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Memorial Hospital bright light for community after Katrina

Gulfport — After Hurricane Katrina passed through August 29, the only visible lights shining brightly as darkness fell in the southwestern part of this city were from Memorial Hospital at Gulfport.

Memorial Hospital had instituted disaster preparedness plans honed from the lessons of past hurricanes. There were four days of supplies stored including enough diesel to power the entire hospital. A designated hurricane team of 620 employees including health professionals was available to provide care to existing patients and those injured by the storm.

Maintenance workers deployed throughout the large hospital began emergency repairs even before the last winds of Katrina blew through. The hospital escaped the widespread flooding south of them. There were windows blown out and damage to exterior walls, but the building was quickly re-sealed.

Seeing the light

But when darkness came, a new flood came — refugees from the storm. Local residents came out of trees and out of the water, walking away from damaged or destroyed homes. Most had no supplies or extra clothes. Many were injured. With roads blocked by debris, they also had nowhere to go after being treated at the hospital.

“Monday night people in the area saw our lights,” said Diane Gallagher, director of community and corporate relations for Memorial Hospital at Gulfport. “I walked down by the railroad tracks and saw that as the wind started dying down, people were coming out of the trees and water walking towards us. People were walking from all directions coming here. It was chilling to see so many people in the emergency department who were cold, wet and cut. That was our first clue as to the real damage outside of this building.

“We got them through the emergency department, got them blankets, started feeding them, and then realized we had nowhere to discharge people. They had lost everything, their homes, cars, etc. And because the streets were impassible, we had no way to get them to shelters.”

Memorial Hospital responded by starting the “village.” A large open area inside of the hospital was turned into an emergency shelter. While it did put an extra burden on the supplies, hospital staffers were 100% behind helping the storm survivors by passing out medicine, bandaging their wounds, and even sharing their personal clothes.

“We had about 200 people in the village by Tuesday night,” said Gary Marchand, Memorial Hospital’s president and CEO. “We had 200 residents we were sheltering, feeding and clothing as best we could. Diane found old boxes of Memorial t-shirts left over from hospital picnics. We were giving out whatever we could find. Some employees who had brought changes of clothes were giving them to the people in the village. We also set up a pharmacy by the village to take care of those folks.”

In earlier hurricanes, the hospital had learned that it wasn’t a good idea to allow staff to bring their family members to shelter during a hurricane because it put so much pressure on the hospital’s emergency supplies. But now the hospital population had swelled by hundreds.

Sinking in

In the first few days after the storm there were very few communications available with the outside world including law enforcement and relief workers. Even FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and MEMA (Mississippi Emergency Management Agency) were unable to communicate.

As it sank in just how very devastating the hurricane had been, administrators at the hospital started to worry that the outside world might think the public hospital had been destroyed. Would trucks arrive in time to re-supply diesel generators using 3,500 to 4,000 gallons of diesel per day? Would food and medicine stores be restocked?

Going on about day two, we became quite concerned because communications externally were very limited,” Marchand said. “We at that time had no news of the outside world other than people coming into emergency room, and police or firemen coming in. The information we received caused great concern because our suppliers were in affected areas like New Orleans, Mobile and Birmingham. We were hoping someone knew we were still here.”

The DMAT (Disaster Medical Assistance Team) from FEMA showed up two days after the storm.

“When those two big trucks started backing in, we realized someone knew we were still here,” Marchand said. “The Air National Guard showed up day two, and were heroes in helping us get those people to other shelters. But we had people still coming in. We were still housing and sheltering 200, and knew more people were coming in. Wednesday night at one in the morning we finally got some buses here and were able to get people to shelters the county and state had set up. But the people kept coming. They had no where to go because of the destruction. So we kept refilling the village.”

At the same time, the emergency department was treating 400 to 600 people per day, nearly triple the normal traffic.

No house, no meds

One urgent need of many of the storm refugees was refilling prescription medicines. In the first five days after the storm, the hospital filled 5,000 prescriptions. Lots of medicines were lost in the storm.

“If you lost your house, you lost your meds,” Marchand said. “We provided medicines like insulin, high blood pressure medicine and Coumadin.”

And after four or five days when donated supplies showed up, instead of taking them into the hospital inventory, they were passed directly on to the village.

Now nearly two months after the storm, the village is gone. But Marchand said whenever it is mentioned, staff members feel proud. “When you say ‘village’ to our employees, they get a real warm smile because they know they were there for these people, and did the right thing,” he said.

