I was 11 years old, living in Southern California, when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the surrounding region. Even now as an adult, my knowledge of what happened in 2007 didn’t extend much past knowing that both the preparations for the storm and the response after the hurricane were extremely lacking.
On a whim, I picked up Five Days At Memorial by Sheri Fink from the Charleston Public Library. This book is an in depth investigative look at what happened at the Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans during the storm, including the alleged euthanasia of a number of patients. The second half of the book covered the fallout that stemmed from the corporate failure to properly prepare for a storm like this and the life-changing decisions that were made by doctors and administrators during that five-day period.
While this book focused almost exclusively on the situation at Memorial Medical Center, I think the most important lessons come from comparing the outcomes of surrounding hospitals in similar situations. At Memorial, over thirty-five patients were found dead. At Lindy Boggs Medical Center, twenty-seven bodies were recovered. And at Methodist Hospital, it is estimated sixteen patients died after the storm hit. But this is in stark contrast to New Orleans public Charity Hospital where only three patient deaths occurred.
How could these outcomes be so dramatically different? Especially when Charity Hospital experienced arguably worse conditions and had approximately twice as many patients and a lower staff to patient ratio. People who were at Charity Hospital during the storm credit their resiliency to morale-building by leaders, an emphasis on continuing regular routines, and preparations the hospital made for years leading up to the Category 5 hurricane.
“The Charity staff was populated by crusty characters accustomed to comparatively Spartan, chaotic, and occasionally threatening conditions of an inner-city government hospital. Workers included Vietnam War-era ER doctors known for their bravado and machismo. Nearly everyone had experience getting creative with all-too-common resource limitation.”
I think this makes one thing clear: building a strong foundation is paramount for surviving in a crisis. Surround yourself with good, adaptable people—from your top leaders to your most junior level staff. Run scenario planning on internal and external situations that could arise. Develop an infrastructure to train your people.
Then, keep a level head and trust that foundation when a crisis arrives on your doorstep.
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