At VA, we are standing up to hurricanes Fiona and Ian

On September 25, after consulting with local and regional leaders and the National Weather Service, Veterans Affairs made the decision to evacuate all hospitalized patients from its Bay Pines VA medical center. As the VA regional team was still recovering from Fiona, the Category 1 hurricane that had devastated Puerto Rico a week earlier, and it was clear that Hurricane Ian was hitting the Gulf Coast of Florida with hope that it would be Category 4 when it reached land. .

Over the next few days, Bay Pines staff moved 152 veterans who were in palliative, home, acute and long-term care — and in the path Ian planned — to other VA medical centers across the country. State, including Orlando, West Palm Beach and Miami.

Most of the evacuated patients were brought back to Bay Pines. But one veteran did not return to the hospital. Instead, this hospice patient who weathered the hurricane at West Palm Beach VA Medical Center got his last wish – to die at home surrounded by his loved ones. After initially being unable to find an ambulance to bring the veteran home, West Palm Beach VA staff worked to secure air transportation and he was flown to his home in Clearwater to spend his final days with his family.

VA is here for the safety and well-being of veterans and our employees, and we view our natural disaster emergency response function through that lens. Through years of thorough planning and preparation – and real-time coordination – that’s exactly what we achieved after Hurricanes Fiona and Ian.

The VA Emergency Management Coordination Cell was active, working on plans, logistics, and expert advice to support continuity of care and the potential for VA assignments to support non-VA resources in the community who could have resulted from high winds or hurricane-related flooding.

Providing care to more than 1.5 million veterans across the state of Florida, parts of South Georgia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, VA’s Sunshine Healthcare Network is well tested in readiness and hurricane response. This team has seen past storms and participated in extensive education, training, drills and live drills.

Leveraging the strength of the nation’s largest healthcare network, VA ensured facilities directly in Ian’s planned path were equipped to take appropriate action. These steps included postponing elective procedures where possible, limiting admissions unless necessary, expediting discharge for those who were clinically ready to leave, and ensuring that essential supplies were sufficient to maintain continuity of services. operations.

Our teams contacted more than 10,000 veterans we had identified as vulnerable to ensure they had the necessary care and medication before the storm hit. We also provided key personnel to travel with evacuated patients, while keeping other clinical staff on site at locations where patient care was needed during and after the storm.

Ian made landfall approximately 95 miles south of Bay Pines just days after we moved patients to other VA sites. While tragically more than 100 people were killed by Hurricane Ian in Florida, none were veterans we care for or our employees.

Thanks to preparedness and rapid response, most VA clinics remained online or were fully operational within a day or two. Several of our clinics were in Ian’s direct path and each suffered minor damage or was impacted by the lack of municipal electricity and water. These include Lee County Health Care Center, Naples Clinic and Port Charlotte Clinic on the Southwest Coast, and Daytona Beach Clinic on the East Central Coast. Even these were fully operational within two weeks of Ian’s historic landing near Punta Gorda.

While Ian brought stronger winds, Hurricane Fiona was the first major storm of the season, hitting Puerto Rico with torrential rains, up to 30 inches in some places. Fiona made landfall almost five years to the day since Hurricane Maria ravaged the island.

Having faced hurricanes and earthquakes, the VA team in the Caribbean has an emergency response program that is second to none. Challenges remain across much of Puerto Rico, although VA was able to set up all but one of its clinics on the island within days. The VA Multi-Specialty Care Clinic in Ponce was significantly damaged by the flooding and VA has deployed several mobile units and shelters to support on-site patient care.

VA reached out to those 10,000 vulnerable veterans again to make sure they weathered the storm, and luckily they all did. We continue to work with local, state, and federal partners, including FEMA, to provide information and support to veterans and employees. Communication was continuous, with messages to veterans and staff before, during and after the hurricanes. Status updates are regularly posted on the VA website and veterans who have subscribed to receive emails automatically receive updated information.

VA employees consistently demonstrate their commitment to the veterans we serve, even in the face of personal loss. We couldn’t be more proud of their efforts and determination. Hurricane season extends through the end of November and because providing safe and timely access to care is our mission, we remain prepared.

Dr. Shereef Elnahal is the VA Undersecretary of Health. He heads the Veterans Health Administration, the nation’s largest integrated health system, managing a budget of more than $102 billion and overseeing the care of 9 million veterans. Elnahal is a leading physician who previously served as president and CEO of University Hospital in Newark, New Jersey, from 2019 to 2022.

Tammy Czarnecki is deputy assistant secretary of health for operations at the Veterans Health Administration. She is the Senior Advisor to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Health for Operations, directing the day-to-day operations of the VHA’s 18 Integrated Veterans Service Networks, Membership Services, and Office of Emergency Management.

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