Rounding, September/October 2017

QUESTION: How would you characterize your hospital’s preparations for Hurricane Harvey to meet facilities and staffing needs?

Baptist Hospitals of Southeast Texas
David Parmer
David Parmer

Living on the coast in Southeast Texas, hurricanes are always at the forefront of our disaster planning. With direct impact from Hurricane Rita in 2005 and Hurricane Ike in 2008, preparedness is ongoing for our facility. We have a well-defined disaster and severe weather plan. All employees are educated about these disaster plans as part of their new employee orientation. Our disaster plan includes Teams A, B and C with the responsibilities of each team clearly defined. Every employee is aware of their role in the disaster plan and understands the team they have been assigned.

Baptist Hospitals of Southeast Texas understands that health care is a critical part of the infrastructure of our community, which means that many times the employees say farewell to their family as they seek shelter and safety away from the path of the storm. Although staffing is vital to a successful disaster plan, the viability of the facility is also top priority. From experiencing hurricanes in the past, Baptist Hospitals of Southeast Texas has invested heavily in establishing protection for our patients, staff, and physicians. With storm shutters for every window, in-house generators, a non-potable water well and supplies, food and fuel on hand for a minimum of five days, Baptist Hospitals of Southeast Texas is prepared to shelter in place to provide health care services to those in need. Vendors and contractors are on stand-by, many housed within the facility, to assure that repairs begin immediately following the aftermath of the storm. A well thought out plan combined with vendors, suppliers and faithful employees will ensure a successful outcome.

This weather event was unlike any we had experienced before. Normally a hurricane blows in and out quickly leaving heavy destruction in a short amount of time. This system, however, decided to stall over Southeast Texas a downfall of rain in excess of 55 inches in less than five days. This vast amount of water flooded homes, businesses and even the water treatment plant for the City of Beaumont. Beaumont Texas at that point became of city with no safe drinking water. There would be no anticipation or preparedness in the disaster plan to adequately address a major city infrastructure failure. Quickly a creative water plan was devised to provide water from a neighboring community. With this unsuspected challenge, opportunities are being investigated to put a plan in place in the event the city is faced with this in the future.

Memorial Hermann Health System
Chuck Stokes
Chuck Stokes
CEO & President

When it comes to major natural disasters like this, Memorial Hermann has the advantage of hindsight. We have successfully weathered two terrible storms in the past. Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 inundated our flagship Texas Medical Center campus with floodwater and forced the evacuation of hundreds of patients while Hurricane Ike in 2008 knocked out electricity across the Greater Houston region and led to a completely different predicament - a surge of trauma cases post-storm. So, it’s safe to say that we have some hard-won experience in managing catastrophes.

Long before Harvey became a headline, our emergency preparedness team was keeping close tabs on the storm, providing regular updates to leadership about potential threats and jumpstarting the process to prepare our facilities and our staff. As soon as it became clear that the storm had the potential to create devastating and widespread flooding in Greater Houston, we immediately fell back on our playbook forged by the lessons learned from other storms. We made sure that the backup generators at every campus had enough fuel to operate for days without electricity and cleared any blocked drains surrounding our facilities. Houston has suffered two devastating floods in recent years, and we know that the roads become impassable until the floodwaters recede. Given the worst case scenario that Harvey could cripple the city for days, we stocked every hospital with four days’ worth of food, water, medicine and other supplies to ensure that we could continue providing uninterrupted care to our patients and a safe environment for our employees and physicians.

To ensure that we had adequate staffing during the storm, we encouraged all employees who were reporting for their regular shifts on Friday and Saturday to bring along an extra bag of personal essentials - clothes, medications and toiletries - and prepare to ride it out at the hospital. As the storm made landfall and began to meander its way inland, we declared a weather emergency -- a designation that requires staff to remain in place.

The response from our employees was nothing short of heroic. A total of 5,073 people worked throughout the storm, putting in long hours to dedicate themselves fully to those who needed care, even as the floodwaters crept into some of their own homes and forced some of their families to evacuate. Some employees braved the torrential rain and rising floodwaters to find a way to work. One ICU nurse from our Memorial Hermann Southeast Hospital walked seven miles through floodwater with a suitcase perched atop his head. Two nurses rowed into Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center on an inflatable kayak as bewildered bystanders called out to them to turn around. A UTHealth neurosurgeon affiliated with Memorial Hermann Mischer Neurosciences Institute rescued 100 neighbors from their homes, capsized his fishing boat and had to be rescued himself, and still came to work that day to care for patients. These are just a few of the many examples of courage and valor by our employees and physicians who went above and beyond to serve Houston during its greatest time of need.

