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New Orleans hospitals better prepared for Isaac after chaos of Katrina

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In 2005, Hurricane Katrina – a Category 3 hurricane at landfall - slammed into the coast of southern Louisiana, causing massive flooding in New Orleans after the city’s levees burst.  More than 1,800 people died in the hurricane and flooding that followed – solidifying the storm as one of the deadliest hurricanes in United States history.

Now, seven years later to the day, New Orleans is faced with yet another storm – Hurricane Isaac.  Although it is only ranked as a Category 1 hurricane, the city is not taking any chances this time around, especially when it comes to medical relief.

Hospitals in New Orleans started preparations several days ahead of Isaac’s arrival. In fact, some of the preparations have technically been going on for months.

“Starting in May, as part of our Hurricane Awareness Month, we all review our hurricane plan,” Jennifer Steel, a public information officer for West Jefferson Medical Center, told FoxNews.com.  “Our hospital staffers all sign on, and we're divided up into activation and recovery teams, and we go over what we've pledged to do.  We have a person that's identified as our liaison officer to help us follow the national model for disaster awareness.”

Ochsner Health System, a non-profit health care provider located in and around New Orleans, is keeping all of its hospitals and emergency rooms open during and after the storm to help treat potential patients.  Ochsner, along with other hospitals located in the city, gathered employees and supplies together as soon as there was a risk the storm would head their way.

“We’re going for our normal storm prep,” Warner Thomas, president and CEO of Oschner, told FoxNews.com.  “Over the weekend, we started that whole process – ordering extra supplies, food, pharmaceuticals, fuel for back-up generators.  We then activated our central personnel [Tuesday] night by 11 p.m.  We are basically staffed to run all our facilities, do surgeries, etc.”

Lessons learned from Katrina

According to Thomas, one of the biggest downfalls of hospitals and medical centers during Hurricane Katrina was their inability to sustain themselves after loss of power.  Two of the most important aspects a hospital needs to consider, Thomas said, are air conditioning and water.

“You really need to make sure you have auxiliary power that is going to run your air conditioning and that you have water, in case the water supplies get disrupted,” Thomas said.  “…It allows you to withstand the storm.  That way, if you have utilities interrupted outside of campus, you can continue working.”

Many hospitals during Katrina required outside help from federal agencies in order to continue running their operations.  Some hospitals became flooded or too full and needed to transport patients to other facilities. However, the slow response from FEMA, along with flooding that essentially shut down traditional forms of transportation, took a toll on medical centers.

Because of those oversights years ago, Oschner realized the need for hospitals to have a degree of independence in times of emergency.

“One of the things we can’t afford to do as a private employer – we can’t be in a situation where we have to wait for assistance,” said Norris Yarborough, the assistant vice president of emergency preparedness and response for Oschner.  “Because of our history of flooding, we’ve developed our own search and rescue facilities.  We have 10 flat-bottomed boats, capable of carrying 26 people in each boat, and if they’re stretcher-bound, we can get 10 stretchers in each boat with their caregivers.”

Yaborough explained that if one of its hospitals needs to evacuate, the boats and vehicles can get patients and staff out in just 12 hours, liberating them from relying on state and federal assistance.  

Better prepared for hurricanes

Intense storms such as Isaac can bring about a diverse amount of medical issues for health care providers.  Steel noted that West Jefferson is prepared to handle just about anything.

“You could have flying debris, eye injuries,” Steel said.  “…You could have fires – that's a concern, of course.  You’ll see things like heart attacks from stress.  Any natural disaster is very stressful to the body….Generators can cause serious injuries if not used properly; you have to be absolutely cautious of following the manufacturers recommendations.”

Because of the potential for so many accidents and health conditions, hospitals in New Orleans have much larger staffs on call to treat incoming patients.  According to Thomas, taking care of the hospital’s nurses and doctors – keeping them fed and well-rested – is key to success during times of crisis.

Another important factor when it comes to employees is communication.  Yarborough said that Oschner has invested a great deal in Facebook and Twitter over the years, which has allowed them to keep their staff in the know at all times.

“Our ability to communicate with our employees exactly where we are with the different portions of our emergency plan has been really helpful,” Yarborough said.  “We don’t have a bunch of employees wondering when they’re going to need to come on, how bad it is, etc… We have the ability to put a message on the computer and push it out to cell phones….Dealing with situations such as this where they’re isolated from their families – keeping them informed is huge.”

Not only does Oschner stay in constant contact with its employees, but all of the hospitals coordinate with each other as well – a trait that is somewhat unique to the southern Louisiana health care system.

“We’ll help each other out and share our resources,” Yarborough said.  “For example, if a hospital in our upper parishes got in trouble, and we had the resources, we could ship to them things such as a boat or a generator – and visa versa….Prior to Katrina, hospitals were much more clannish and less likely to come to the table and share.”

Although it took the devastation and downfalls of Katrina to bring about these progressive changes, Yarborough and other health care providers are proud they have been able to learn from past mistakes.

“The fact that we can take that tragedy and grow from it makes me feel really good,” Yarborough said.