Advance Planning Minimized Storm Impact for Oncology Practices

Andrew Smith
Published: Monday, Nov 06, 2017
Vivek Kavadi, MD
Vivek Kavadi, MD
The storms were powerful. They were headed straight for land. And the forecasts were nearly apocalyptic.

Texas Oncology and Florida Cancer Specialists (FCS) knew their ability to recover from hurricanes Harvey and Irma would hinge upon the work they did before either storm arrived. Acting on the warnings, both practices built on existing disaster plans already refined by experiences with several tropical storms each year.

Similar preparations led to similar plans and similar success in minimizing the damage to both patient health and practice prosperity, yet there is no way to perfectly protect a business against something as powerful as a hurricane.

The very different nature of the actual storms led to very different experiences in the 2 states. FCS lost power at locations from Naples to Jacksonville, but nearly all were operating again a day after Irma left. Texas Oncology felt Harvey’s impact over a much smaller area, but flooding throughout the Houston region was so severe that most local offices closed for an entire week.

“The rain just kept coming, falling harder than any of the monsoons where I grew up in India for days on end,” said Vivek Kavadi, MD, the medical director of Texas Oncology’s Gulf Coast practices. “Some areas got 50 inches of rain, which was enough to flood interstate highways and render much of the region impassable for days after the rain stopped.

“Our facilities escaped without too much damage—6 inches of water in Clear Lake, which is the region’s largest office, and minor flooding in a few others—but we had several employees whose homes were severely damaged and many whose cars were essentially totaled,” Kavadi said. “Each day brought more bad news. It seemed never-ending, and that was the worst of it. We had to summon the energy and focus to stay in full emergency mode for more than a week.”

Things might have been even worse but for the fact that Texas Oncology had plenty of warning. Forecasters made unusually early and accurate predictions about the behavior of Hurricane Harvey, giving businesses across the region time to adapt normal emergency plans to a storm that was unlike anything to hit Texas in living memory.

Offices located inside the storm’s predicted path prepared for potential flooding using both the latest technology (backing up computers to distant server farms) and the oldest strategies (moving valuable items as far above the floor as possible). They also took the unusual step of moving temperature-sensitive medications away from blackoutprone offices, storing them either at offices equipped with emergency generators or at local hospitals.

Around noon on Friday, August 25, Texas Oncology closed all 12 of the Houston-area offices that lay within the storm’s projected path. The rain began late the next morning.

Before the first drops hit the ground, Kavadi and other regional officials had activated an emergency communications protocol designed to keep the practice’s regional leadership and emergency response team fully connected to employees and patients at each location. Designated individuals served as liaisons between decision makers and the staff and patients from each office, passing information up and down the line each day.

They didn’t stop there. Texas Oncology kept in touch with stakeholders every conceivable way—via landline, cell phone, text, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and its website—not only for the sake of convenience but also to guard against the possibility that some channels would fail, either because of storm damage or overuse.

As things turned out, Harvey did not hinder communications all that much. Its winds were relatively mild, and just 300,000 people in a metro area with 6.5 million residents lost electricity.

Texas Oncology had little trouble keeping in touch with its stakeholders, but the scope of the flooding kept all its Gulf Coast offices closed for nearly a week. When conditions finally allowed some offices to reopen, practice officials created new treatment schedules, giving available slots to patients with the most urgent treatment needs, and then alerted staff and patients.

In many cases, the emergency response team had to direct patients away from the offices they normally used, because those locations were either still closed or could not accommodate all time-sensitive cases. The practice also had to transfer many employees from facility to facility to cover for people who could not make it to work. Roughly 50 of Texas Oncology’s 400 Houston-area employees sustained severe damage to their homes or cars, and many others had to miss work to care for loved ones.

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