Fake Storm, Real Preparedness for Georgia Coast

March 21, 2014

Hurricane Jamani, a strong Category 2 hurricane, is barreling toward the southern Florida and southeast Georgia coastlines. Residents are being told to evacuate, and both governmental and non-governmental agencies are in full emergency operations mode and preparing for the worst. Along Georgia’s coast, the regional health care evacuation plan is in motion. The time for planning is over and the time for action has begun.

Coastal Health District Health Director Diane Weems, M.D. (left), Emergency Preparedness Specialist Laurent Guillou and Healthcare Community Liaison Susan Malone participated in the full-scale hurricane evacuation exercise.

Fortunately, this scenario wasn’t real. It was part of a full-scale exercise conducted last week by the Region J Coastal Healthcare Coalition, a multi-agency group charged with coordinating a regional response to disasters and emergencies affecting coastal Georgia. This was the first full-scale exercise focusing on hurricane evacuation conducted by the coalition in the region.

Representatives from agencies around the state, including public health, emergency management agencies, nursing homes, extended care facilities, area hospitals and emergency medical services (EMS) took part in the exercise. The idea was to practice the moves that would be required to keep patients safe if a hurricane slammed the coast.

“In previous years, each health care facility was expected to create and maintain its own individual evacuation plan. Events such as Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy made it obvious that many facilities were unprepared and without local, state and federal resources,” said Jimmy Gordon, coordinator for Region J Regional Coordinating Hospitals. 

The exercise began on March 18 when health care facilities, emergency management agencies, public health departments and other groups were notified that Hurricane Jamani was in the Atlantic Ocean and heading toward the United States. The agencies established lines of communication, and facility leaders sprang into action to prepare for the evacuation of patients and clients to areas away from the hurricane.

The area’s emergency preparedness organizations spent nearly a year planning the exercise, and public health played an integral role. County and district staff from around Coastal Health District 9-1 focused on carrying out the evacuation procedures for clients with functional and medical needs and on making sure that all the players in the exercise received appropriate communication about those evacuation procedures.

“The only way to find and fix gaps is to exercise the plans,” said Annette Neu, director of emergency preparedness and response for the Coastal Health District. “This was an intense exercise that allowed us, along with our community partners, to look for those gaps so that we can go about finding solutions to fix them.”

Several public health preparedness capabilities were also a main focus of the exercise, including community and health care system preparedness, emergency operations coordination, information sharing and the ability to provide care during events that exceed the limits of the normal medical infrastructure. One 25-bed health care facility in Tattnall County was inundated with 46 people pretending to be patients in order to test the facility’s capabilities during the exercise. 

“Strengths and weaknesses were identified in several different areas,” said Neu. “Overall this was an outstanding exercise that will help move preparedness forward not only in coastal Georgia but throughout the entire state.”

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