With the recent events surrounding Hurricane Katrina and its effect on New Orleans, the situation here at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation was somewhat different from others in the city due to our location in Jefferson Parish. I would estimate that Ochsner's positive outcome after the storm was due 50% to our location on the "lip of the bowl" of the city, and another 50% to very solid strategic planning and preparation that allowed us to be flexible and adapt to the changing situations during and after the storm.
In a crisis such as this, a hospital administrator must be flexible and able to think on his or her feet. In New Orleans, the situation moved from a strong hurricane with driving winds, to a large flood that engulfed much of the city, combined with a loss of communication and utilities.
As chief operating officer at Ochsner, I think the best way to weather a disaster of this magnitude includes the following steps:
Detailed preparation for after the storm includes everything from ordering supplies, readying backup generators, adding support to existing alternative power sources, and having backup water sources, toilet facilities and a large supply of food. This plan should also include a way to reach employees who have evacuated; Ochsner would recommend including an automated registration form on your Web site that includes a reliable way to reach employees.
During Hurricane Katrina, all cell phone communication in the region went down, so, regardless of where our employees were, if they had a New Orleans area code, cell phones were inoperable. Another issue to consider is how to house and transport your employees after the storm. Ochsner is fortunate to have a hotel that allowed it to house many employees, and several atrium areas and waiting rooms were also used.
Finally, given the gasoline shortage and lack of facilities in New Orleans after Katrina, Ochsner used its facilities in the Baton Rouge area to stage employees and then bused them into the city to provide relief to employees who worked during the storm. This Team A (people who worked during the hurricane) and Team B (their relief workers) are an essential part of continuing operations after the storm.
Government emergency management offices are a critical resource during and after the storm. They can provide supplies, security, communication and access to federal resources, so a strong relationship will aid in getting needed help. I would also recommend adequate security at your facility, augmented by the National Guard.
If possible, get someone from the emergency management office at your facility; it is likely to ease communication and assist you in getting what you need. Ochsner did not have this during Katrina, but worked with our representatives to attain what was needed.
Communication with your staff before, during and after the storm is critical. Our clearly defined hurricane plan is documented and had been communicated throughout the organization. Members of our management team knew their roles and responsibilities, which allowed for a strong transition into disaster mode. This before-storm preparation allows for resources to be mobilized before the disaster. In many disasters, such preparation time is not available, but with a hurricane, an organization usually has time to plan.
During the storm, Ochsner held several management meetings each day to update everyone. The executive constantly circulated in the facility to reassure staff and address people's needs, while moving patients and staff to areas of safety to avoid damaged areas. We had quite a bit of water damage at Ochsner, and lost several windows, which required staff and patients to be moved.
Finally, after the storm, communication is even more critical to allow everyone to understand the plan, to reassure employees on-site that everything is fine and to communicate with those off-campus. Ochsner held a series of conference calls with employees after the storm to update them on the status of the city, the organization, the need for additional personnel, how payroll and benefits would be handled and to just give evacuees a look into the situation in New Orleans.
Our organizations are only as good as our people. Ochsner managers and clinic physicians spent hours with employees, talking about issues, serving meals, joking with people to keep them distracted and reassuring them that everything would be all right. This is not something to start during a disaster; it must be a commitment to the people who work with you. We have invested significantly in resources for our physicians and employees and because of these investments and commitment to our organization and their patients, our employees performed tremendously during and after the storm.
Many of our employees lost their homes, but stayed at the hospital and took care of patients and each other during the disaster. You always hear executives say that people are the biggest assets in their organization. Well, during a disaster you really find out. At Ochsner, we found out that our employees can and will do anything necesary to get their jobs done.
The situation in New Orleans was tense as this powerful storm approached and worsened with the flooding of the city. We were constantly communicating honestly and openly with our employees about the situation, including telling them, "I don't know the answer to that" when we were unsure of a situation. As a team, we spent many hours dispelling rumors and making sure our people always knew the truth.
Given the gravity of the situation, it was sometimes difficult to face its reality, but we did it each time and I believe our employees respect us for our approach.