Overnight, Hurricane Katrina changed the landscape of Mississippi – geographically and economically. The entire state was considered in a state of emergency, from the Coast to the Delta. We have 2.8 million people in the state and 115 hospitals that serve those people. Over 100 of those hospitals are members of our association.
Thirty-four of our hospitals suffered significant damage. Two were temporarily shut down. The state as a whole has requested $34 billion in federal appropriations to give you an idea of the scope of the damage. And the damage was statewide, not just on the Coast.
In the top image, taken in 1998, notice the pier, pier house, and the antebellum house. The bottom image shows the same location on August 31, 2005, two days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall.
The top image was taken off the coast of Bay St. Louis in July 1998 by researchers at the University of New Orleans. Notice the large multi-story houses, some of which are built on stilts to protect the homes from flooding. The bottom image shows the same location on August 31. The storm surge, estimated to have exceeded 20 feet in Waveland, destroyed homes and left only their foundations.
To see more clearly how many trees were affected, here is the scene below on August 31, which would usually be peak season for trees. They would be at their fullest.
Lesson #1: You are never as prepared as you think you are for a disaster of this size. The devastation made it nearly impossible to communicate with our members – and even our staff - in the impacted areas. Two months before Katrina, we had distributed satellite phones to hospitals statewide and felt fairly confident in our ability to communicate with our members. But in some cases there were problems handling those phones – especially if the hospital had not done any training on its use beforehand. And the extreme weather conditions also affected the use of the phone in some cases.
A long time before the hurricane hit, MHA had developed a wallet-sized laminated card with the home and cell phone numbers of all of our executive staff and distributed it to staff. We felt confident that our staff knew how to contact any of us if need be. Which was true…as long as the cell towers were working. For as long as a month after the hurricane, there were still some areas impossible to reach via cell phone or land line. Staff need to know before a disaster hits how they are expected to get in touch with you should phone not be a viable option. This also affected our hospitals. We set up a database online just so hospital employees could let hospitals know they were alive and well and how to get in touch with them. Many were staying at shelters and didn’t have a home address to mail anything to anymore or a home phone to call from. Membership information, like directories and staff contacts, should be readily available on paper. Key staff should have this information with them at all times – at home, at work, in the car. At MHA headquarters in Madison (three hours north of the Coast), we did not have power in our building for a few days and did not have Internet access for almost a week.
Even with a plan in place, you will find it difficult to maintain a cohesive response because of the number of uncontrolled requests and events. Just know that this too shall pass – and in a few years or so, everything will be back to almost normal. Make a conscious effort to coordinate with agencies and other associations that can help. And don’t assume federal and state governmental and regulatory agencies are communicating with each others. It’s probably not so.
You’re never as prepared as you think you are. Be flexible. And expect the unexpected. Because it will happen. Like Germany sending a 15-ton portable hospital to rural Scott County, Mississippi, where the poultry and timber farms sustained more damage than the residents. The unit was stored in two 20-foot containers and was flown into Jackson on a German Beluga, which has the largest cargo capacity of any aircraft in the world. It was then driven on flatbed trailers to Scott County and offloaded with an 80-ton crane. Or like the Consul-General of Japan showing up on your association’s doorsteps, with no fanfare, to see how he can assist Japanese citizens in areas affected by Hurricane Katrina. (We have a new Nissan plant a few miles down the road from our association headquarters.) Or like staff not being able to get to work because you have to wait four hours in line to get gas – and they don’t have enough gas to do that. Or staff getting to work and running out of gas because they couldn’t stop by the station on the way in like they planned, because they were all closed.
Organize your response around normal functional activities of your association: communications, government relations, workforce, etc. But also make sure that you take time each day to update each other on what you are doing. There’s not much time to ask permission in these circumstances. But you need to make a conscious effort to meet once a day at least to find out what decisions were made – and what information staff members collected that may be valuable to the whole group.
It’s much harder than it sounds. Especially considering many of our staff had family on the Coast they could not reach and did not know if they were OK or not. Many of our staff also had trees on their own houses. They were living out of hotels and trying to find childcare so they could come to work. They were trying to deal with their insurance agents. Everyone will call your association. Be ready for it. Relatives who can’t find a loved one who was in a hospital. The evacuee from Louisiana who was in the middle of chemo treatment and now doesn’t know where to go to continue – and has no personal identification, much less medical records. The lady in Chicago who can’t get in touch with her sister who was a nurse at Biloxi Regional Medical Center. Government agencies wanting updates on the status of hospitals. Media worldwide wanting a statement on the status of hospitals. And they will call your board members also, so keep your board informed of activities with affected hospital members.
The public’s need for food, water, fuel and shelter actually became a security risk for hospitals after the hurricane. Several community members described Biloxi Regional Medical Center as a beacon that literally glowed – because it was the only place with electricity. Hospitals also generally have supplies of food, water and fuel on hand. Know that if looting gets out of control, this could be a security threat for your members. We called the National Guard to assist several hospitals who were concerned about this issue as looting became rampant right after the storm.
Once the critical stage of the disaster is over, you will be overwhelmed with people who want to help you nationwide. And people will look to the hospital association to coordinate these efforts. Make sure you have one staff member assigned to do nothing but catalog those offering assistance and matching up the offerings with the needs of your hospitals.
You will become the lost and found, the job placement agency, a credentialing clearinghouse, a volunteer coordinator, a house hunter, a car dealer and a shoulder to cry on. Dust off all of your hats – you will be wearing all of them, for a few seconds at least.
Our workforce staff spent a lot of time making sure that hospital employees had a job to come back to – and a place to live while they worked at that job.
Whatever anyone thinks of Haley Barbour politically, it would be hard to fault his response after Hurricane Katrina. He used his political muscle and contacts nationwide to help all Mississippians. And he did so quickly and tirelessly. Our state definitely benefited from his connections and his drive.
And Gov. Barbour helped us all figure out the best way to get Bush to back federal funds to our states. (Our communications team worked tirelessly to plant all that “It looks like a war zone” stuff in the evening new. It worked.)
Our state budget was already stretched thin pre-Hurricane Katrina. Hospitals were already being cut, taxed, fined and generally battered during our state budget battle before the hurricane. Many of our hospitals are already in financially precarious positions and will not be able to accept any more cuts. Nationally, this will also be an issue eventually as budgets are used to assist those in devastated areas.
Another lesson. We all have much to be thankful for. If you have a home, no matter how humble…be thankful. If you have a first-rate association staff…be thankful. And, lastly, if your state wasn’t affected at all by Hurricane Katrina….please, be thankful.
Hurricane Katrina 101
Hurricane Katrina 101 Lessons Learned the Hard Way
<ul><li>Develop an </li></ul><ul><li>Effective Association </li></ul><ul><li>Disaster Plan: </li></ul><ul><li>Documents </li></ul><ul><li>Communications </li></ul><ul><li>Assign areas of responsibility beforehand </li></ul><ul><li>Pinpoint groups that need to be included in you plan </li></ul>
Lesson #2 Once you have the plan in place, be flexible.