Remembering Hurricane Katrina

As Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Mississippi Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, Singing River Health System continued to keep its doors open and provide quality clinical care. Here, you will find stories from a variety of Singing River Health System team members who were here before, during, and after the storm. Discover how each of their stories highlight the pride, passion, and commitment of Singing River Health System.

David Higdon
Emergency Services Manager, Ocean Springs Hospital

On August 29th 2005, Emergency Services Manager, David Higdon, was standing ready in Ocean Springs Hospital. The hurricane team was in place and prepared to ride out Katrina, but little did Higdon and his team know that Ocean Springs Hospital was about to become their temporary home.

During the storm the medical staff received sporadic reports from ambulance teams, who ventured out during lulls to look for anyone in need of medical assistance. As severe emergency events began to unfold before their eyes, Higdon and his team started to realize the amount of chaos happening along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Before the winds of the storm completely settled, the first U.S. Coast Guard rescue helicopter touched down on the helipad outside Ocean Springs Hospital. Staff was instantly overcome with people searching for medical help and shelter. Both Ocean Springs and Singing River Hospitals experienced a massive influx of patients, jumping from 90 patients per day to more than 200 afterwards.

Many employees working in the days after the storm had no idea if their loved ones were safe, and with cellular towers down, they had no way to contact the outside world. Higdon was not able to leave Ocean Springs Hospital until three days after the storm. He then found his home in Biloxi completely destroyed, and simply went back to work.

“A lot of us lost our houses here,” said Higdon, “but we stayed here to care for people.”

Two major problems struck Ocean Springs Hospital in the wake of the storm. Approximately 48 hours without access to water or air conditioning in the late August heat, left the floors saturated with moisture, making even the simple act of walking hazardous.

Our resilient staff worked quickly to find solutions to the problems they faced. Box fans were brought into patient rooms to keep them cool. To help orchestrate the treatment of the immense number of patients, a fast track area was created to process those with more easily treatable ailments as quickly as possible. The amount of additional support the health system received was also incredible, doctors who did not ordinarily work in Emergency Services volunteered their time and expertise. Nurses and doctors from across the country appeared at our door ready to do whatever was needed, and provide our exhausted medical staff with momentary relief.

“Everybody pulled together and did what they had to do,” Higdon said, “People needed us, it’s what we do.”

Roy Dodez, RN
Patient Care Coordinator

In the time of crisis and chaos following Hurricane Katrina, it was the constant professionalism of his co-workers that stood out to Patient Care Coordinator, Roy Dodez, R.N.

“Everyone made patient care a priority,” said Dodez.

Despite the enormous personal loss, our staff members endured, their commitment to caring for the community never wavered.

“You can’t fix your house,” Dodez said, “but you can go to work and make sure you’re helping as much as you can.”

As medical and facilities staff came together to solve logistical and medical problems, the rest of our employees did what they could to take care of each other.

“The hospital had things up and running that no one else had. They had air conditioning, and I was able to shower. And they fed us.”

The commitment and teamwork of everyone throughout Singing River Health System ensured that our communities never lost the compassionate care they deserve.

In the aftermath of Katrina, it was the commitment of our staff to place patient care before themselves that stands out to Roy Dodez, RN.

Suzi Russell, MSN, RN
Chief Nursing Officer

As Hurricane Katrina approached our shores, Chief Nursing Officer, Suzi Russell, was doing what she always does: taking care of some of our most vulnerable guests in our ICU. Once the decision was made that for our patient’s safety it would be better to hunker down, Suzi and her team headed home, packed their bags, and arrived back at work on Sunday morning ready to work as normal.

As the storm raged around them, things inside the hospital were working fine.

“The changes made to our hurricane plan after Hurricane George had made us much more resistant to damage,” said Russell, “things ran very, very well.”

Early on Monday, Suzi and her staff began receiving reports of the storm surge. Many of them realizing that their homes were likely gone. Despite this, along with ever growing concerns for the safety of loved ones, our ICU staff put their heads down and continued taking care of their patients. They ignored the terror of the outside world, in order to bring peace and health to those in their care.

“We were able to stay up and stay going. Very quickly after the winds died down, patients started coming on a scope we had never seen before.”

Though no floors went down, and damage to the hospital itself was minimal, the infrastructure around us was totally destroyed. For Suzi and her staff the immediate problem was a lack of water from non-emergency sources, which meant that dialysis, a major need for most ICU patients, was not possible as well as use of suction equipment.

Our medical staff immediately began searching for solutions in the form of older equipment before our facilities management team and their leader, W.L. Jones, came to the rescue. W.L. and his team, used a pump to suck water from the Singing River Hospital duck pond into our chillers and water towers. This not only gave Suzi and her staff the ability to perform much needed medical procedures, but also ensured that the hospital’s air conditioning system continued to function in the late August heat, keeping both patients and staff comfortable and safe.

After the storm, most of our medical staff worked 12 to 16 hour shifts seven days a week.

“There were so many needs in the community,” said Russell,” and my employees were in need because they lost their houses. The hospital was just about the only sanctuary where you could go where things were still working normally.

It was one of our finest hours.”

Jim (CRNA) and Sandy (RN) Hoover

For many coast residents, recovering from Hurricane Katrina was a family affair, and for Jim and Sandy Hoover, the tale was no different. Jim, CRNA, and Sandy, RN, have been a part of the Singing River Health System family for more than twenty years, they both rode out the storm, as well as the weeks afterward, inside Ocean Springs Hospital.

