Even as she observed the second anniversary of a catastrophic tornado that destroyed her hospital in Joplin, Mo., Shelly Hunter paused to offer words of sympathy and encouragement to her peers in Moore, Okla.
"My initial reaction was sympathy," Hunter told me yesterday. "There is so much devastation and that poor community has gone through it before." Moore has been hit by five tornados in the last 15 years. "The people in Joplin are praying for the people in Moore."
By now, we've all seen the shattering images from Moore, where a massive tornado hit Monday, leaving 17 miles of wreckage in its wake. Moore Medical Center took a direct hit. Thankfully, patients and staff escaped unharmed. There were numerous acts of heroism, including Cheryl Stoepker who protected a baby that she had delivered just an hour earlier and ED doctors who instinctively implemented their disaster response plan when they heard the tornado warning.
But now, the hospital and community must heal and rebuild. Hunter, who is CFO of Mercy Hospital Joplin, which is replacing the demolished St. John's Regional Medical Center, says that Moore is in for some trying times.
"The first year was really tough," she says, noting that Joplin staff have worked out of three temporary facilities since that tragic day in May 2011. As staff moved from tents to trailers to a concrete structure, the administration was planning the new facility. "There is a spirit of bringing it back and rebuilding," she says. A state-of-the-art hospital is slated for completion by 2015.
While working in temporary facilities and dealing with some of the emotional scars have been tough on staff, Hunter says that from a business standpoint, insurance and dealing with FEMA have been the hardest things for administrators. Officials at Moore, or any hospital impacted by a disaster for that matter, need to understand what's covered by their insurance and, at the same time, follow FEMA guidelines.
FEMA funds won't start rolling in until after insurance payments are made, Hunter says. Mercy settled with its insurer in December, almost one and a half years after the tornado. She's still working with FEMA on what funds are available. However, Mercy and FEMA officials met early on to address any issues that could become barriers down the road.
"We said, 'Here's our procurement policy. Here is how we negotiate. Is this in compliance with you?' That slowed things down in the beginning," Hunter says, adding that she's glad those conversations took place early on instead of now.
As Mercy staff anticipate moving into the new facility, Hunter says enhanced disaster planning steps have been put in place. For instance, there's a new notification system.
"When we had tornado warnings last Sunday night, the notification system calls you, and it keeps calling until you answer," she says. Plus, staff contact numbers are loaded into each other's phones.
Like Joplin, Hunter believes that the people of Moore will pull together and come out stronger on the other side of this disaster.