Flooding in Louisiana that's left six people dead and tens of thousands without homes is testing local hospitals' operations, especially in light of reduced federal funding for hospital preparedness.
Officials at Ochsner Medical Center-Baton Rouge, concerned storms might cause them to lose electricity, transferred about 57 critically ill patients to affiliated facilities across the state on Sunday.
The hospital worked with state officials to evacuate the patients via military-style vehicles because floodwater around the facility was too high, said Mike Hulefeld, the system's chief operating officer.
Late Monday, ambulances were finally able to get to the hospital campus but regular cars couldn't reach the facility. Larger trucks had been able to deliver supplies. The hospital started the storm with roughly 10 days of food on hand and plenty of backup fuel for its generators, Hulefeld said.
Though the water is receding, the hospital is still diverting ambulances to other facilities, Hulefeld said. About 50 to 60 staff members have slept on campus and rotated shifts because they've been unable to leave.
“We were well-prepared, and our staff pulled together,” Hulefeld said. “Our leaders do have experience, given the history in southeast Louisiana.”
Still, the system closed seven clinics because of the flooding.
Funding to help hospitals prepare for disasters has subsided over the past decade. In fiscal 2015, HHS' Hospital Preparedness Program was valued at $255 million, roughly half of funding levels a decade earlier.
Hulefeld said the hospital has received significant support from state officials, but he also noted that, because the situation was quickly declared a major disaster, federal funding will help local residents, including the system's staff, rebuild their homes.
“We can't function without our staff, and our staff need access to those dollars,” Hulefeld said.
North Oaks Health System, in Hammond, La., east of Baton Rouge, has been able to avoid major disruption because its acute-care and rehabilitation hospitals stand 40 feet above sea level. Both are fully functional and have not had services interrupted, but the system did close 13 of its 34 clinics, according to Michele Sutton, the system's COO and executive vice president.
Over 50 employees slept at the hospital over the weekend due to freeway closures, and early estimates suggest that 125 to 175 employees are dealing with flooded homes and cars.
Many workers whose homes weren't affected have come in to replace those who need to deal with the aftermath. “We really have a strong family here at North Oaks,” Sutton said.
The hospital received one patient Sunday who was flown in by the Louisiana National Guard, which has rescued over 20,000 people across the state. As roads reopened Monday, the emergency department also saw an influx of patients who were evacuated and looking for non-urgent medical assistance such as medication, oxygen and dialysis, Sutton said.
Sutton said the hospital's success in dealing with disasters certainly comes from lessons learned during Hurricane Katrina, but also because of drills and other preparedness. The hospital has disaster kits with lanterns and paper records throughout the facility in case of a power outage, operates its own water tower and has in-house diesel tanks for refilling generators.
“We make sure that we drill all the time, and that we have contingency plans in place,” Sutton said. “We drill at least four times a year, sometimes more often.”
The next challenge for local health officials may come as cleanup efforts begin. Stagnant water and stifling heat can result in infections, such as E. coli, norovirus and tetanus.
Floodwaters often also result in excessive breeding of mosquitoes, something that's of particular concern this summer, as states such as Louisiana face the looming threat of Zika, a virus that can cause birth defects in babies born to infected pregnant women.