By JULIE MINDA
Hurricane Michael tore ashore Oct. 10 in the Florida panhandle with little advance warning that it would pack sustained winds of 155 mph — just 2 mph shy of the monster Category 5 classification.
Hurricane Michael damaged this materials and supplies building on the campus of Bay Medical Center Sacred Heart in Panama City, Fla. The hospital is affiliated with Ascension's Sacred Heart Health System through a joint venture. Bay Medical Center said it evacuated all its patients following the storm to multiple hospitals, including Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola, Fla.
David Goldman/AP Photo
On Oct. 9, as the storm strengthened into a Category 3 hurricane, Ascension's Pensacola-based Sacred Heart Health System discharged the patients it safely could and transferred the remainder — numbering about two dozen inpatients — from Sacred Heart Hospital on the Emerald Coast in Miramar Beach and Sacred Heart Hospital on the Gulf in Port St. Joe to its flagship Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola.
Sacred Heart's Pensacola hospital was outside of the predicted path of Hurricane Michael. The 566-bed hospital kept power and communications capabilities during the storm.
Following the patient evacuations, Sacred Heart Hospital on the Gulf in Gulf County suspended operations and released the majority of its staff members, so they could move inland along with their families. (By then zones of evacuation had been established in Gulf County and adjacent Walton County where the Emerald Coast hospital is located.) The Emerald Coast hospital kept its emergency room open and a skeleton staff stayed on site for the hurricane's duration. Another group was ready to relieve them after the storm abated.
As president of the 76-bed Emerald Coast and the 19-bed Gulf hospitals, Roger Hall oversaw the evacuations and the implementation of the hurricane plan. He said that preparations started in earnest on Oct. 7. The weather system was still a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico, but forecasters were predicting that it would become a hurricane and hit the Florida panhandle at or near Panama City as at least a Category 2 storm — a category defined by sustained winds of from 96 to 110 mph.
The two community hospitals were in the storm's predicted path. To bring down the patient census at the Gulf and Emerald Coast facilities, those facilities stopped admitting new patients Oct. 7.
The Sacred Heart system amped up its facility preparations at its Emerald Coast and Gulf hospitals, holding calls with an internal team specialized in emergency response. On Oct. 8, authorities in the counties where the Emerald Coast and Gulf hospitals are located issued mandatory evacuations along a section of the Gulf Coast.
The Sacred Heart system stayed in contact with local, state, and federal emergency agencies to keep abreast of the accelerating threat level. Hall said that Hurricane Michael intensified quickly as it approached the U.S. shore.
Above and beyond
Mike Burke, the Sacred Heart system's marketing and communications manager, said of the period before, during and after Hurricane Michael, "Our associates across our health system tackled many challenges in providing care to victims of the hurricane, including the vulnerable patients who needed to evacuate. … The response was fantastic."
A patient arrives by air ambulance at Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola, Fla., from Bay Medical Sacred Heart in Panama City, Fla. After Hurricane Michael damaged its campus, Bay Medical transferred 103 patients, including intensive care unit patients, to the Pensacola hospital.
On Oct. 11, Sacred Heart Hospital began accepting an additional 103 inpatients transferred from Bay Medical Sacred Heart, a regional medical center in Panama City, Fla. The facility, which sustained roof, structural and water damage during the hurricane, said it transferred 231 patients in an orderly evacuation after the storm, including 39 intensive care patients. Ascension hospitals in Jacksonville, Fla., and Mobile, Ala., were among hospitals accepting patient transfers from Bay Medical. Bay Medical is affiliated with the Sacred Heart system through a joint venture.
Clinical and support associates from Ascension facilities outside the storm zone were temporarily dispatched to Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola, which was staffing for the peak patient census.
Burke said, "Beyond our clinical staff's re-sponse, other employees have done great work in preparing our facilities for the hurricane and restoring communications and other vital services despite many obstacles."
A skeleton facility management crew rode out the storm at the Gulf hospital, located just 10 miles southeast of Mexico Beach, where Hurricane Michael made first landfall in Florida. (Broad swaths of Mexico Beach were leveled by the storm.) Hall said the members of the crew cleared debris from the hospital property ahead of, and immediately after, the periods of peak wind strength, so that the rubble would not become airborne projectiles.
As Catholic Health World went to press, authorities were attributing at least 35 deaths to the storm, including 25 fatalities in Florida. Estimates are that, including lost economic activity, Hurricane Michael could cost as much as $30 billion.
Sacred Heart's Emerald Coast and Gulf hospitals sustained minor property damage related to water leaks resulting from wind-driven rains. The Emerald Coast hospital had resumed normal operations by Oct. 11, and the Gulf hospital had resumed inpatient care by Oct. 19, returning to normal operations by Oct. 22. Sacred Heart ambulatory sites in four coastal communities sustained damage in the storm and lost power, phones and internet connections. Within a week of the storm, they were beginning to resume services.
Sacred Heart Hospital Pensacola continued normal operations during the storm, escaping the worst of the winds which were farther to the east in Bay, Gulf and Franklin counties, and inland from there, Burke said.
As Catholic Health World went to press, Sacred Heart was continuing to assess the storm's impact on employees. Among staff living in and around hard-hit Port St. Joe, site of the Gulf hospital, Hall said, "There was not a single associate who was not affected in a dramatic way."
He said of the Gulf hospital staff, "The majority of our employees are going through the trauma of the hurricane. … When you look these folks in the eye, you can see their hurt and cautiousness — they don't know what tomorrow will bring." He said especially in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Michael, impacted people were not sure where they would get food, basic staples, lodging and gas.
According to information from Hall and from Burke, Sacred Heart is offering employees short-term and long-term aid through an employee assistance program, including funds for repairing or replacing property as well as emotional and spiritual support. Burke said Sacred Heart was providing portable generators and gasoline to employees who need them as well as assistance in locating temporary housing. The system was deploying members of its landscaping teams to help associates living in Port St. Joe remove tree debris at their homes.
The system's aid extends beyond its employees. Sacred Heart has been partnering with food service vendor TouchPoint Support Services to provide food to community members. That included providing 3,000 lunches to Port St. Joe residents Oct. 18.
How to help affected staff
The Sacred Heart Hospital Foundation of Pensacola, Fla., is accepting online donations for Sacred Heart Hospital staff affected by the hurricane. Donate at givesacredheart.org/donate/. On the site, use the dropdown menu under "Designation" to select “Employee Disaster Relief — Hurricane Michael.”
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