As the storm worsened and the flooding became more severe, we took several proactive steps to ensure the continued safety of our employees, affiliated physicians and patients. We made the decision early on — and in coordination with neighboring hospitals — to deploy the flood gates at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center and TIRR Memorial Hermann to protect our infrastructure. We also decided out of an abundance of caution to evacuate Memorial Hermann Sugar Land Hospital, which is situated not far from the banks of the Brazos River. We decided to move patients as a precautionary measure to prevent a situation where the rising river cut off access to the facility for several days or longer. A total of 75 patients were safely and seamlessly transferred to a sister campus, Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital, and a team of Memorial Hermann leaders remained at the Sugar Land hospital to monitor conditions and ensure that we were able to reopen as soon as it was safe to do so.

Harvey brought life in the Greater Houston area to a complete standstill for several days straight, but Memorial Hermann on the whole remained open and operational throughout, a herculean effort amid the worst natural disaster to strike our region. Our System provided respites of calm and healing in a raging sea of floodwater lapping just outside the doors. We were able to administer much-needed doses of compassionate care throughout Harvey and immediately after Harvey in part because, for years, we have been diligently training our people and preparing our facilities for a monster storm like this. But I give even more credit to the countless individuals across our System who showed remarkable selflessness in putting the needs of our community above everything else. Their work was truly lifesaving.

Harvey will be remembered for the magnitude of the destruction that it caused, with flooding and damage reported in nearly every neighborhood throughout our region, from Katy to Kingwood, from Dickinson to downtown. No region was spared. As one of the region’s largest employers, we have employees who live in every affected area and many of them suffered devastating losses, with floodwaters surging through their homes, swallowing their cars and leaving their children’s schools in ruins. Even as the storm was still pummeling Houston, we knew we needed to do something to ensure that every single one of our employees was safe and accounted for. Almost immediately, we launched an ambitious effort to survey all 25,000+ of our employees to make sure that they were in a safe place and had a roof over their heads. We expected to hear some sobering statistics, but what we found was distressing. More than 10 percent of our employees reported being displaced from their homes and hundreds more said they needed transportation. That’s a staggering number. At Memorial Hermann, we like to think of ourselves as family, and when one member of our family hurts, we all hurt.

Without hesitation, we began to compile together an array of resources to help our employees who were hardest hit by the storm get back on their feet. We developed a payroll advance system from scratch to provide affected staff with an immediate influx of cash up to $2,000 per person to help them jumpstart their recoveries. We also disbursed grants of up to $300 per person to provide some financial aid for any immediate needs they may have, such as temporary lodging. We established the Memorial Hermann Harvey Relief Fund for Employees, and in just a few weeks, the newly created philanthropic resource has grown to more than $6 million, thanks to a gracious allocation from the System Board and countless generous donations from our own staff, affiliated physicians and business partners. Applications for assistance from this fund are already pouring in.

In addition, we secured discounts for lodging and transportation to help those whose homes flooded or whose cars were submerged in water.

Lastly, we opened a new channel within our internal social media site that created a forum for Memorial Hermann employees to connect directly with each other and offer personalized assistance. Employees immediately flocked to the site to post their offers of help. Many offered to give their colleagues rides to and from work. Some offered to run errands for their coworkers, buy groceries, cook dinner, wash laundry or watch their children while they mucked out flooded houses. A few even offered to foster the dogs and cats of employees who had been displaced from their homes and couldn’t keep their pets in their temporary lodging. In one of the most touching gestures I saw, several employees offered up their own homes to any Memorial Hermann employee who needed a place to stay. I always knew our people were compassionate and kind-hearted, and the outpouring of support I saw among our staff after the storm has reaffirmed my belief in the genuine goodness of the people who work for this organization.

Yet, we realize that for many of our employees, the road to recovery is just beginning. Harvey was a story of epic proportions. The rain stopped falling and the floodwaters receded, but the consequences are far from over. The rebuilding process will be long and slow, pockmarked by frustration and sadness. As an organization going forward, we need to understand that our employees still need time and space to heal and recover from this tragedy. We need to ensure that we continue to display the same spirit of compassion and caring for our own affected employees that they show every day to our patients. And we need to continue to provide our staff with whatever support they need to get through this tragedy, not only in the days and weeks to come, but also months and years from now.