As tornado bore down, residents flocked to hospital
Though hospitals tend not to encourage the practice, last week’s monster tornado in central Oklahoma proved once again that medical centers become irresistible gathering places for fearful and dispossessed residents during large-scale natural disasters.
Recent history shows that medical centers are vulnerable to heavy storm damage. Yet in local communities, hospitals are large, sturdylooking buildings that many people associate with safety—and often they’re the only place with the lights still on.
By the time a deadly tornado packing 200-mph winds made a direct hit on Moore (Okla.) Medical Center, the hospital had some 300 people inside it. As many as half of them were neither patients nor employees, but members of the public who had flocked to the medical center’s hallways and rooms for protection.
David Whitaker, president and CEO of Moore’s corporate parent, Norman (Okla.) Regional Health System, said similar scenes played out at the system’s other two locations in the region that day as well.
Three miles north of Moore, at Integris Southwest Medical Center in Oklahoma City, emergency medicine coordinator Dr. David Hogan said his hospital contended with “a basement full of folks who had nowhere else to go” on top of the 91 emergency patients it treated for storm-related injures.
“We become kind of the beacon in the neighborhood,” Whitaker said. “We are not designated as a public shelter. It creates a situation where you are focused on your patients, but frankly, we exist to care for the people in our local community. People show up and we take them in … we have designated areas where we house people.”
Whitaker described a kind of frenetic “conga line” where members of the public—some with their pets in tow—file into the building in the minutes before a tornadic storm and are directed quickly to safe areas: “We don’t lock our neighbors out. If they are at our doors, we will take them in.”
Yet hospitals are not impervious to powerful storms.
The May 20 twister in Oklahoma unleashed extensive damage to Moore Medical Center’s second floor and filled the parking lot with destroyed cars and trucks.
In May 2011, a powerful tornado struck St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin, Mo., heavily damaging the nine-story building and causing the deaths of five critical-care patients and a visitor. In May 2007, a tornado destroyed Kiowa County Memorial Hospital in Greensburg, Kan., only two months after another tornado destroyed Sumter Regional Hospital in Americus, Ga.
The hospitals in Kansas and Georgia were rebuilt, and a new Mercy Hospital Joplin is slated to reopen in 2015; an interim facility is now serving the area.
In Oklahoma, system officials are still awaiting word from insurers whether Moore Medical Center will be declared a total loss, though Whitaker said that’s what most health system officials think will happen. Either way, Norman Regional Health System intends to rebuild.
“The community really supports our efforts there,” he said. “We will be back there. What it will look like, we don’t know yet, but we are not going away.”
In the meantime, the system is focused on reopening two medical office buildings adjacent to the hospital to provide primary care and mental health services that are sorely needed.
Dire as the situation may have felt inside the hospital to those who were there, it became clear in the hours after the storm passed that Moore Medical Center was a source of some of the most positive news last week in the city of 55,000 people.
Aerial images showed scores of residential blocks reduced to splinters and rubble, neighborhoods so decimated that without street signs it was difficult for residents to tell where they were. The tornado damaged two elementary schools, tearing one apart and leaving 10 children dead, the Associated Press reported. As of May 24, the death toll stood at 24. At Moore Medical Center, none of the 13 inpatients and 17 outpatients inside the hospi-
tal when the tornado hit were harmed by the storm or during transit to Norman Regional’s other campuses and clinics to the south. Among the larger population inside the building, injuries were limited to things such as wounds from stepped-on nails.
“The courage, the heart and the preparedness of our employees, it was just unbelievable,” Whitaker said.
Soon after, the world learned the harrowing story of a young mother who was in labor on the second floor of Moore Medical Center when the tornado struck. Unlike the other patients, Shayla Prevost-Taylor could not be moved downstairs because she was in heavy labor and ready to give birth.
Rather than evacuate, Taylor’s nurses stayed on the second floor with her and weathered the storm together in place, even as fierce winds sheared a wall and exposed the room to open air. She gave birth at Norman Regional’s HealthPlex to a healthy baby at 7:25 p.m., four hours after the tornado touchdown. The family named their new son Braeden Immanuel, whose middle name is Hebrew for “God is with us.”
Moore (Okla.) Medical Center had some 300 people inside when the tornado struck last week. All survived.