Parts of the roof blew off in the gale-force winds. Windows shattered and the driving rain coursed through hospital corridors.
"It was terrifying," Charlotte Regional Medical Center Chief Executive Officer Josh Putter recalled of the hurricane that devastated his hospital and the community of Punta Gorda, Fla., earlier this month. Charlotte Regional suspended operations on Aug. 14, 25 hours after Hurricane Charley swept through the central Florida port town.
The recent hurricane claimed at least 18 lives and wreaked billions of dollars in damages on the southwest Florida Gulf Coast. The storm shut down 208-bed Charlotte Regional, compelling the for-profit hospital owned by Naples, Fla.-based Health Management Associates to transfer more than 75 patients. Putter said the hospital sustained "tens of millions of dollars" in damages and added that more than 500 of the hospital's 1,100 employees are homeless or sustained serious damage to their homes.
He said the hospital had to close after transferring the bulk of its patients to HMA-owned Lehigh Regional Medical Center, an 88-bed hospital in Lehigh Acres, Fla.; 877-bed Tampa (Fla.) General Hospital; and 589-bed Sarasota (Fla.) Memorial Hospital.
Charlotte Regional wasn't the only Flor-ida hospital affected by the hurricane, said Rich Rasmussen, a spokesman for the Flor-ida Hospital Association. Gulf Coast Hospital in Fort Meyers, Fla., and Highlands Regional Medical Center in Sebring, Fla., closed because of roof damage and power outages, he said.
Disaster plans were activated and nine helicopters and 200 ambulances transferred more than 500 patients from Charlotte Regional, Fawcett Memorial Hospital and Bon Secours-St. Joseph Healthcare Group, both of Port Charlotte, Fla., Rasmussen said. All lay in the path of the hurricane's 145 mph winds.
Coincidentally, shortly before the hurricane struck, HMA announced the signing of letters of intent to buy the only two Florida hospitals of Marriottsville, Md.-based Bon Secours Health System: Bon Secours-St. Joseph and Bon Secours-Venice (Fla.) Hospital. HMA spokesman John Merriwether said the hurricane has not changed the company's purchase plans. "We're still working on getting a definitive agreement signed with Bon Secours and that's an ongoing process that continues today," he said.
Merriwether said HMA is still assessing the damage at Charlotte Regional and has roofers, cleanup crews and construction workers working around the clock to complete the repairs and reopen the hospital.
"We've estimated within weeks, but it's such a fluid situation, dependent on power and water connection and meeting state codes," he said. "Every day we're seeing progress, but we're taking it one step at a time."
Putter said the patient evacuation went smoothly despite the disastrous weather conditions. "Our staff remained calm and reassured our patients," he said. "They were true heroes throughout this storm."
Putter said the hospital's multilevel roof suffered severe damage. Multiple windows need to be replaced and water has ruined much of the facility.
But he said the bulk of the hospital's costly medical equipment was bagged and safely stored. The week after the storm, Charlotte Regional remained without electricity, operating solely on backup generators. He said the hospital expected to open its emergency room this week.
Putter said most of the county lost power and suffered extensive damage and that it could be weeks before the hospital fully reopens. Power, sewer, telephone and water services were unavailable last week.
In the meantime, hospital management has been meeting with employees to communicate hospital news and determine who needs relief support. The 57-year-old hospital has also set up an employee relief fund on its Web site, charlotteregional.com.
"We want them to know they have jobs for at least the next 30 days and we want to see who needs food and water and shelter," he said. "We've started to clean up and expect to have people back to work soon."