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ONE YEAR AFTER IAN | Hospitals using Ian experiences to grow stronger

Posted at 4:19 PM, Sep 28, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-28 21:24:30-04

Their job is to keep us alive, but hospitals across Southwest Florida found themselves in what some would consider life-threatening conditions during Hurricane Ian.

Now, a year later, hospital leaders and patients are talking about what they learned from their experiences and what’s being changed to make these critical healthcare providers even more resilient during the next major storm.  

Fox 4 was the first to show you video from Lee Health showing just how quickly the water moved in around Health Ark Medical Center, as whole vehicles disappeared in the parking lot in just 45 minutes.  

It was also around this same time that Nikijha Lynch Excobar’s son got sick with RSV at just four months old, and he was getting worse.  

“As the power went out, things started to decline,” Lynch said.  

But it wasn’t until the next morning, that it was safe enough for an ambulance to get Jireh to Golisano Children's Hospital.  

“They have power. That was good. It was cool in there… until I use the restroom,” Lynch explained. “There's no water, where's the water? It's not a place that you think would not have water.”  

24 hours later, mother and son were forced to evacuate a second time.

“The doctor [told us] we would have to be out or leave because the governor was shutting down the hospitals,” Lynch said.  

She and Jireh ended up in a group of some 416 patients transferred in five days to more than 50 hospitals across the state. 67 were NICU babies, according to a Lee Health report. As for Nikija and Jireh, their final destination was St. Johns Hospital in Tampa.  

“It was monumental. It was.. it was a disaster,” said Glorida Graham, Lee Health’s Director of Public Safety and Emergency Management.  

An after-action report from Lee Health showed four main areas of concern after Ian, including staffing levels, training, and pay during this kind of event. But it was the loss of water that was at the top of Lee Health’s list. Three of the system’s four hospitals did not have running water, which prompted patient evacuations.  

Lee Health now plans to add its own layer of infrastructure, beyond relying on Lee County Utilities.

“We do fully intend to put wells at every one of our campuses so we can have an independent water source,” said Graham.

For the 2023 hurricane system we’re currently in, the hospital system contracted out temporary water tankers.  

While the water was running dry at Lee Health a year ago, it was pouring in at HCW Fawcett Memorial Hospital in Port Charlotte. The damage was seen on video shortly after the storm passed, and Fox 4 was there in January 2023, when the hospital and ICU finally reopened.  

Leaders at this hospital invested in what’s called a tiger dam system that stretches and changes shape to prevent flooding. The system was used in August 2023 during Hurricane Idalia.

Further south, NCH Healthcare in Collier County didn’t have flooding, but they still had plenty of takeaways from dealing with this size storm. Changes include improving employee communications, building an internal severe weather website, and replacing all first-floor windows with impact glass.