University of Miami Medical Campus Resumes Operations after Hurricane Irma

Even before Hurricane Irma’s violent winds had finally subsided, the Miller School of Medicine campus was in recovery mode, making sure that it, and the University of Miami Health System satellite facilities, would be able to return to business as usual with minimal delay. In fact, with few exceptions, operations were back to normal on Wednesday morning, as employees returned to work, and patients began arriving for appointments.

University of Miami President Julio Frenk, who toured the medical campus on Wednesday afternoon, praised the hard work by administrators, physicians and staffers.

“We have a remarkable team on the medical campus,” he said, “and they have demonstrated that the key to recovering quickly is to prepare. Their level of preparation was outstanding, and it shows in what we are seeing here today.”

Edward Abraham, M.D., acting executive vice president for health affairs, CEO of UHealth, dean and chief academic officer of the Miller School, hosted the campus tour by President Frenk and his leadership team, including Jeffrey Duerk, Ph.D., executive vice president and provost, and Jacqueline A. Travisano, Ed.D., executive vice president for business and finance and chief operating officer.

“Our ability to serve patients, conduct research and educate students has been restored in record time,” he said. “As a newcomer to the Miller School, and to South Florida, I have even greater confidence in our strength as an institution to move forward and achieve our goals.”

“Overall, we fared extremely well during the storm,” said Ronald Bogue, the Miller School of Medicine’s assistant vice president for facilities and operations. “We never lost power or air conditioning on the medical campus or at University of Miami Hospital.”

Despite that positive post-event assessment, however, Irma was the least-welcome visitor to South Florida’s shores in more than two decades. At the storm’s peak, the anemometer on the roof of the Don Soffer Clinical Research Center recorded a wind gust speed of 127 miles per hour – just 3 mph short of the threshold for a category 4 hurricane.

The force of the wind uprooted many trees, took down traffic signals and street signs, spread debris, and tore the advertising banner for the Lennar Foundation Medical Center, which extended several stories up the east side of Dominion Tower, completely off of the building and blew it into the street below. That made for plenty of cleanup, but by late Wednesday several tons of debris was piled for removal in staging areas around the campus. The first priority was roadways, then pedestrian walkways, then common areas.

“We had a few problems,” said Bogue, “but compared with what might have happened had the storm tracked differently, we really dodged the bullet here.”

The recovery process began with a high-level assessment on Sunday evening.

“Security personnel did quick drive-arounds to look for obvious safety issues before the storm ended,” said Anthony C. Artrip, executive director for public safety. “On Monday morning, we conducted a more in-depth examination. We were looking for hanging branches, sharp objects, exposed electrical wires — anything that might pose a safety hazard. When we found something, we would relay the information to Ron’s team through the command center, and they would make the necessary arrangements to deal with it. We cleared each building individually, and by noon on Monday, our buildings were back on card access for critical personnel.

“We did the same for parking garages. For example, many UMH employees who remained at the hospital throughout the storm had parked their cars in the 14th Street Garage. Once we determined that each garage was safe, we shuttled employees to their cars.”

Frenk’s tour took him first to the recently renovated high-tech command center at Rosenstiel Medical Science Building, then to Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, across the Schoninger Research Quadrangle to Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, and finally to UMH, he heard numerous stories of the exceptional teamwork during and after the storm.

A common thread was the Alpha-Bravo Team strategy, which had an Alpha Team at each facility on duty during the storm, with a Bravo Team ready to relieve them after 12-hour shifts or when the storm was over, depending on the location.

Sylvester had fared particularly well, reported its director, Stephen D. Nimer, M.D.

“We have recovered very quickly,” he said. “We housed 22 stem cell transplant and leukemia patients during the storm, but now we’re operating on our regular schedules, providing chemotherapy for 150 patients at our downtown facility today. We were also able to see patients at our satellite locations in Hollywood, Coral Springs, Deerfield Beach, Plantation, Kendall, and the Lennar Foundation Medical Center.”

At two locations, however, problems that occurred during the storm required heroic efforts by staff members to make a smoother cleanup possible.

Bascom Palmer had a serious water intrusion, when tiles on an outdoor patio lifted up, sending water pouring down into the Mary and Edward Norton Library of Ophthalmology below.

“We had to move quickly to save our books,” said Eduardo C. Alfonso, M.D., chair of ophthalmology and director of Bascom Palmer. “Doctors and staff who were on duty rushed down with wheelchairs on which they could pile books to move them out more rapidly. In the library’s Dr. and Mrs. Ralph Kirsch Rare Book Room, we have many unique, rare ophthalmology volumes, some of which are too fragile to be touched by hand, so our strategy was to keep water out. We now have blowers drying the air to remove moisture from the carpeting and teams of experts planning the relocation of the library.”

Enabling UMH to remain fully operational, however, ultimately required multiple acts of true physical bravery.

“Our main bank of elevators in the East Building went out three times — at least once with people inside,” said Michael Gittelman, CEO of University of Miami Hospital. “Unfortunately, those elevators need to be restarted from a small motor room up above the roof. In the height of the storm, each time the elevators went out, Rolando Rivero, our director of plant operations, would go up to the roof, which is 14 stories off the ground, and then have to climb a 10-foot open staircase in the howling wind to get inside a motor room and do the reset. He was very brave, but our elevators had to remain working.”

On the Coral Gables campus, Ben Riestra, M.B.A., chief administrative officer of the Lennar Center, said the building was brought back up in stages, with most of it ready for patients on Wednesday.

“Although we lost power, our strategy was to use spot coolers on our emergency generator to cool areas such as our pharmacy to maintain our medications and supplies,” he said. “We waited an additional day and reopened our ORs, GI rooms and interventional radiology rooms on Thursday, because the rise in temperature and humidity in these rooms required them to be terminally cleaned for sterilization.”

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