Alaska hospitals say they're prepared for the next big one

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) — The next time there's a disaster — and experts say there will be — Alaska Regional Hospital is one of the places where people will be brought.


Each of the five hospitals in the region participates in disaster planning — Alaska Regional, Providence, the Alaska Native Medical Center, the hospital at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson, and Mat-Su Regional Medical Center.

“Can we face everything? Quite possibly not,” said Sean Murphy, Alaska Regional’s disaster specialist and a former flight nurse who knows people at all the local hospitals.

“Are we very well prepared for the things that we think are likely? I think we are,” he added. "An Alaskan can feel confident we are using best practices.”

And that goes for the other hospitals too, Murphy said in a recent interview.

What’s the main disaster they’re planning for? It's something not yet known.

"Our biggest fear, being in Alaska, is earthquakes," Murphy said. “So our hazard vulnerability analysis shows that we will have an earthquake — we don't get to control how strong it's going to be or where it's going to be or when it's going to hit.”

So officials organize regular emergency and communication drills to ensure they’re ready — and city planners aim to control whether new hospitals are built strongly on quake-resistant soils.

But the small hospital and nursing home in Cordova was built on low ground, and on Jan. 23, 2018, a 7.9 magnitude quake struck in the Gulf of Alaska. A tsunami warning was issued for coastal areas in Alaska, including Cordova. The hospital was located in a possible flood zone.

An evacuation was ordered by the hospital administrator, Scot MItchell, to a pre-designated location: a chapel above the potential flood zone.

Thanks to staff and volunteers, the snowy overnight effort was a success, Mitchell said in a telephone interview. All patients were out of the danger zone 10 minutes before the tsunami’s expected arrival. Then the all-clear came at 3:30 a.m., with no major flooding.

Mitchell said planning and preparation helped immensely,

While water level isn’t the concern at Alaska Regional as it is in Cordova, a flood of patients is likely in a disaster. And what about a potential added complication — that the hospital itself is heavily damaged?

“When we are at the edge of our capacity, we will reach out to our partners, whether it's at Providence, or ANMC or JBER,” Murphy said.

In a worst-case scenario, medical staff would make life-and-death decisions on triage in real time, selecting who will be cared for and who will not.

"A person (who) is injured under normal circumstances, they would get the full strength and capacity of a facility per person, to deal with that. In a disaster, or in any sort of event, that can be turned on its head, where we will have to decide what is the most likelihood of their survival and who gets our resources,” Murphy said.

Murphy has seen other disasters first hand — in Haiti and on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, and he knows how bad things can get.

“A first-world country can go very badly very quickly.”

So until that next disaster strikes, it’s planning and more planning.

“We make a plan, we exercise the plan, we see what went well and we reinforce it, we see what didn't go well, and we work on it from a different direction,” Murphy said.

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