Preparedness pays off as ministry hospitals rally through hurricane

September 15, 2017


Florida and other southeastern U.S. states anxiously prepared for a potential hit from Hurricane Irma, the powerful storm that devastated islands throughout the Caribbean and was projected to hit Florida around Sept. 10. Catholic health systems and facilities were among the many in that state stocking up on supplies, readying their disaster response plans, ensuring staff members' preparedness, keeping in touch with emergency response agencies and securing buildings and equipment against potential damage.

A truck tips in the mud at a construction site in front of CHRISTUS Spohn Hospital Corpus Christi - Shoreline as Hurricane Harvey hits Aug. 25.
Photo by Courtney Sacco/Corpus Christi Caller-Times

"Hurricane Irma is now threatening Florida. … Bon Secours' operations in the St. Petersburg area are prepared to respond. We have already enacted our preparedness plan," Marriottsville, Md.-based Bon Secours Health System said in a statement, echoing similar assurances made by Florida ministries of Ascension and Trinity Health.

The preparations for Irma came just weeks after Hurricane Harvey brought devastation to the southeastern coast of Texas beginning Aug. 25. That storm brought the heaviest tropical downpour in U.S. history, spurring severe flooding throughout coastal communities. As Catholic Health World went to press, governmental and news sources were reporting that at least 65 people in the region had died, more than 33,000 had sought refuge in Texas shelters and more than 185,000 homes had been destroyed or damaged.

Catholic health systems and facilities located in and around the flood zones worked to ensure the safety and care of patients, staff and — in some cases — community members. Ernie Sadau, president and chief executive of Irving, Texas-based CHRISTUS Health, and Michael Covert, chief executive of Catholic Health Initiatives' Houston-based Texas division, said because of diligent preparations before Harvey hit, their facilities were able to respond effectively to swiftly changing circumstances during and after the storm.

Houston Hurricane Map

About a dozen of CHRISTUS' 41 hospitals are located along the Texas Gulf coast, where the hurricane and follow-on tropical depression unleashed torrential rains measuring more than 50 inches in some locales.

Flood weary
Southeast Texas has weathered multiple hurricanes and floods in recent memory; lessons from past storms enabled CHRISTUS and CHI St. Luke's Health to gear up quickly and effectively for Harvey, said Sadau and Covert. Both systems set up command centers in their system offices days before the storm made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane. Their hospitals in the storm's projected path also set up on-site command centers. These teams coordinated internal and external communications, stayed in touch with emergency responders, mobilized equipment and supplies, monitored patients' health status and needs, arranged staffing and ensured vital services operated without interruption.

Both systems were able to maintain appropriate staff-to-patient ratios throughout the storm, thanks to emergency staffing plans. Each facility in the path of the storm brought in an initial group of staff to prepare for and hunker down during the hurricane. These staff members came ready for a multiple night stay. The scheduled relief teams came several days later.

Harvey made landfall on the evening of Aug. 25 near Rockport, Texas. The storm stalled over the Texas coast, inundating Houston with nearly 52 inches of rain over about five days, according to The Associated Press.

CHI St. Luke's Health has eight hospitals in the greater Houston area. CHI Texas' Covert said six of CHI St. Luke's hospitals remained operational throughout the storm and flooding, with only minor power and phone issues that had no impact on the delivery of patient care.

Two CHI Texas sites closed: CHI St. Luke's Health – the Vintage Hospital in Houston and CHI St. Luke's Health – Sugar Land Hospital in Sugar Land, both within the greater metropolitan Houston area. Vintage evacuated its 29 inpatients Aug. 28 due to damage to the facility and concerns about floodwaters threatening to encroach upon its power plant. Sugar Land evacuated its 26 inpatients Aug. 29 due to concerns with flooding from the nearby Brazos River. Patients were evacuated to other CHI campuses, including CHI St. Joseph Health in Bryan, Texas. Another area site, CHI St. Luke's Health — Patients Medical Center in Pasadena, Texas, remained open but stopped accepting new patients after floodwaters rose several days after the storm. Multiple CHI St. Luke's clinics and other outpatient sites also closed due to the hurricane and floods. All CHI St. Luke's facilities reopened by Sept. 5.

CHI St. Luke's facilities sustained no significant damage. Covert noted that most were built on higher ground than many Houston structures, and so the hospitals became "islands" at the height of the flood. The facilities that stayed open remained accessible after the hurricane's retreat and saw emergency department volumes increase after the storm passed.

Covert said that supplies of essential materials, including food, water, blood and oxygen, held steady at the CHI St. Luke's sites during the storm and in its aftermath, but supply lines were threatened at times because of impassible roads throughout Houston. He said hospital supply chain staff and their vendors got creative, relying on boats in some cases to get supplies to the hospitals. No CHI St. Luke's site ran out of any essential supplies, Covert said.

