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Tornado-damaged homes in Moore, Okla.
This combination of photos shows left, a neighborhood in Moore, Okla., in ruins in May 1999, after a tornado flattened many houses and buildings in central Oklahoma, and right, flattened houses in Moore on Monday, May 20, 2013.
Photo credit: AP

Tornado tears through Oklahoma hospital

By Ashok Selvam and Joe Carlson
Posted: May 20, 2013 - 7:00 pm ET

(Story updated 12:00 p.m. ET Tuesday, May 21.)

A tornado ripped through a small Oklahoma hospital Monday afternoon and rendered the facility helpless to treat victims of the widespread devastation in the area.

“It's destroyed, and we are in the process of transporting all these patients,” Kelly Wells, a spokeswoman for Moore (Okla.) Medical Center, a campus of Norman (Okla.) Regional Health System, said Monday evening. The system reported Tuesday that 30 patients were moved to its two Norman facilities.

The storm hit the town of Moore—about 10 miles south of Oklahoma City—with winds reaching as high as 200 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

The tornado killed at least 24 people, and officials expected the number to climb, the Associated Press reported. Hospitals were treating about 120 people injured in the storm. An earlier version of this story reported the death toll had reached 51, based on incorrect early reports from local authorities.

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The hospital's second floor sustained the most damage, Wells said. Blocked roads prevented first responders from tending to victims, and also stopped Wells, based about 10 miles south in Norman, from seeing the damage at Moore in person. The system had not received any reports of injuries among its staff, Wells said.

“We have the walking wounded showing up to our hospitals in Norman as well,” Wells said. “We have a triage and we're prioritizing, depending on the level of the injuries.”

Moore Medical Center provides emergency services, general medical and surgical services, cardiology, cancer care, labor and delivery and imaging. According to the hospital's website, it has 45 beds.

The Oklahoma tornado comes two years to the week since a milewide EF5 tornado destroyed a nine-story patient tower in Joplin, Mo.

That hospital, known as St. John's Regional Medical Center at the time, took a direct hit at 5:41 p.m. on May 22, 2011. Surveillance video from inside the hospital showed furniture bashing around rooms as the twister passed overhead, leaving a weekend skeleton crew of 177 workers to start evacuating 183 patients.

Five patients and a visitor were killed in the storm, but no further injuries happened during the evacuation.

Shelly Hunter, chief financial officer of the hospital now known as Mercy Hospital Joplin, said communication became a problem in the immediate aftermath of the storm. Although cellphone towers were overwhelmed with voice calls and residential Internet service was lost for weeks, hospital officials found they could communicate with each other and the public through text messages and Facebook pages viewed on cellphones.

“Texting and social media were the best forms of communication for a number of weeks,” Hunter said in a phone call Monday night.

In the days after the storm, Hunter said, Mercy learned the hard way that some vendors would try to lure hospital executives into long-term contracts for services and real estate that were, in retrospect, too expensive.

“My takeaway would be to remain calm and not make any decisions in a hurry. Everything feels like you have to make a decision right away,” she said. “We had some vendors who were amazing, and still are, and some vendors who locked us into some very expensive contracts and … it cost us quite a bit of money for contracts that weren't necessary.”

Some patients in Moore are going to discover quickly that their limited supplies of prescriptions will only last a day or two, leaving them to fend for drugs in a storm-ravaged city, said Jeff Hamilton, regional manager of emergency operations for the parent system of the Joplin hospital, Mercy Health, based in Chesterfield, Mo.

Many of those patients will go to emergency rooms in other hospitals in the area, but they may find that other medical emergencies will take priority. Others will use other emergency services, said Hamilton, who worked in Mercy's incident command center following the Joplin tornado.

“The first thing is, you've got to get your people hooked up with their doctors,” Hamilton said. “They probably are self-reporting to ambulances, fire departments, they are making themselves known.”

In coming days, Hamilton said healthcare providers are likely to discover a surprising fact about tornados—many of the injuries actually happen two or three days after the storm, when survivors get hurt while trying to dig through the destroyed remains of their homes.

Follow Ashok Selvam on Twitter: @MH_aselvam

Follow Joe Carlson on Twitter: @MHJCarlson

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