This post has been updated.
Doctors, nurses and staff at hospitals up and down Florida's Gulf and Atlantic coasts were nearly breathless with surprise and relief Monday: Their patients — and their buildings — had survived the monster named Irma.
“We're wonderful,” said Cheryl Garn, spokeswoman for Lee Health's four hospitals in Fort Myers. “Minimum damage. The sun is out and shining. We have some leaks where wind or rain blew in, but the patients are safe and comfortable.”
Some hospital officials credited changes and additions they've made in the past decade to strengthen their buildings against natural disasters.
“I think the most important thing we did was that after the 2005 period, when our state saw seven to eight hurricanes, we decided to spend tens of millions of dollars to fortify our facilities,” said Steve Sonenreich, chief executive of Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach. The hospital installed hurricane-proof glass in its windows, for example, and placed generators 30 feet above the flood plain and inside a structure that can withstand winds of 180 mph.
This weekend, it never lost power, Sonenreich said. In fact, staff tested backup generators Saturday afternoon and then just kept them on, even though they weren't needed. On Monday, the worst damage to the property appeared confined to fallen trees and leaks.
The situation was equally positive at Tampa General Hospital, with John Dunn, director of public relations, saying, “We did really well” with no flooding and no power outage. “The only issue is a number of leaks we’re addressing right now. … It certainly helped that [Irma] came in as a Category 1,” he added.
In Fort Myers, Lee Health's hospitals fared so well that their official head count went up in the middle of the hurricane.
“We had 92 individuals with special needs — that is, on ventilators — and women in their third term of pregnancy who could not evacuate,” Garn said. The hospitals took in not only those maternity patients but their caretakers, too. More than 8,000 employees and their families slept in corridors and offices, she said, while about 20 people who arrived at the facilities but had no medical needs were driven by staff to public shelters.
The three hospitals in the Florida Keys evacuated all patients before Irma arrived, and a lack of accessibility made assessments there difficult Monday. But Christine Kotler, a spokesperson for Baptist Health South Florida, which includes Fishermen's and Mariners hospitals, said the latter already had electricity. “We're beginning to assess our properties and facilities and resolve any issues,” she said.
For now, one of the biggest concerns at Florida's medical facilities is potential overcrowding in emergency departments from people who put off dialysis, chemotherapy and other care while the storm was at its fiercest.