An evacuation crew from the Catastrophic Medical Operations Center transports evacuees from CHI St. Luke's Health – the Vintage Hospital in Houston to a staging area outside the nearest floodwaters. The Catastrophic Medical Operations Center is a collaboration of Harris County, Texas, emergency responders and health care providers.

People movers
Located just 30 miles southeast of the town where Harvey made initial U.S. landfall, Corpus Christi got about 10 inches of rain during the storm, and the area saw some flooding and damage from high winds.

The CHRISTUS Spohn Health System includes six hospitals in the Corpus Christi area, three of them in Corpus Christi proper. The day before Harvey hit Texas, CHRISTUS had closed its CHRISTUS Spohn Hospital Corpus Christi–Memorial campus because of flooding and power outage risk (the facility sustained only minor damage in the hurricane). The facility transferred its 11 inpatients about a mile away to sister hospital CHRISTUS Spohn Hospital Corpus Christi–Shoreline.

Many physician practices and other outpatient sites for the six-hospital Spohn system also preemptively closed and many of the hospitals cancelled elective procedures. CHRISTUS Spohn Hospital Corpus Christi–South transferred 13 babies by ground transportation to the neonatal intensive care unit at CHRISTUS' Children's Hospital of San Antonio.

Five Spohn hospitals — all of them in the Corpus Christi area — remained operational during Harvey. Sadau said they were the only hospitals in Corpus Christi that stayed open throughout the storm. All patients at the five hospitals remained safe throughout the storm and in its aftermath; the hospitals sustained no significant damage; and the floodwaters did not enter any of the buildings, Sadau said. Some CHRISTUS outpatient sites in the Corpus Christi area sustained minor damage.

By Sept. 7, when Catholic Health World went to press, the five-hospital CHRISTUS Santa Rosa Health System in San Antonio had received more than 90 patients, transferred from evacuating hospitals, primarily in the Houston area. Critical care nurses and other clinicians from CHRISTUS' Texarkana, Texas, and southern Louisiana region had traveled to San Antonio to augment the hospitals' taxed clinical teams.

Fresh challenges
As Harvey traveled east up the Gulf Coast of Texas, it dumped about 30 inches of rain on Beaumont and Port Arthur, east of Houston, causing significant flooding. Prior to the storm, CHRISTUS St. Elizabeth Hospital in Beaumont had transferred 37 adult inpatients and 11 neonatal intensive care unit patients by air to other CHRISTUS facilities. Sadau said CHRISTUS St. Elizabeth and Port Arthur's CHRISTUS St. Mary Hospital successfully sheltered associates and patients, and remained operational. CHRISTUS St. Mary and an outpatient site had minor flooding.

Despite Beaumont losing water supply during flooding, CHRISTUS St. Elizabeth was able to draw on other water sources and remain operational, returning to normal operations by Sept. 5. CHRISTUS reported that late the week of Aug. 28 it received an influx of people seeking care for storm-related injuries. As of Sept. 5, four CHRISTUS emergency centers in southeast Texas — including the one at CHRISTUS St. Elizabeth — had treated 1,400 patients in six days.

In the last days of August and first days of September, floodwaters were receding in Houston, and the area's CHRISTUS and CHI sites were returning to normal operations. Many of their outpatient sites had reopened, but the falling water levels were introducing new challenges, according to Sadau and Covert. Both men were expecting significant numbers of patients to seek medical care at CHRISTUS and CHI facilities' emergency departments as roads became more passable.

'Heroes' on staff at ministry facilities tend to patients, colleagues

Executives at ministry hospitals throughout Texas said it was commonplace before, during and after Hurricane Harvey to see associates put their own needs aside to ensure patients' needs were met. Staff provided both clinical care and comfort during a stressful time.

CHRISTUS Santa Rosa Health System in San Antonio, which is about 200 miles west of Houston, received evacuees from hospitals in Hurricane Harvey's path before the storm made landfall. Over several hours' time, CHRISTUS Santa Rosa Hospital–Medical Center's patient census doubled to 120. The facility's staff "did whatever it took to care for the increased needs of our patients and each other," according to Asha Rodriguez, outgoing administrator of the facility. (Rodriguez has accepted a president position at another CHRISTUS hospital.)

Rodriguez wrote in an update message that "the days have been long but full of heart-warming and heart-breaking moments. Our associates have dried tears, cried tears, prayed, laughed and fellowshipped with the many patients and families in our four walls."

She wrote that the staff had "extended themselves in so many selfless ways … from taking on more patient care assignments, bringing in food for each other, spending more time with families or working in different roles — nothing was off limits."

The San Antonio associates were among the many ministry associates at CHRISTUS and Catholic Health Initiatives facilities responding in a self-sacrificing way to the needs of patients impacted by Hurricane Harvey, according to executives with those health systems, which have a presence along the southeast Texas coast and in communities that helped evacuees.

