Local responders learn from Joplin tornado experience

2013-03-16T00:45:00Z Local responders learn from Joplin tornado experienceRob Earnshaw Times Correspondent nwitimes.com
March 16, 2013 12:45 am  • 

VALPARAISO │ More than 400 emergency managers, first responders and community, school, health and hospital emergency planners attended a program Friday focusing on the study of mass trauma and recovery.

The event at Valparaiso University was hosted by the Porter County Coalition for Disaster Preparedness and featured keynote speaker H. Dwight Douglas, general counsel of Freeman Health System, Joplin, Mo., who spoke about the events following the EF-5 tornado that swept through that area on May 22, 2011.

“I will tell you what to do when everything goes to heck,” he said.

Douglas said they were lucky the tornado occurred on a Sunday evening, rather than a weekday when schools are filled and Joplin’s population swells with workers.

There were 161 deaths as a result of the tornado, several of those at nearby St. John’s Regional Medical Center – which was destroyed. Douglas’ hospital, Freeman Health System, was spared from the tornado by just a few blocks but still suffered $9 million in damage. It continued to operate.

“Hospital maintenance people are your lifeblood during this operation,” Douglas said.

Freeman encountered about 1,000 trauma patients within 48 hours after the storm. There were 22 life-saving surgeries within 12 hours. Sometimes two operations were going on in the same operating room, Douglas said.

Throughout the process over 120 patients were transferred from Freeman to other cities. Douglas said they used all three of the hospital’s helicopter landing pads.

“If you’ve got one at your health care facility, it’s not enough,” he said.

Douglas said the tornado caused communication challenges that were met thanks to amateur radio operators.

“Thank God for them,” he said. “Plan with your ham radio operators if everything goes to hell.”

Douglas recommends facilities consider a regional amateur radio “strike team” and have them drill routinely.

Other preparedness Douglas discussed was to develop resources to help find those missing, planning for excess capacity of patients and deceased and making sure to have a field with utilities nearby that could handle Federal Emergency Management Agency housing.

Douglas said it’s also important to have someone manage vendor control because someone will always walk in the emergency operations center “who thinks it’s a time to make a buck.”

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