Though hospitals tend not to encourage the practice, last week's monster tornado in central Oklahoma proved once again that medical centers become irresistible gathering places for fearful and dispossessed residents during large-scale natural disasters.
Recent history shows that medical centers are vulnerable to heavy storm damage. Yet in local communities, hospitals are large, sturdy-looking buildings that many people associate with safety—and often they're the only place with the lights still on.
By the time a deadly tornado packing 200-mph winds made a direct hit on Moore (Okla.) Medical Center, the hospital had some 300 people inside it. As many as half of them were neither patients nor employees, but members of the public who had flocked to the medical center's hallways and rooms for protection.
David Whitaker, president and CEO of Moore's corporate parent, Norman (Okla.) Regional Health System, said similar scenes played out at the system's other two locations in the region that day as well.
Three miles north of Moore, at Integris Southwest Medical Center in Oklahoma City, emergency medicine coordinator Dr. David Hogan said his hospital contended with “a basement full of folks who had nowhere else to go” on top of the 91 emergency patients it treated for storm-related injures.
“We become kind of the beacon in the neighborhood,” Whitaker said. “We are not designated as a public shelter. It creates a situation where you are focused on your patients, but frankly, we exist to care for the people in our local community. People show up and we take them in … we have designated areas where we house people.”
Whitaker described a kind of frenetic “conga line” where members of the public—some with their pets in tow—file into the building in the minutes before a tornadic storm and are directed quickly to safe areas: “We don't lock our neighbors out. If they are at our doors, we will take them in.”
Yet hospitals are not impervious to powerful storms.