Ernie Sadau, president and chief executive of Irving, Texas-based CHRISTUS Health, said, "Many associates were in our hospitals for days, and their priority was to care for our patients during the storm — they put their own lives at risk to provide care during the storm." He said he has heard countless stories of CHRISTUS staff who remained focused on caring for patients, even while their own homes were filling up with floodwater. "I am humbled" by such actions, he said, "and yet filled with pride in these associates." CHRISTUS has about a dozen hospitals in coastal communities in Texas and Louisiana.

Michael Covert, chief executive of Catholic Health Initiatives' Houston-based Texas division, said the large number of staff who came in to care for patients, whether or not they were scheduled to work — and even as they were worried for their own homes and families — "was a tremendous statement to their commitment." CHI's Texas division includes CHI St. Luke's Health, which has eight hospitals in the greater Houston area.

Valerie Howell is chief nurse executive and vice president of CHI St. Luke's Health – the Vintage Hospital in Houston. Howell said that hospital staff's teamwork ensured the safe evacuation of 29 of Vintage's patients and six visitors Aug. 28 when flooding from the Aug. 25 hurricane cut off road access to the hospital, and floodwaters threatened to swamp the hospital's power plant.

Within two hours of the decision to evacuate on Aug. 28, Vintage's staff had coordinated with local emergency responders to transport patients across the parking lot via vans to waiting boats — or via evacuation trucks with high ground clearance — to a staging area where ambulances arrived to take the patients to a sister CHI hospital, CHI St. Joseph Regional Health Center in Bryan, Texas.

Howell said despite having already worked long hours in the hurricane, clinicians volunteered during the evacuation to accompany patients to their destination. She said many staff worked behind the scenes, including by preparing food for patients and staff or trying to help stave off floodwaters before the evacuation.

Howell said that staff who tended to patients during the storm, prior to the evacuation, and those who remained after the closure to maintain the facility were under tremendous strain. "Some had husbands or wives home alone with their children during the flooding, but couldn't get to them" because they were tending patients and because of impassible roads.

Some broke down crying under the emotional burden, Howell said.

"Times like these are very difficult," she said, "but we've had many unsung heroes here" helping ease the difficult times.



Ministry systems aid employees impacted by Harvey

With facilities located along Hurricane Harvey's path, CHRISTUS Health and Catholic Health Initiatives' Texas division had numerous employees who were impacted by the storm.

Many employees lost everything in the storm, the systems reported. Many staff need temporary housing, help with flood remediation, assistance with accessing aid, counseling and many other forms of help.

CHRISTUS and CHI have been identifying employees in need and determining how best to assist them. Both systems are enabling staff system wide to donate paid time off so other people affected by the storm can take time away from work to deal with the hurricane's effects. The systems also are allowing staff to make payroll deductions to assist their southeast Texas colleagues.

According to CHI's Texas division, that subsystem has identified more than 500 employees impacted by the storm, with needs ranging from minor car repairs to complete replacement of a home. CHI Texas estimates there is about $1 million in identified needs so far. The division has set up an emergency relief fund to meet these post-storm needs. The division has received more than 600 gifts to the Hurricane Harvey relief fund, with donations coming from CHI staff, executives and others throughout the U.S. The CHI system's mission and ministry fund also is providing donations to benefit staff members.

CHRISTUS says it has received more than 700 applications for immediate and emergency support. In most cases, the applications are from employees with critical needs. Frequently the CHRISTUS aid is serving as a stopgap, while associates are waiting for other forms of aid, according to CHRISTUS.

Information on contributing to CHRISTUS' and CHI's relief funds is available at


Ministry systems and facilities provide care, dollars, other support to storm victims

Before, during and after Hurricane Harvey, Catholic health care providers extended support to people impacted by the storm, in a wide variety of ways.

Some of the responses included:

  • Facilities within St. Louis-based Ascension took in evacuees transferred from hospitals in Harvey's path. Four Seton Healthcare Family hospitals received 36 transfer patients as of Sept. 11. The transfers came by ground and plane from Texas coastal communities including Corpus Christi, Victoria, Bay City, El Campo, Columbus, Houston, Beaumont and Eagle Lake.
  • Ascension's Seton Fund collected donations from Ascension associates, channeling the gifts to the Archdiocese of Austin, as part of a shared fundraiser among 15 Catholic dioceses in Texas. Catholic Charities USA will use the funds to aid people harmed by the hurricane.
  • More than 500 Dignity Health associates and community members donated about $160,000 and Dignity added $100,000 to that donations. The funds went to the American Red Cross and Catholic Charities to support people harmed by the storm.
  • Mary Bird Perkins – Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center in Baton Rouge, La., offered its cancer care services to oncology patients from Houston, including those at University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Many of the Mary Bird Perkins cancer center's oncologists were trained at Houston's University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Many Mary Bird Perkins oncologists maintain close relationships with physicians at MD Anderson.


Copyright © 2017 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.

Copyright © 2017 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.