Personal losses, too

Five of the top six administrators at the hospital lost their homes completely, and Marchand’s home was damaged. Approximately 400 out of the staff of 2,300, including 40 of the 250 physicians, lost their homes. Many more had damages. Despite their personal losses, caring for the patients and repairing the hospital were the top priorities.

Memorial has three hurricane teams: pre-, during- and post-teams. The during team spent the first four or five days without ever leaving the facility. Then they went out to briefly check with their family or look at their slab — often all that was left of their home.

“We had some people here eight, nine days following Katrina,” said Marchand, who has coined a new term for people who had the worst storm damage leaving only a cement slab on their property: slabbers.

When hospital staff had time to get out to survey surrounding damage, they were shocked.

“The complete destruction came within two or three blocks of the hospital,” Marchand said.

“I was horrified the first time I went to the railroad tracks,” said Gallagher. “I couldn’t believe what we had survived.”

After every storm the hospital critiques its performance, and goes back in to modifying the disaster plan.

“The team sits down to look at what worked, what didn’t, and what can be done to improve the plan,” Marchand said. “The lessons we have learned from every other storm are compiled into our hurricane plan. Because of the people here, our engineering and maintenance staff, we literally were repairing the hospital before the storm began to abate. The brunt of the storm was from east at first, and we had some damage to walls and windows on the east and north side of the building.

“As the hurricane went by, it looped around behind us and the winds shifted to southwest. Our engineering people already then were looking at patching walls and windows on the east and north side of the building. Engineering staff were predeployed before the storm all over the building with supplies needed to do recovery. It was the same with the environmental people who were cleaning.

“The key is to first survive the physical damage of the storm. You can’t do anything else until these engineering and environmental people get the building sealed back up. Recovering from the physical damage is your first challenge in the storm. The emergency generators allow them to maintain air quality. Maintaining air quality at a health facility is paramount. The patient population responds to temperatures. Things happen to patients when the temperature rises.”

Going into the storm the hospital, which has the only neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, had nine neonatal patients very sensitive to temperature changes. The hospital’s generators allowed the hospital to provide the infants and other hospital patients with the highest quality care possible.

“Those seven generators were our first line of defense from preventing bad things from happening,” Marchand said.

At one point, the hospital was within 18 hours of running out of diesel. It is easy to imagine the relief when the diesel trucks showed up.

The first eight to 10 days after Katrina, Memorial Hospital was the only hospital in the City of Gulfport admitting patients. The hospital also serviced people from Hancock County because Hancock Medical Center was closed after a wall of water struck the first floor.

“We were holding down healthcare not only for the City of Gulfport, but Hancock County, as well,” Marchand said. “Of the four hospitals in Harrison County, one besides us stayed open on a limited basis, but had lost power and water. Two closed down or significantly limited operations for two weeks or longer. It came down to Biloxi Regional Medical Center being the community hospital for the City of Biloxi, and Memorial for Gulfport, west Harrison County and Hancock County. And Memorial’s significance also is we offer a few services not available elsewhere on the Coast. It was particularly important to be fully operational because some of services are used by the entire Coast population. We took a couple of helicopter evacuations from New Orleans, and converted two of our parking lots to helicopter pads because of the amount of activity.”

Gallagher said the real story of how Memorial Hospital at Gulfport performed after Hurricane Katrina is about their people.

“We couldn’t do a big plan without our people,” she said. “They worked here for days not knowing about their homes. They would talk to people who came into the emergency department and would ask, ‘Did anyone come in from Ocean Springs? How are they?’ People were unable to communicate with their families. We were trying to get out the word that all our patients and employees were safe, but didn’t have any means of communicating with the outside world unless a reporter showed up.”

In the aftermath, staff were working 12 hour shifts, and then sleeping in designated areas.

“With the magnitude of this, there still are people who are having to live here at the hospital because they have no where else to go,” Gallagher said. “When we saw this was going to be a long-term thing, that employees had no where else to go, we managed to obtain some washers and dryers to establish a laundromat. You would have thought we had brought in gold bricks. People were thrilled. We brought only four days worth of clothes. We did everything we needed to do to make life better for our employees because we needed them here to take care of patients.”

As this issue of the Mississippi Business Journal went to press, the hospital still had 30 people housed at the Memorial Medical Office Building. But each day things were getting better — and closer to normal. While everyone’s lives were irrevocably changed by the storm, people have been amazingly resilient.

“A good aspect of the storm, the bright light, is that we all got to be much closer friends,” Gallagher said. “We would sit in the wash room and talk. Being able to wash clothes brought some normality to life.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.


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