Weathering hurricanes: What Sandy taught our health system


Five years ago this month, the lights went out in New Jersey as Superstorm Sandy roared ashore and wiped out electricity for days. I've thought often about that difficult time as hurricanes have ravaged Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and our Gulf Coast.

I'm also reminded of the critical role New Jersey's health care community played during Sandy and its aftermath. With their generator power, our hospitals literally became beacons in the dark, where people flocked to their lobbies to charge phones or simply to keep warm. As a career nurse, I'll always remember with pride the images of health care workers wading through floodwaters to reach their patients. 

Being prepared is no accident. In addition to health care quality efforts, I also oversee our Emergency Preparedness office at the New Jersey Hospital Association, which ensures that our hospitals, nursing homes, home health agencies and other facilities are prepared to care, no matter what.

NJHA works closely with a network of agencies from the emergency response, public safety, public health and social services sectors to make sure we've planned and drilled for all types of emergencies.

We developed our Weathering the Storm planning guide with detailed checklists of 400-some items that health care facilities must consider before, during and after a weather emergency. For example, it's not enough to just anticipate for enough staff to care for our patients and residents. We plan for getting them into place ahead of time, providing them space to sleep and shower, fueling up their vehicles and securing law enforcement escorts if roads are closed. We even plan to make sure our staffs' family members and pets are cared for -- so that they can focus on being there for their community.

Sandy, which struck Oct. 29, 2012, was an unprecedented storm for our state and our health care system. Two hospitals and 11 nursing homes were evacuated. Thirty-nine hospitals and a total of 137 health care facilities including nursing homes and dialysis centers lost power -- as did 2.7 million households.

Some hospitals saw their number of patients swell to four times normal levels. Some of those cases were true emergencies; others were people who relied on electric-powered medical devices in their homes. Some were injured during cleanup or sickened by carbon monoxide from generators. Some were simply the "worried well" -- fragile individuals without power or heat who had nowhere else to go.

Superstorm Sandy taught us a lot, which now makes us even better prepared for future emergencies. One example: Health care providers have forged formal relationships with local service stations to make sure workers have access to fuel, and some counties have purchased manual gas pumps that work even during power outages.

We've also done more planning for people who rely on medical devices such as ventilators in their homes. Those individuals need special shelters that are conveniently located to allow safe pre-evacuations.

We must never take for granted the importance of a well-prepared health care system. As this difficult 2017 hurricane season has shown us, it's impossible to fully predict what Mother Nature has in store. But we can plan to meet her head on and ensure that our health care system is always there to care.

Aline Holmes, RN, DNP, is senior vice president of clinical affairs for the New Jersey Hospital Association, a health care trade organization committed to helping its members deliver high-value health care in their communities.

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Aline Holmes, DNP, RN, is the senior vice president of clinical affairs for NJHA, as well as the program co-leader of the New Jersey Nursing Initiative. She leads the New Jersey Hospital Improvement Innovation Network under the national Partnership for Patients initiative. A U.S. Navy Nurse Corps veteran, Holmes completed her doctorate in nursing leadership at Rutgers University. 

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