The Practice Administrator: Preparation for Natural Disasters is Key

September 1, 2011

The storm has passed; now comes the damage assessment.

My condolences go to those that suffered loss from Hurricane Irene this past week. Located 12 miles off the Gulf Coast, in a zone 2 area, we experienced Hurricane Ike in 2008, the second most costly hurricane in the U.S. after Katrina in 2005 (and pending Hurricane Irene’s accounting). After our first concern, for protecting human life, our second concern was for the damage done. 

Although the storm surge is the first concern for hurricanes, and power outages can be an inconvenience or even a danger, the flooding in a storm’s aftermath is what causes most of the damage. With sensitivities to those still recovering from Irene, I’d like to share the experience of my family and practice in 2008.

With a hurricane, as compared to an earthquake, we do have warnings. In our case, with Hurricane Ike, we left to stay with family a few hours away, one day before the start of the mandatory evacuations on Sept. 11. The hurricane hit land as a strong Category 2 storm, at about 2 a.m. on Sept. 13, passing very near our office. Our area was without power for almost 10 days and, when we were allowed to return, many roads were impassable due to debris and trees. Getting supplies of ice, water, and gas were all anyone cared about. Luckily, the hospital in the area kept functioning.

Pre- hurricane Practice Preparations

On the last day before we left our practice we:

1. Moved anything electronic off the floor.

2. Unplugged everything from the wall.

3. Moved any paper including charts at least three feet off the ground, in the belief that, if the water reached higher than three feet, we would have greater worries than losing our paper files.

4. Placed any equipment that could be stored in the center of the building, as high as possible.

5. Moved everything away from the wall that could be moved.

6. We unplugged all our computers and stored them as high as possible. Since half of our computers are laptops, we took some due to looting concerns.

7. We checked our network equipment; our phone switch was already raised to five feet high and our network switch and equipment already were at four feet off the ground.

8. We locked the doors and made sure employees were set with their evacuations.

We wanted to make sure that if we returned to a destroyed office, it wasn’t due to lack of preparation. Luckily, our work took only an hour; among other things, our office IT is cloud-based so we didn’t have to worry about servers or tapes.

While evacuated from our office, cloud-based EHR also proved helpful; we were able to access patient data, cancel patient appointments, and stay in contact with patients, some of whom still wanted to get their results even during the evacuation. It also was helpful to monitor the schedule since we had little visibility into when we could return and many patients called for updates. Luckily, even though our calling service was local, they were able to forward some calls to us.

Returning to No Electricity, Slight Flooding

After the evacuation order was lifted after eight days, I returned a few times before the electricity was restored to assess the damage to our home and office. Our home was fine despite many downed trees. Our office sustained almost no damage, with a few corners where the carpet was wet due to high-force rains.

The day before my family returned home, I spent six hours locating a generator and hooking it up to my dryer outlet to feed my electrical panel, at which point, the power went back on, on its own.

Our timing and luck were better with the office; all in all it took us about an hour to set everything back up that first day. We all came in about 30 minutes early, but we know it would have taken a lot more work had our office relied on servers and tapes. We were lucky enough to have planned in advance and to be structured with cloud-based services and needed to do little to protect our office. I do hope that many practices in Irene’s path have had the same luck.

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