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Safety in the Eye of The Storm

Sept. 29 started out like any routine day for Patrick Devlin, director of safety, security and emergency preparedness for Tidelands Health. The sky was leaden and a rainstorm was brewing, but the weekend was just two days away and he was anticipating watching his East Carolina Pirates take down the University of Central Florida on Saturday.

Patrick Devlin stands in front of debris from the storm.A hurricane was churning in the Caribbean but posed no immediate threat to the South Carolina coast.

And then he checked his email.

At the top was a prominent notice from the National Weather Service warning that Hurricane Matthew was tracking toward the Southeast coast. South Carolina could not be ruled out as a target.

“I immediately went to the National Hurricane Center website,” Devlin said. “Then I contacted Georgetown County’s emergency management team, our regional health care preparedness coalition and our first responders to make sure we could weather the storm.”

On Sept. 30, after a conference call with the NWS, state emergency management and county emergency management, Devlin notified Tidelands Health senior leaders it was time to begin planning for a hurricane that could strike the area, hug the coast or veer eastward into the Atlantic and leave the Tidelands region unscathed.

On Saturday, Oct. 1, as more than 1,000 walkers gathered for the Tidelands Health Foundation Breast Cancer Walk and area beachgoers basked in the warmth of an early autumn day, Tidelands Health leaders began discussing scenarios and responses and the possibility of a required medical evacuation.

“Leadership talked throughout the weekend,” Devlin said. “I had the inkling that there would be a medical evacuation. The virtual command center was activated so we would know exactly how to execute our plans if we had a medical evacuation.”

Monday morning, Devlin began planning with Georgetown EMD if evacuations were needed. Twice-daily meetings and briefing schedules for senior leaders, managers and directors were set up as all eyes turned southward to monitor Matthew’s advance. Meanwhile, Gov. Nikki Haley and state officials activated the state emergency operations center in Columbia.

By Tuesday morning, the news looked bleak. Matthew was moving westward, closer to the U.S. coast. Haley ordered residents of Zone A in Georgetown and Horry counties to move inland. Plans were made for essential/emergent employee partners to shelter in place at both hospitals. Additional medical equipment and supplies were trucked in from Tidelands’ supply center in Maryville and stored at both hospitals and in the old skating rink on North Fraser Street in Georgetown. Extra food and oxygen were ordered, and generators were checked and rechecked to ensure an adequate supply of fuel. Outside furniture and loose objects were secured or stored so they wouldn’t become projectiles in dangerously high winds.

Even the American flag was taken down.

On Wednesday, as the hurricane wobbled and appeared headed toward Florida’s coast, planning continued. Tidelands Health had gotten permission from state officials for essential/emergent staff to shelter in place. Non-essential/non-emergent staff were released from work at 5 p.m. that day to begin their own preparations, and Tidelands Health offsite locations made plans to close Thursday and Friday.

Tidelands Health leaders and employee partners were holding their breath.

Thursday morning, as Georgetown County residents prepared to evacuate, the news turned grim again: Matthew was on a northerly path, and by the midmorning leadership briefing, hospital leaders were prepared for a direct hit from a Category 2 storm. Devlin activated the Hospital Command Center in Georgetown.

Before noon on Friday, Haley issued an update indicating the storm would be stronger than predicted, with winds extending inland in Georgetown and Horry counties. Matthew would arrive midday Saturday.

It was time to watch and wait.

That evening, as essential/emergent staff hunkered down, confidence and morale were high.

“We were confident about our preparations, and being able to watch the Clemson-Boston College game on TV really raised spirits, especially with Clemson winning big,” Devlin said. “It broke the tension.”

At 11 a.m. Saturday, Matthew came ashore at McClellanville, following the path of the legendary and stronger Hugo. Winds moaned and howled, toppling pines and mighty oaks. Rain fell in torrents throughout the county.

Employee partners never flinched. Team MRI stepped up and helped put tarps over equipment; the environmental services team plugged leaks and mopped water off the floors to keep patient rooms dry. The cafeteria crew also went above and beyond, serving hot meals three times a day. Patient care never faltered.

By Monday, Tidelands Health facilities were mostly operational, a testament to the preparedness of the Tidelands team.

Looking back over the days leading up to the storm, Devlin is calm, cool and most of all modest over his role. “It’s just part of my job,” says the man who’s managed an Ebola crisis for a seven-hospital system in Minnesota and trained as a paramedic.

“It’s all about teamwork. We have a great team at Tidelands Health, from leadership all the way through our employee partners who keep things running every day. Add clear communication, coordinated decision-making, flexibility and leadership, and you have all the elements for getting through a crisis.”