When a hurricane threatens to hit North Carolina, Novant Health and New Hanover Regional Medical Center (NHRMC), now part of Novant Health, focus on the four Cs: communications, coordination, command and control.

Talking to team members throughout the organization to work together to create a well-executed hurricane plan is the bread and butter of Matt Merritt, emergency preparedness manager for Novant Health, and Paul Carr, hospital and regional disaster operations manager for NHRMC. This mindset helped them navigate Hurricane Florence in 2018, which cut off Wilmington from the rest of the state for several days.  

Shelbourn Stevens talks with a patient.
Shelbourn Stevens talks with a patient.

“As soon as a hurricane is projected to hit the coast, we make sure to start having conversations with our team members,” said Shelbourn Stevens, president of Novant Health Coastal Market and Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center. “But we also remind them they need to have plans at home for their families.”

Stevens weathered multiple hurricanes in his 15 years at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center, including spending six nights at the hospital during Hurricane Florence. He’s a pro at preparing early – and thinking about the next storm before the current one is even over.

“I tell people to evacuate early,” he said. “Don’t wait until you need the shelter – especially if you or someone in your household has an underlying health condition. Make your evacuation plan before you need it.”

Before a hurricane hits

Merritt said the teams begin having conversations about a hurricane plan before the storm reaches the Caribbean. The supply chain, corporate construction, and real estate teams are heavily involved in the planning. They’ll position medical supplies where they might be needed and make sure building drains are cleared and any outdoor equipment is secured.

NHRMC’s emergency medical services team also works with outside organizations, including the National Weather Service, NOAA hurricane center, state emergency preparedness coalitions, and Accuweather, to be as up to date as possible on the storm’s path.

Hurricane Florence was a long-lasting storm that changed from a Category 4 to a tropical storm and back to a Category 1 over the course of several days, causing devastating floods. In the wake of that, Carr created a “144 hours (six days) to landfall” timeline, which outlines the different decisions the organization must make as the hurricane gets closer to land. This helps the team determine when to “harden” facilities and when to close facilities if necessary. At this point, NHRMC’s AirLink helicopters and VitaLink ground transport crews step in to move patients inland.

“Our pre-planning helps our communities,” Merritt said. “Our readiness reduces the need for regional, state and federal support, leaving those agencies more able to concentrate on the communities we serve.”

During the storm

Both hospitals make sure its staff is safe, whether that means they’ve relocated inland or have prepared to stay and help the community.

In New Hanover County, the county government sets up a care coordination unit that allows special-needs residents to stay at NHRMC because they may need more specialized care than they could receive at a shelter.  

During a particularly long storm, Merritt said the teams meet regularly to review how the plan is working so far and whether anything needs to change.

After it’s over

The work isn’t done when the storm subsides. In the immediate aftermath, the teams must begin clearing debris and determining whether floodwaters will prevent staff from coming back to work. Merritt said the teams also work to thoroughly document all their expenses to ensure the community can qualify for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reimbursement if necessary.

The teams also hold debriefing conversations to determine what went well and what can be improved before the next storm.

“Remarkable emergency preparedness requires that we leverage our inclusive culture to improve for the next response,” Merritt said.