Located on the barrier island of Long Island,New York,the physicians and staff of the NuHealth health-care system know they are at risk when hurricanes and other major storms make landfall, unleashing their force on anything in their paths.
That’s why they are vigilant in their disaster preparations and recovery plans. NuHealth’s 19-story building—the tallest structure on the island—with its 530-bed, tertiary care trauma center and community health system, is a hub for EMS Telemetry Control and the Nassau County Fire and Police Academy.Its roof is full of antennas that provide communications for an array of integrated state and federal emergency agencies.
In 2012, despite NuHealth being ready for almost anything,Superstorm Sandy’s impact was astounding. Now, nearly four years later, CEO Victor Politi, MD, reflects on the experience.
“Superstorm Sandy taught us a lot,” he says. “Like all hospitals and health systems, we must be vigilant in our preparations, but given our location and risks, we must be even more cognizant of staying ready.”
Dr. Politi adds,“Our team is more aware now of how vulnerable we are here on the island. We take it very seriously when major storms are forecast.”
Well in advance of Sandy, NuHealth had been actively tracking the storm. Adhering to FEMA’s federal disaster training guidelines, they had developed comprehensive plans. A key step in following those plans was establishing an incident command center. NuHealth kept it functioning for three weeks—before, during, and after the storm.
When it became clear Sandy would make landfall literally on top of them, NuHealth enacted its five-day plan, including contacting suppliers (food, gas, etc.), testing generators, and taking other steps to ensure the hospital could function for 10 days to two weeks without any deliveries.
It also evaluated patients to determine who could be safely discharged and/or transferred to other hospitals not in the storm’s path. This,Dr. Politi explained, was done so NuHealth could receive a potential surge of patients with storm-related injuries. They contacted union representatives to make sure staff members could hold shifts overnight so they would be on premises to work the next morning. They also helped staff make transportation plans.
Another important step was coordinating with federal, state, and county emergency management. Because NuHealth’s facility is located above the flood plain, it was designated a central care destination so it could handle patients from hospitals and nursing homes at risk for flooding.
When the dust finally settled, estimates of Sandy’s devastation, as of 2015, indicated about $75 billion in damage, a total surpassed only by Hurricane Katrina. At least 233 people in eight countries were killed along the path of the superstorm—117 of them in the US. This makes it one of the costliest natural disasters on record in the United States, according to IHS Global Insight, a forecasting firm.
REMEMBERING WITH PRIDE
Thinking back on the experience, Dr. Politi is pleased with how his organization performed. “I’m very proud to be a part of the NuHealth team everyday, but especially during times of crisis!” He notes that many of his staff members live on Long Island, and many of their homes were either seriously damaged or destroyed. “Our staff members were both victims and first responders, but they really stepped up. They came to work despite being in very difficult conditions.”
Dr. Politi adds that the support people give and receive in small towns is well-known, but,“This is the big city, and people really were there for each other.”
Other examples of having each others’ backs could be seen in the legions of carpools getting staff members to and from work, in physicians transporting patients, and in the NuHealth leadership team serving staff meals. Staff members also willingly worked in capacities they never had before, and Dr. Politi says they performed admirably.
POST STORM SURVEY
After the Sandy experience, NuHealth’s post incident survey of physicians and staff revealed that communication was the number one weakness—especially the inability to communicate with staff about work scheduling. This was due to power outages making it difficult to recharge cell phones. Ultimately, they sought assistance from the state Department of Health to help facilitate communication and so they could adequately contact and deploy staff.
Another area targeted for improvement was transportation— specifically getting staff to and from work. This was due to impassable roads, as well as gas shortages on the island. The NuHealth team has addressed this by purchasing new four-wheel-drive vehicles and working with gas stations to get special gas vouchers so health-care staff can be at the head of the line in emergencies.
Along with pride in his team, Dr. Politi takes a pragmatic view of how a leader—be it a CEO, COO, or physician—should look at disaster preparation. “I’m an ER doctor, so it didn’t get to me personally,” he says. “It’s just another mission we had to accomplish.” He adds that with every problem, there’s a solution. “You just sit down and come up with a plan. And you must be able to think around obstacles and plan ahead for the known and unknown.”
Although Dr. Politi, his team, and the community found nothing to joke about concerning the hurricane and its impact, he wryly observes, “Seven babies were delivered during the hurricane, but none were named ‘Sandy.”