Health Advice



Hurricane Ian flooded a hospital and forced evacuations from dozens of nursing homes – many health facilities face similar risks from severe storms

Brett Robertson, Assistant Professor of Communication, University of South Carolina, The Conversation on

Published in Health & Fitness

The TV drama “Five Days at Memorial” is built around that disaster and how the staff at New Orleans’ Memorial Medical Center struggled to keep patients alive while cut off by floodwater. It has triggered a lot of conversations around preparedness and risk in these critical facilities.

My research explores how underserved and vulnerable populations prepare for and manage disasters. In particular, I’ve done fieldwork analyzing how older adults living in retirement and assisted-living communities perceive their own risks.

Ideally, these facilities should be able to provide the same services during disasters as before, without interruption. The reality is that when infrastructure is overwhelmed, older adults may be trapped in dangerous conditions, unable to evacuate. They also might not be mobile enough to be easily rescued, especially if the facility spans several floors.

Staff might not be available to administer medications. Electricity or power for life-sustaining medical treatments might not be available. Health care workers in these care facilities are also not always able to execute disaster plans or protocols, if such plans exist.

After Hurricane Irma knocked out power to Florida in 2017, a dozen patients died in a nursing home that lost power for air conditioning. That led to a state law that now requires nursing homes to have backup generators. But Ian showed that even that isn’t enough to keep residents safe.

Other populations, such as people with physical, sensory or cognitive disabilities, and those who are medically vulnerable, including homeless populations, also need to be considered in health care-related disaster planning. While those who are homeless may find shelters, including shelters created for disaster relief, it is not uncommon for people who are homeless to seek medical services or find refuge in hospitals.

After disasters, hospitals are essential for treating the rise in injuries, as well as mental health issues among disaster victims. More than 700 rescues were launched during Ian and its aftermath.

Therefore, it is important for hospitals, as well as nursing homes, to develop hospital disaster resilience plans. These plans for hospitals cover topics like safety, staffing, surge capacity to handle a sudden increase in patients, handling emergency services amid flooding, and disaster plans, training and communications.


Looking long term, better building design, flood barriers and safer locations may be necessary.

The Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care Center in New Orleans is one model of how to design a health facility to withstand a disaster. The building was built to handle high winds, and the emergency department is on the second floor, at least 21 feet above base flood elevation.

Storms like Ian are a difficult reminder of the importance of protecting these facilities so emergency medical care is available in disasters, and why disaster planning at all health care sites is crucial.

This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Brett Robertson, University of South Carolina. If you found it interesting, you could subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

Read more:
Hurricane Ian: Older adults have many reasons for not evacuating – here’s why it’s important to check on aging neighbors

Hurricane Ian: When the power grid goes out, could solar and batteries power your home?

Brett Robertson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.


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