Storm Front

Storm Front

Things didn’t begin to look dire until Friday evening, August 26, when forecasters announced that the storm, named Katrina, had shifted course. What had begun life a few days earlier in the Bahamas as a tropical depression was now a major hurricane able to generate 170 mph winds, and it was due to hit New Orleans early Monday morning, August 29.

“Living down here you’ve always heard the horror stories of what could happen if a big storm hit the city directly,” says Michael Hulefeld, MHSA ’98, a Cincinnati native who in 1998 moved to New Orleans, where he is vice president of clinical operations for the city’s Ochsner Clinic Foundation.

This time the threat was real. The Ochsner Foundation operates three hospital facilities and 24 clinics throughout southeastern Louisiana, and staff members had been rehearsing and refining an institutional disaster-preparedness plan for years.

The moment the storm track changed on Friday evening, that plan went into effect. At the main facility, where Hulefeld worked, “we ordered five days’ worth of food and water and topped off all of our back-up generators with diesel fuel,” he says.

On Saturday, essential personnel reported for work. These included physicians, nurses, lab and radiology technicians, and facilities, food service, and housekeeping staff, all of whom were prepared to stay on the job for five to seven days, at which point a back-up team would step in. Many of these employees had left behind loved ones who were waiting to be evacuated and homes they could not be sure they’d see again.

By Sunday afternoon, Hulefeld and the nearly 2,000 other people in the hospital—400 of them patients—could feel the effects of the storm. Communication was next to impossible. Cell phones stopped working. Land-line phones functioned sporadically, and people relied on the media for information, much of it sketchy.

Inside the hospital, the power went out shortly after the storm struck, and the back-up generator kicked in, allowing essential medical equipment to operate.

Word came Tuesday morning that the levees had broken, and parts of Jefferson Parish, where the hospital stands, could expect major flooding. Staff members had already moved the hospital’s food service to the second of its 11 floors. The question now was whether they should evacuate the whole facility.

But Katrina’s floodwaters never entered the facility.

Because the hospital was tapped into a water well, the staff had access to water to run sterilizers for the operating rooms as well as toilets and showers. Since anyone who was working at the hospital during the crisis was also living there, “that was a sustaining lifeline for all of us,” says Hulefeld, who spent 35 days living in his office before being able to go home.

Within three days of the storm, Ochsner had managed to order additional diesel fuel and supplies, but as Hulefeld notes, the Federal Emergency Manage-ment Agency confiscated all supplies coming into the area so that the agency could distribute them itself. This slowed the hospital’s ability “to get what we needed to operate,” Hulefeld says. “We found that extremely frustrating.”

What’s more, in the months following Katrina, Ochsner treated a number of uninsured and underinsured patients who would otherwise have gone to nearby Charity Hospital, which remained closed. As of February 2006, Ochsner was still waiting for federal and/or state dollars to help offset the cost of staying open and operational during and after the storm.

What did Hulefeld learn from the ordeal? “You learn how long you can stretch yourself,” he says. “You learn you can never fully prepare for an event like this. You learn how important teamwork is. Our team has never been a more tightly knit group than it is now.” His School of Public Health education, he adds, helped him think critically, act confidently, and demonstrate his leadership skills. “I think a U of M education certainly challenges you on all those fronts.”

By the end of 2005, the Ochsner system had resumed operating at its pre-hurricane capacity, and Hulefeld, who got married in December, was back on the job with no wish to be anywhere else. “It reaffirms the career path that you’ve chosen, in that it’s where you can make a difference,” he says. “Hopefully this was a once-in-a-lifetime event, but as crazy as it sounds, I feel fortunate to have been a part of Ochsner’s response.”

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When Katrina hit, only three hospitals in New Orleans stayed open. One was the Ochsner Clinic Foundation, where Michael Hulefeld, MHSA '98, was about to learn how far he could be stretched.