By Mary Mayhew
Hurricane season is officially here. Since June 1, there have already been four named tropical storms, and last month forecasters raised their estimates for the Atlantic hurricane season.
The best estimates for this season are 18 named storms, producing nine hurricanes.
As health care providers with a commitment to remain open and accessible to deliver safe, high-quality, 24/7 care to anyone who needs it, hospitals are unique in the health care ecosystem. While prioritizing the health and safety of their patients and staff, hospitals do everything possible to stay open, available, and operational before, during, and after major storms.
That capacity doesn’t happen by chance. The availability of care 365 days a year, no matter the hour of the day or night, for anyone who needs it, is the result of intensive, long-term planning and major financial investments in infrastructure, human resources, supplies, and operations.
FHA surveyed hospitals in 2022 about their hurricane season preparedness activities and found that hospitals have taken precautionary measures to safeguard water supplies, reduce the risk of flooding, and protect emergency power systems before the start of hurricane season. They have also created mitigation strategies to secure resource and supply chain needs before a storm’s landfall.
All hospitals, no matter their size or location, have an operational, comprehensive, and all-hazards emergency management plan. Such plans are a legal requirement of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Agency for Health Care Administration. These plans reflect regulatory changes and requirements and new best practices in health care emergency management, as well as lessons learned from the response to previous crises. County emergency management officials review these plans annually for comprehensiveness and accuracy, and hospitals are required to conduct at least two exercises a year to test, drill, and practice their plans with community partners to identify any areas of needed improvement and to ensure their teams understand how to operationalize the plan in an actual emergency.
When a major storm threatens, we have the advantage of foresight. We know when storms are brewing, and we have models to predict where they may hit. Based on this modeling, hospitals activate their emergency response plans including their activation of command centers. In the best interests of patient safety and care, evacuation is not generally the default decision. However, sometimes the decision to evacuate and transfer patients to higher ground ahead of storm landfall is the best action. When forecasting models predicted that Hurricane Ian would make landfall in Tampa, for example, some hospitals in that region decided to transfer patients before the storm made landfall, following the guidance of local and state officials, and based on the direction of their emergency response plans. This was the prudent decision based on weather models and the prioritization of patient care and safety. Evacuating after landfall would have been much more treacherous.
Yet, forecasting models aren’t perfect. When Ian took a different path than predicted, hospitals in areas that took a direct hit had to respond in real-time. Hospitals in Lee County, for example, needed to transfer patients to other facilities across the state when the public utility infrastructure, including the electrical grid and water supply, went down after Ian significantly impacted the region. Ensuring continuous, safe patient care was the prevailing principle. Their emergency response plans governed those transfers, and hospitals acted based on practiced and known protocols with local, state, and federal response partners.
In addition to response plans, hospitals are proactive in their capital investments to strengthen and harden their infrastructure and physical plants against potentially damaging wind, rain, or other natural forces. They have replaced roofing, relocated critical systems to higher floors, elevated parking lots, erected water barriers, built on-site wells, and installed impact-resistant windows.
Crises can’t be avoided. They can only be anticipated and planned for. Hospitals are doing their part in creating, implementing, and practicing a robust emergency response to whatever comes. They have repeatedly proven their reliability and resiliency in crisis after crisis. And they’ll do so again.
Mary Mayhew is President and CEO, Florida Hospital Association.