Ochsner CEO Warner Thomas on Katrina, Harvey & Irma: 'In any sort of disaster there's also opportunity'

Warner Thomas, president and CEO of Ochsner Health System, was COO of the New Orleans-based system when Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the area in 2005.

Given his experience with Katrina, he is familiar with the preparedness process and the rebuilding that takes place following such a natural disaster.

Mr. Thomas recently answered questions from Becker's Hospital Review about his reaction to Hurricane Harvey, how affected Texas health systems can move forward and how those in Hurricane Irma's path can brace themselves for the storm.

Note: Responses have been lightly edited for clarity. 

Question: What was your initial reaction to Harvey and its aftermath? 

Warner Thomas: My initial reaction is sympathy and empathy for the folks who are going through the physical situation. Having gone through Katrina, we certainly can empathize with their situation. The important thing is even though the storm is gone, the aftermath and the challenges and the anguish you have to deal with as part of the recovery will go on for months and years. And that's the thing we all have to remember — even though the story may be out of the headlines, it doesn't mean everybody's OK, and folks are going to be rebuilding for months and years to come. It's a very challenging thing to go through personally and it's challenging for an organization, so my heart goes out to them.

Q: What kind of effect can Harvey have on healthcare in Texas?

WT: From a positive perspective, when you go through events like this is it brings people closer. So a team that goes through this — that goes through Harvey, that goes through a Katrina — they're going to be closer; they're going to be more resilient; there's going to be more trust amongst people. And so there's a lot of positivity that can result from an organizational and a cultural perspective and certainly from a personal perspective.

The challenges are obviously there's tremendous rebuilding; there's tremendous damage; there's flooding. Even today, there are parts of Houston you cannot go back to because they're still flooded, and it's going to be weeks before they can get back there. So that's a really difficult situation to go through for a person. From my perspective, all people can do is continue to support each other, work together, allow people to take the time they need from work when they need it. Organizations that are flexible with people and support their people through these trying times have a much tighter bond afterward, and I think employees really appreciate the organizations that go above and beyond to help them through such a trying situation.

Q: How can health systems rebuild after Harvey?

WT: In any sort of disaster there's also opportunity. Obviously take care of employees and take care of patients going through the disaster. But also understand the long range of opportunities to work differently with other physicians, differently with other healthcare organizations and to be collaborative. The real benefit here is it opens up people's minds to do things differently than maybe they've done previously. We found that in Katrina. As we were going through Katrina, we looked at opportunities to build relationships with [Dallas-based] Tenet Healthcare and ended up purchasing several Tenet hospitals. So that created an opportunity for us to work with more physicians, more hospitals, more employees and patients. So there's always going to be opportunities to work together in a different way, and I think disasters like this — as difficult as they are to go through — also create new thinking, new ideas and new collaboration that may not have existed previously.

Q: How can healthcare systems better prepare for natural disasters like Harvey?

WT: The key things include the basic fundamentals of making sure you have adequate power sources, backup power generation and that you can run enough power for all of your facilities to really operate in a seamless fashion. Also, make sure you have appropriate water sources. One thing that happened during Katrina is we lost our water source from the city. We were fortunate we had a well at our flagship campus that continued to operate, but now at each of our campuses we have wells so we have running water consistently regardless of the city or town water source. Then certainly supplies, staff — making sure you have a team A that stays through the storm and a team B that can come back and essentially relieve team A — are critical components to a plan like this. Preparation ahead of time makes the difference. Hurricane Irma's out in the Caribbean and we're starting discussions about our preparations, things we want to do to make sure we get ahead of the game, things like communication. We're hopeful that's not something we need to prepare for, but once again starting ahead of time, being thoughtful, thinking about your communication and the things you need to do before the storm gets close to you are critical components to make sure you're ready when a storm actually hits your area.


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