That’s how Martin Kelvas, Corporate Director of Pharmacy Services for Phoebe Putney Health System, characterized conditions around Albany, Georgia, a month after Hurricane Michael hit the area.
“It looks like a bomb went off — the devastation of the number of trees that are down, homes damaged, destroyed,” he said. “It’s just unbelievable, the amount of damage.”
Albany has experience with natural disasters. In 1994, catastrophic flooding from Tropical Storm Alberto swamped the city, inundating local cemeteries and causing the disinterment of hundreds of caskets, with some remains swept into the Flint River. The Albany area also sustained damage during a three-day outbreak of tornados that swept the southeast United States in January 2017.
Hurricane Michael struck the city October 10. The storm had a maximum sustained wind speed of 115 mph when it reached southwest Georgia after crossing the Florida panhandle.
The National Weather Service, in an October 26 post-storm assessment, reported damage to 3,003 residential structures in Albany, including 532 with major damage and 49 that were totally destroyed.
Reports from the City of Albany stated that the storm left behind hundreds of downed trees, inaccessible roads, shredded power lines, and broken utility poles. More than 28,000 customers lost electrical service, and nearly all of the city’s wells stopped working because of power outages.
Kelvas said Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital of Albany, which includes a flagship 691-bed teaching hospital and 248-bed facility on the north campus about mile and a half away, operated throughout the storm. But he said the facilities relied on generator power and implemented a “red-bag waste” system after losing water pressure.
“You couldn’t flush the toilets. So they were trying to preserve the water pressure for patient care areas,” he said. “They had to divert water, electricity, air conditioning.”
Kelvas credited Gary Rice, Security Manager for Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital and a former field coordinator at the Georgia Emergency Management Administration, with helping the team get ready for Hurricane Michael.
The preparedness effort included the stockpiling of 1,300 cases of bottled water, 1,300 bags of ice, 2,500 bottles of hand sanitizer, and a large supply of prepackaged military-style meals ready to eat, or MREs, Kelvas said. He said the hospital distributed 20,800 MREs to employees after the storm, when power outages forced grocery stores and gas stations to close.
Hours before the storm arrived, the health system announced that staff members essential to the delivery of patient care had reported in early to avoid dangerous travel conditions.
“We had the night shift come in at 12 noon,” Kelvas said. “The staff who came in that morning were prepared to stay overnight also. These arrangements were made in advance. We ... had people volunteer to stay.”
Kelvas said staff who stayed at the hospital for the storm received an incentive payment in thanks, and all employees received their annual bonus early to help with financial needs after the storm.
In all, he said, the hospital made preparations for 500 staff members to ride out the storm. The pharmacy department converted its conference room into sleeping quarters with cots for about a dozen employees.
“We asked people to bring in their sleeping bags, whatever they had, to accommodate themselves to prepare to stay,” he said.
Kelvas said the worst of the storm occurred from about 8:00 that evening to midnight. All four Phoebe–owned hospitals in the state felt the effects of the storm, but the two in Albany were hit hardest.
“The eye of the storm just went a few miles west of us. So we got the full brunt,” he said.
Once the storm passed, he said, area residents who had injured themselves while moving debris began seeking care at the emergency department.
In addition, community members who needed power for home oxygen concentrators and other medical equipment came to the hospital hoping to plug in the devices.
“When all the utilities shut down, it doesn’t take long for people to start having very serious challenges,” Kelvas said. “Our focus was taking care of the patients here and the employees here, and then we tried to help as many people as we could.”
The health system reported that its employee pharmacy, located away from the main campus, remained without power three days after the storm. Kelvas said most staff members had their prescriptions filled before the hurricane arrived, but lack of access to the computer system hampered efforts to assist a few employees who needed medications.
Because of power outages, physicians’ offices had closed and communication lines were down, so it wasn’t possible to verify information with prescribers for people who had exhausted their refills.
“We told people to bring their bottles of medicines to us,” Kelvas said. “So that’s how you verify.”
The Georgia Board of Pharmacy allows pharmacists, during an emergency, to dispense 30-day refills of medications that are “essential to the maintenance of a patient’s life or to the continuation of therapy.”
Kelvas said that although the health system was operating normally a few days after Hurricane Michael, the community will take months or longer to recover.
He said thousands of volunteers have come to the area to help local residents remove fallen trees and debris from their property and cover damaged roofs.
And he said his own staff “went above and beyond to be here for the patients” at a very difficult time.
“We asked people to stay here while the storm was doing whatever to their homes. That’s a hard thing, and they were willing to be here. And then whatever was left at home, they went home to deal with [it] a day or two later,” he said. “That speaks volumes for their commitment to patient care. ... I hold my staff in high regard for all that they did.”