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Emergency plan helped save lives during tornado in Joplin

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Emergency plan helped save lives during tornado in Joplin

JOPLIN, Mo.—Administrators at St. John's Regional Medical Center think a recently practiced disaster management plan helped to save numerous lives at the hospital, which was torn apart during the tornado in Joplin, Mo., on May 22, 2011.

St. John's, which had 2,200 employees and an average of 200 overnight patients per day, ran through its long-standing emergency management plan just four days prior to the catastrophic twister. Shelly Hunter, chief financial officer for Mercy Health of Joplin-Carthage, said the plan, which had been in place for many years, was practiced by St. John's about twice per year and modified as needed.

That strategy, she said, helped St. John's staff and patients steel themselves from the massive tornado, which hit the hospital with winds of up to 112 miles per hour and destroyed the main hospital and various medical office buildings on the campus.

St. John's is part of Mercy, a Chesterfield, Mo.-based health care system that includes 31 hospitals.

“Our emergency generators were knocked over, our emergency power gas lines were blown, all of our battery-operated lights on the walls were blown off,” Ms. Hunter said. “So we literally had no power, no water, every single window in the facility was blown out. And (there was) significant damage inside the hospital.”

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Five patients and one visitor at St. John's died in the tornado. Ms. Hunter thinks most people inside the facility were protected by a portion of the emergency plan that required hospital staff to move patient beds away from windows and into the hospital's hallways.

Staff members mobilized under the plan to carry patients out of the eight-level hospital and transport them to other hospitals in and near Joplin. The hospital's rehabilitation center—the part of St. John's campus that suffered the least storm damage—served as a triage center for patients that didn't need acute care.

St. John's had converted to a digital medical records system on May 1, 2011, just weeks before the tornado hit, Ms. Hunter said. That decision helped St. John's sister hospitals to access patient information within hours of the tornado, which allowed them to resume patient treatment plans.

“We knew what patients were in house (and) what their medical treatment was,” Ms. Hunter said. “We were able to help with their care as we transferred them.”

Since the tornado, St. John's has operated in a temporary facility that will house the hospital's operations until the new Mercy Hospital Joplin is constructed a few miles away. The $1 billion facility is expected to be completed in 2015.

Ms. Hunter said the old St. John's facility was so ravaged by the tornado that it would have cost more to rebuild the hospital on its former site.

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Plans for the new hospital include $8 million in storm-hardening measures that are meant to protect the new hospital in the event of another tornado, Ms. Hunter said.

That includes special film placed on windows that would reduce shattered glass, shelter rooms placed throughout the hospital, and extra structural support in the building's hallways. Underground power lines and a power generator with extra reinforcements also will help prevent power disruptions.

The cost for such protections has not been covered by insurance and is being paid by Mercy. Ms. Hunter said St. John's had property, casualty and business interruption insurance that will help to pay for some rebuilding costs, as well as remediation at the former site, though the hospital system is in negotiations with its insurer.

The tornado also changed the procedures that Mercy employees use in emergencies, Ms. Hunter said. For instance, the hospital plans to implement “grab bags” that will be placed throughout the facility and will include flashlights and other emergency essentials.

The hospital also plans to include slippers for patients in its facility, because many patients did not have shoes after last year's tornado.

Additionally, employees now are required to store work contacts in their cell phones. While phone calls would not connect in the tornado's immediate aftermath, Ms. Hunter said, text messages were able to be delivered, which helped execute the emergency plan.

Overall, Ms. Hunter thinks Mercy's emergency preparedness and the system's efforts to train employees for emergencies helped lessen the losses that St. John's could have faced after the tornado.

“Having well-trained staff really makes all the difference because we did really well that night,” Ms. Hunter said. “And I honestly believe it's because everyone knew what to do in each of their roles.”

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