Storm-proofing tips from a veteran

July 8, 2005

Having survived extensive damage to his office, this doctor tells how to protect your practice.

I'm a solo FP in Okeechobee, a semirural community in south-central Florida, about 50 miles from the Atlantic coast. Unfortunately, our location makes us a prime target each year during the hurricane season. Unless you've lived through one, you can't imagine how much damage a hurricane can cause, and how long and miserable the recovery period can be.

When Hurricane Frances hit here early last September, it was rated a category 2 storm; but because it battered our area for nearly 24 hours, it caused extensive damage. Our hospital was evacuated, and one-third of our local physicians suffered severe damage to their offices. Many lost all their medical records as well. Most of them still have no offices, and are sharing space with colleagues.

Hurricane Ivan, a category 5 storm, missed us. But on September 26 we were hit by Hurricane Jeanne, a category 3 storm. When I got to my office the next day, the building's roof was in the parking lot. A few of the seven offices-including mine-were completely destroyed, and the others had suffered extensive damage.

There was no power-so no air conditioning-for several very hot and humid weeks. The phone lines were down, and we had no cellular service because the towers were damaged. Grocery stores and restaurants were closed, and we ran out of food, water, and propane for our grills. We survived on bottled water and military rations supplied by FEMA, plus a lot of chips and uncooked canned goods.

These conditions brought their own health hazards: Many of my patients suffered respiratory ailments (due in part to burning debris), allergies, dehydration, heat exhaustion, depression, anxiety, and even psychosis. Yet access to healthcare was limited; most hospitals, nursing homes, pharmacies, and physician offices were closed or damaged.

My office suffered major damage and disruption, but compared to most of my colleagues, I was relatively lucky. I lost only 60 charts to water damage. After the storms, I managed to lease part of a room in the back of our hospital as a temporary office, with one phone line and no fax or copier. Patient visits were down 50 percent for September, and 20 percent from October to March. With no computers to handle billing, and limited mail service, I had essentially no practice income for more than six weeks.

I've learned some valuable lessons about surviving storms, though. There are lots of things you can't control-where or when a storm will hit, how long utilities will be out-but there are many things you can do to protect yourself and your practice from hurricanes, tornados, and other natural disasters. Here's my list, learned the hard way:

1 Be prepared to survive for at least a month. Keep an emergency supply of food and water at home, plus propane or charcoal for your grill. Keep those supplies separate from your regular household goods, and save them for a real emergency. You should also have an emergency supply of water stored at your office. At the first sign of a storm, lay in lots of cash; ATM machines and credit cards won't work if the power goes out, and the banks may run out of cash.

2 Get plywood for your windows now. Don't wait until the day of the storm, when the local lumberyards will be sold out. Cutting and installing the plywood sheets is hard and dangerous work, however, particularly on a hot summer day. And it may not be easy to find someone to put them up in a hurry when you really need them. So if you live in a storm-prone area, consider installing hurricane shutters. They're much stronger and more reliable than plywood, and worth the extra cost.

3 Think about your roof. It isn't just a decoration. Get your roof inspected, and repaired if necessary, before the hurricane season heats up. Consider getting a metal roof; they hold up better than shingle and tile roofs.