David J. Phillip  /  AP
A patient is evacuated from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas, as Hurricane Rita heads for the Texas coast Sept. 21.
updated 9/21/2005 6:29:14 PM ET 2005-09-21T22:29:14

As Houston’s Memorial Hermann Hospital prepares to face Hurricane Rita, its CEO thinks back to 2001, when a tropical storm plunged it into darkness and 542 patients had to be evacuated.

Floodwaters from Tropical Storm Allison had submerged the generators of the large teaching hospital, killing its power supply and forcing it to close for the first time in its 76-year history.

Today, the hospital’s generators and crucial electrical switches are well above ground level — just one lesson learned from the 2001 storm, says Dan Wolterman, president and chief executive officer of the Memorial Hermann Healthcare System, which includes 12 hospitals in greater Houston.

That’s not the only Houston hospital that has moved key equipment for emergency power systems to higher ground since 2001. And that precaution is just one reason Houston hospitals are better prepared for Hurricane Rita after facing the 2001 storm, officials said Wednesday.

'We learned some painful lessons'
“We learned some painful lessons,” said Andy Icken, executive vice president of the Texas Medical Center, a 1,000-acre campus of 13 hospitals about three miles south of downtown Houston. The center sustained $1.5 billion of flood damage in 2001.

Icken said the center’s hospitals expect to remain open during the coming storm. Wolterman said patient evacuations had begun at one hospital in the Hermann system that is potentially vulnerable to flood and tidal surges. Patients were being sent to other Hermann hospitals.

In Galveston, evacuations began early Wednesday at several nursing homes and at the city’s only hospital, the University of Texas Medical Branch.

In addition, the medical branch’s high-security lab containing deadly bugs like hemorrhagic fever has been shut down and secured, said Dr. Stanley Lemon, director of the branch’s Institute for Human Infections and Immunity.

Cell cultures have been sterilized by high heat, and infected animals — virtually all mice — have been euthanized and their carcasses sterilized and incinerated, Lemon said Wednesday. Frozen stocks of viruses are in locked refrigerators within the lab, which itself is protected by two thick walls of reinforced concrete, he said, adding that the lab is secure against the storm and looting.

Wolterman and Icken pointed to several storm precautions for their hospitals in Houston:

  • If city power goes out, hospital generators should be able to operate for up to a week. Icken said the medical center has also arranged for additional electrical backup.
  • Wolterman said his hospitals have stockpiled hundreds of batteries to power telephones if electricity isn’t available, and trailer loads of flashlights and batteries for thousands of employees, plus patients.

“If you lose power and your elevators don’t work, you have to have flashlights to bring food and medicines up the stairwells, or even to find the patients,” Wolterman said. “There’s a lot of things we learned when we were in complete darkness in 2001.”

  • Special submarine-type doors have been installed since 2001 to keep floodwaters from spreading through the tunnels under the building.
  • Wolterman said his hospitals have a seven-day supply of food and water for all patients and staff, and eight days’ worth of fresh linens.
  • Communication systems have been upgraded to avoid problems seen in 2001. The Hermann system now has a central command center to guide the operation of its hospitals, with the institutions tied together by radio in case ordinary phones and cellphones don’t work. The system is backed up with satellite phones to make sure officials can communicate with other hospitals.
  • Icken said a staffing plan calls for some medical personnel to secure their homes and then return so they can ride out the storm in their hospitals. In 2001, the hospitals had trouble getting staff members to work because of flooding on the roads leading to the medical campus, he said.

“I’ll be moving in with a sleeping bag tomorrow,” said Dr. Thomas Burke, physician-in-chief of the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Among the 1,800 employees who’ll stay are doctors, nurses, computer experts and repairmen, he said Wednesday.

'Batten down the hatches'
Burke said Anderson has about five days’ worth of fuel and water on hand, and noted that the patient complex is now surrounded by a concrete floodwall, a federally financed addition because of Allison.

Mike Reno, vice president at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital, said his institution was preparing to be self-sufficient for 72 to 96 hours, having ordered 5,000 gallons of drinking water and enough fuel for seven days of generating its own power.

“Evacuation of the hospital is not an option for us,” Reno said. “The patient population we have here, it’s not safe to move them. They would die as a result of the move.

“We have got to batten down the hatches, dig in and prepare to see it through. ... We feel we’re prepared for it.”

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