For Jim, the way the hospital responded and took care of its employees was the highlight of his career.

“I can’t express my gratitude for the way they cared for employees during that time,” said Jim, “Washing clothes, providing gasoline and fuel, and hot meals. The entire way the administration supported employees, it was the golden time in performance for the hospital system. I have a wonderful sense of pride of working there during that time.”

Sandy echoed Jim’s sentiments, recalling her first memory of Kevin Holland, now CEO of Singing River Health System, in his role as administrator of Ocean Springs Hospital. In the immediate days following the storm, Ocean Springs Hospital was without air conditioning, creating a dangerous situation for patients and staff, especially for those older patients suffering from congestive problems.

“I went to the administration offices and said we have to get the boards off the windows so we can get some air flowing into these rooms so these patients can breathe,” Sandy says.
“Kevin said he’d take care of it himself, grabbed some maintenance workers and tools, and proceeded to tear down the boards which were installed to protect the windows during the storm. This simple act provided much needed relief for our patients, and also exemplifies the team spirit of all our staff during this trying time. Job titles and normal roles were thrown out the window, as everyone came together to do whatever was needed to keep our hospital functioning and continue caring for our community.”

Jim and Sandy continued working in the aftermath of the storm, helping patients and co-workers in whatever way possible. When the day was done, they would head home, try to clean up and salvage their battered home, then come right back to work.

During and after the storm the outpatient surgery area at Ocean Springs Hospital, where Sandy is a Patient Care Manager, became an unofficial shelter for a small group of about six elderly couples. The couples needed minimal medical care, but had no place to call home and were unable to be evacuated to a shelter. One of these families had been rescued in the midst of the storm by firefighters from their beach front condo. The brave firemen floated the couple out of the building on a mattress and brought them to the Ocean Springs Emergency Room. The couples were in disbelief of the damage and wanted to return home.

“Most of them were elderly and lived in condos on Front Beach. We couldn’t convince them that there was nothing for them to go back to. They could hardly move so we had to convince them to stay due to how unsafe it was,” said Sandy.

In order to calm and convince them, Jim hopped in his truck and drove down to check on their homes. He was met by Ocean Springs police officers who confirmed what Jim already knew. There was nothing left.

Our employees not only took care of their patients, they also took care of each other. Jeff Gray came up to the hospital to check on his wife, Patient Care Manager, Lila Gray, RN, and when he saw Sandy he asked her about the condition of her home.

“When I told him we lost the downstairs of our house, he hugged me and said don’t worry, I am going to help rebuild your house,” said Sandy.

Jeff followed through, helping the Hoover’s rebuild their home every weekend for six months.

“Everybody on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, we didn’t cry, we just did it,” Sandy said, “We just pulled together and did it.”

W.L. Jones
Maintenance Manager (Retired)

Talk to our employees about life at Singing River Hospital following Hurricane Katrina and mention the name W.L. Jones. You will hear about the huge impact this man had on the conditions at our hospital during a trying time, but if you ask Jones about his experience -he’ll tell you it was teamwork that kept the hospital up and running.

W.L. Jones was a manager in our maintenance department and rode out every storm since Hurricane Frederick at Singing River Hospital. So when Hurricane Katrina made her way towards the Gulf Coast, Jones and his team were ready.

“We always have a game plan for any storm. We had just put in a new generator system that worked fine and maintained emergency and normal power to the hospital,” said Jones.

During the storm, Jones and his crew were spread throughout Singing River Hospital constantly monitoring and communicating via radio to make sure any problem was addressed quickly. Water supply is always a problem during any major natural disaster, and that was no different in Pascagoula during Hurricane Katrina.

“The city always promises that water won’t be lost, but you always do in a storm. The night after, with both crews working together, we did some make shift work to set up a pump to move water from the duck pond to the cooling towers,” Jones said.

This brilliant concept was an afterthought. The construction and maintenance crews worked with what they had, using PVC pipe and firehoses connected to a pump to be able to fill the cooling towers. This ingenious idea, which had never been tried at Singing River Health System before, got the air conditioning units working throughout the hospital bringing much needed relief to our patients and staff.

But water was not the only issue our construction and maintenance teams faced.

“We had more problems coming in than we could immediately handle, and just had to prioritize and work hard.”

The amount of Diesel fuel needed to keep the generators running was fast becoming a big problem. Maintenance secretary, Susan Dees, hustled and harried every source she could in order to fulfill the hospital’s fuel requirements. She was so successful that after a couple of days our crews began diverting diesel trucks to other areas in the community because Singing River Hospital was on the verge of having too much.

After a few days, ice and water deliveries began to flow into the National Guard Armory at the Pascagoula Fair Grounds next to Singing River Hospital. The National Guard was ill-equipped with only one forklift, Jones and his crew offered their assistance in exchange for ice and water for the hospital.

At the end of each day, Jones would gather his team and they would load their trucks with the left over ice, and then venture out into the community distributing ice to whoever needed it.

Jones spent 11 straight days at Singing River Hospital, along with his daughters, Kristi Richards and Heather Webb, both Singing River Health System nurses, before finally leaving to check on his own home.

“We had some good people,” said Jones, “A good crew. It was a team effort. Nobody stood out more than anybody else. Everybody did their part and I always tried to do mine.”