Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series on the impact of Hurricane Ida on health care facilities, the experiences of health care facilities managers in affected areas, and hurricane preparedness and response.
When Hurricane Ida made landfall in the New Orleans area on August 29 as a Category 4 storm, health care facilities were put to the test. The outcomes for Ochsner Health, the largest health care system in Louisiana, varied, with extensive damage and evacuations at facilities in Raceland, Houma, LaPlace and Luling. Ochsner Health’s largest hospital, Ochsner Medical Center, located just outside of New Orleans, sustained some damage but remained fully operational during and after the hurricane.
John Ferrara, CHFM, CHSP, is the facilities director at the Ochsner Medical Center, where he oversees 3.5 million square feet of facility space across 12 buildings, including the hospital, a clinic and atriums. Ferrara attributes his campus’ successful Hurricane Ida response and recovery to extensive preplanning and a solid communications plan. The facilities managers and supervisors headed up teams in designated areas throughout the campus. That level of organization, he says, ensured that team assignments were clear, no facility had been overlooked and teams could mobilize quickly to address issues as they arose.
“We had teams stationed around as part of preplanning, and we pre-staged damage control equipment — wet vacs, pads to soak up water, mops, buckets, blowers, dehumidifiers — in different areas,” Ferrara says. “We tried to set up the teams in places with the necessary equipment so that the response could be as fast as possible to mitigate any damage.” One facilities staff member was also stationed in a conference room and coordinated with staff by radio to keep track of where people were located and who needed assistance.
Keeping tabs on the evolving situation in real time also helped Ferrara and his staff anticipate emergency measures before, during and after Hurricane Ida. Mark Dupuis, chief of security and emergency preparedness at Ochsner Health, and his team provide weather briefings every four to six hours when there is a storm in the Gulf, Ferrara says.
Ochsner Medical Center also maintained close and ongoing communications with local utility providers, including Entergy and the Jefferson Parish Water Department. “When we start to hit 45-mile-per-hour winds, Entergy knows that they are going to have some issues,” Ferrara says. “So for us, when we approach that wind speed, we switch over to generator power. And that’s not just for hurricanes. It could also be a major thunderstorm.”
Ochsner Medical Center proactively had doubled its emergency generator capacity and installed a well water purification system, but Ferrara notes that this advanced planning around utilities is still essential to maximize those resources. “We came up with a preplan about when to shift over to generator backup power and to our well water system before they failed,” he says. “We stuck to that plan, which really worked out well, because it was not very long after we did the switchover that the hurricane did cause our systems to fail. It was one of our biggest successes because patient care was uninterrupted.”
In addition to knowing when power and water might be lost, Ferrara says communications with the utility providers also meant that he and his teams would have the latest information about when service would likely be restored. “Just being in the dark [about when we could expect services to return] creates a lot of anxiety because people don’t know what’s going on,” he notes. “But we could actually begin to make some recovery plans based on when the electricity or the water service would come back on.”
Ferrara encourages facilities managers to take a close look at areas in their facilities with a single point of failure because it is likely a failure will occur. Identifying those vulnerabilities will then allow for effective planning and preparation. “If there is a backup or a bypass for that piece of equipment that may fail, then have a preplan, including a really good communications plan, and stick to it,” he says.
But emergency plans ultimately depend on the people who can carry them out, Ferrara notes. He says that without teamwork and the resourcefulness of his staff the impacts of Hurricane Ida could have been much more severe. “People were on it, working 16 to 20 hours a day and just taking care of things. All that adrenaline is going, and you’re zooming around. We did this for about four or five days. People here were very resilient.”
The Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) Technical Resources, Assistance Center, and Information Exchange (TRACIE) provides collections of information and resources on communication systems, information sharing, risk communications/emergency public information and warning, and social media in emergency response.