By Roxana Ross, SeHealth
Hurricane Florence feels like déjà vu for many in Lumberton and Robeson County, where parts of the community still hadn’t fully recovered from 2016’s Hurricane Matthew before the area was hit again this month. Southeastern Health, which includes Lumberton’s Southeastern Regional Medical Center and many other medical offices throughout the area, did its best to prepare for the worst. By the time the hurricane’s winds dropped and the Lumber River began to rise, the organization’s staff was as ready as possible for the next stage of the disaster.
“Preparation started last Monday,” said SeHealth Chief Nursing Officer Renae Taylor, “We opened our Command Center on Tuesday, before the storm hit, so we were available for questions and sorting out bugs.”
SeHealth Vice President of Corporate Services and Chief Strategy Officer David Sumner, who is one of the incident commanders during this event, said there has been a “tremendous effort” between all of Southeastern Health’s resources.
“The system – which includes our clinics and our other residential facilities, WoodHaven Nursing, Rehabilitation and Alzheimer’s Care Center and Southeastern Hospice House – has been effective in deploying our emergency operation plan,” Sumner said. “As painful as it was, the experience of Matthew helped us learn and be better prepared. We ordered extra supplies, extra food, and made staffing arrangements well in advance.”
Unlike Hurricane Matthew, which surprised many in the region with a sudden change in forecast, Hurricane Florence’s slow approach also gave SeHealth more time to prepare. SeHealth began asking for volunteers for the lock-in phase of the storm a week in advance.
“We started the lock-in Thursday at 7 a.m. until Saturday at 7 p.m.,” Taylor said. “When the storm slowed down, we extended it through Sunday. Between the main hospital and WoodHaven, we had almost 600 employees who had basically been living together, working 12-hour shifts. They’re paid, of course, but they all volunteered to ride out the storm and continue to serve here to keep patients safe.”
Taylor said it’s been “phenomenal” to see the people of SeHealth, including many community providers who, in some cases, provided assistance outside of their normal role as a provider, “pull together as a family.”
“I couldn’t be more proud of our staff and our frontline medical physicians and advanced practice providers,” Taylor said. “I don’t have the words for how proud I am of the people in these facilities. They chose to walk away from their homes and trust in God to take care of their families while they came here to take care of patients’ needs. I’m in awe.”
There are some employees who have had their homes flooded, Taylor said, and some staff members who left work temporarily after the lock-in only to find they were unable to return home as roads began to flood and close in the hurricane’s aftermath.
Maintenance crews who scrambled throughout the storm responding to water infiltration issues as the strong wind blew rain sideways were among those who were kept busy throughout the storm.
“We’ve all had moments where we step outside and cry for a moment and then we step back in and do what we need to do,” Taylor said. “But we’ve had a great leadership team here with us, and dedicated administrators here through it, too, including the executive team.”
Sumner agreed, saying he wanted to take this opportunity to thank SeHealth’s employees for their efforts through this time and in the days ahead.
“We couldn’t be successful without our wonderful group of employees, including our exceptional medical providers,” Sumner said. “We have tried to be good to our employees who worked through the hurricane, but they also need to be recognized.”
Some of the other ways SeHealth prepared was by bringing in an additional generator in advance to help run the hospital’s air conditioning, by placing a member of its leadership team in the Robeson County Office of Emergency Management throughout the event so there could be constant and direct communication between the two organizations, and by participating in daily conference calls with the N.C. Healthcare Association.
“I can’t stress how important that has been,” Sumner said “We’ve been very proactive about all our internal and external communication. There have also been twice daily calls with members of the leadership group.”
One example of how that communication was important was in being able to make the correct decision about whether or not to evacuate WoodHaven as it looked like the surrounding neighborhood was experiencing flooding. SeHealth was able to request sandbags and get them staged before the facility was in danger of experiencing water, though in the end the water receded before reaching the facility.
SeHealth has also been able to collaborate with shelters in the county, providing additional equipment for evacuees on oxygen, as well as some food and medicines.
“The community shelters have been very effective,” Sumner said.
Sumner said the next steps for the organization are the continuing assessment of facilities as SeHealth and the community continue to recover from Hurricane Florence.
“I’m proud to say that Monday we had three of our clinics open, in Pembroke, Lumberton and St. Pauls,” he said. “We still have parts of our operation without power, but the main hospital has power and water. We are anticipating an influx of patients as the water makes travel more possible. We are going to try and get more operations back and functional between now and next Monday, but we’re still in the middle of evaluating damage. The hospital had some water and wind damage, which happens when the rain is blowing horizontal, and we currently have 15 patient rooms out of service that we are working to bring back online.”