Health Care Exec Gives Inside View of Hospital Command Center During Hurricane Ike

Maura Walsh and Shortie McKinney
Maura Walsh '80, left, with Dean Shortie McKinney, spoke on campus about her experiences preparing, managing and responding to natural disasters.

By Karen Angelo

Maura Walsh’s talk on campus about preparing for natural disasters was scheduled long before anyone heard of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma or Maria, but her timing couldn’t have been better.

“We wanted to give our students a behind-the-scenes look at how public health crises such as hurricanes could affect their role in health care,” says Dean Shortie McKinney of the Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences. “Maura’s words of advice couldn’t have been more timely as Texas, Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico suffer the aftermaths of an active and devastating hurricane season.”

The health care administration alumna and former leader of a 15-hospital health care system in Texas returned to campus recently to share her experience managing a command center during and after Hurricane Ike. The Category 2 storm struck the Houston-Galveston area in 2008 with 110 mph winds and 19-foot storm surges. 

At the time, Walsh '80 was division president of Hospital Corporation of America’s (HCA) Gulf Coast Division, with 15 hospital CEOs reporting to her. 

Her presentation, “The Eye of the Storm: Disaster Preparedness in Healthcare,” attracted students, faculty and staff, including the university’s disaster preparedness team and emergency managers from Lowell General Hospital, Middlesex Community College, the City of Lowell and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. 

“A big takeaway from Maura Walsh’s presentation that resonated with our table of emergency managers was the importance of making sure that employees who are on site or on call during a hurricane disaster are fully cared for and supported,” says Rich Lemoine, UMass Lowell’s executive director of environmental and emergency management. “This includes taking care of their families and even their pets, and providing the essential resources of food, water, shelter and gasoline for their vehicles so that they can do their jobs keeping the public safe.” 

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare 

Days before Ike struck, Walsh and her team set up a communication system connected to local, state and federal authorities, tested emergency generators and secured medical supplies and transportation vehicles, planes and helicopters for evacuations. 

“Hospitals become the safety net within the community during times of crisis,” said Walsh. “Our first concern during Ike was to keep our patients and staff safe, but we also supported the community in any way we could.” 

The hospitals relocated 365 critical patients and neonatal babies to other hospitals, imported more than 150 nurses and set up a website that provided real-time information on bed availability and damage to hospitals. Making sure the hospitals could feed and house people from the community was a high priority, Walsh noted. Many people in the community who got stranded sought shelter at one of the hospitals. 

“This was a public health emergency, so we never turned anyone away,” she said. 

During the Storm: Expect the Unexpected 

No matter how much an organization prepares, Walsh said, it needs to expect the unexpected. 

The surprises came quickly as Walsh managed the main command center for three days. A nursing home dropped off 40 residents at an emergency room, local police and fire department staff sought a safe place to stay and the families and pets of hospital staff needed shelter. 

“We constantly had to think on our feet and make quick decisions to keep people safe,” said Walsh, who slept on a cot for three nights in a conference room converted into the main hurricane command center. 

One of many lessons that she shared was knowing who on your staff can jump into different roles when faced with a crisis. 

“Our CFO suddenly became the transportation manager, and certain staff members became day care providers and gas station attendants,” she said. 

When one hospital flooded, patients had to be evacuated by air. Winds ripped off the side of the Clear Lake Medical Center building and the roof off Mainland Medical Center. In the end, within the nine hospitals in the path of Ike that housed and fed patients, staff, families and citizens, no lives were lost. 

“Our ability to keep communication open with city, state and federal officials was critical to address any public health issues,” she said. 

People Respond Beyond Expectations 

After the hurricane passed and recovery began, the people of Houston showed their true spirit of camaraderie by helping each other, said Walsh. 

“The resiliency of people to help one another sent chills down my spine. When you think they can’t go any further, they do. It was beyond my expectations,” she said. 

One challenge after the storm was the safe transport of nurses and other medical staff to the hospitals to care for patients. Staff were able to borrow large prison vans to take hospital staff to work. Another issue was the increase in demand to decontaminate people who were wading in toxic water. But staff set up tents outside the hospital to manage the influx of people. 

“We appreciated hearing advice and lessons learned from Maura Walsh,” says Lemoine. “She is the real-deal emergency manager who skillfully guided her team and their hospital facilities, employees and patients to safety.”