VC Notes Archive Office of the Vice Chancellor
Friday, September 4, 2015

Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned

The 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina has come and gone.  But for most of us, the memories of those days will never fade.

Every disaster is different, and so each carries its own unique lessons.  If you're smart, you make adjustments so that you can be better prepared the next time.  Because there will be a next time.

Here are some of the things I learned from Katrina.

I learned that a weather-related disaster is not necessarily when you take a direct hit from a storm.  Katrina had very little effect on our campus.  But the loss of electric power to the surrounding area, the disruption of so many support systems that we take for granted, coupled with the large numbers of people who were displaced from the coast and in need of some level of medical attention, made for a slowly unfolding disaster that tested all of us.

I learned that one of those resources we tend to take for granted is child care.  Plenty of our staff were ready to work, but with schools and day care centers closed, they had nowhere for their children to go.  It was our students who stepped up and organized a makeshift child-care center that got us through the week of Katrina.  (Note:  I'm pretty sure our unauthorized center did not meet state requirements, but I expect the kids never had so much fun.)

I learned that when there is a need, even an extraordinary need, our people will step up and meet it head on.  Sleep on the floor of an office … for a week.  Work a double shift on two hours rest.  Convert a shuttered gas station into a fuel depot for our employees.  Take on the laundry operations of a sister hospital.  Whatever it takes, count on us.

I learned that nothing builds teams faster than facing a challenge together.  Katrina and experiences like it are exercises in interprofessional education that can't be duplicated in the classroom.  Each member of the team comes with their special expertise, but when combined in the crucible of a crisis the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  

I learned that our state was under-resourced when it came to responding to a disaster of the magnitude of Katrina.  We had very little ability to communicate with other localities and coordinate our emergency medical response.  We didn't have any medical assets to deploy where they were needed most.  

Since those weaknesses were exposed, the state has made major investments in our ability to respond to emergencies and disasters.  We've developed Med-Com - the statewide communications hub that operates out of our emergency department - and a mobile field hospital.  Those investments have paid off in our ability to respond to subsequent tornadoes in Yazoo City and Louisville. 

I learned that during a disaster, endurance is a perishable commodity that has to be protected.  Going day after day, without the benefit of the basic necessities and continually being faced with new challenges, is exhausting.  We all owe a debt of gratitude to our families, who not only sustain us but allow us to do this work we are called to do, sometimes at their expense.    

I learned that trying times don't build character so much as they reveal character.  Many of the people who work around us every day performed heroically during Katrina.  We don't see that on a daily basis, and we don't need to.  But it's like the old saying, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going."

And finally, I learned on a whole new level that UMMC is uniquely positioned to lead our state, not only during epic disasters like Katrina, which we hope are few and far between, but in the steady, day-to-day pursuit of A Healthier Mississippi.

(To read some other first-person accounts of the Medical Center's response to Katrina, check out the cover story of the September edition of Centerview.)

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