, we can sometimes forget that after the storm has passed, the hard work really begins: ongoing care, recovery and repair -- all without missing a beat.

Areas with increased medical staffing needs: Texas, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina