From storm surge to patient surge - handling Hurricane Irma in the ER

Emergency rooms were prepared for the increase in patient loads during the storm.

Emergency personnel at UF Health Jacksonville and UF Health North are ready at a moment’s notice for any type of disaster. They know to expect the unexpected, and that includes when patient volumes exceed the number of beds. Hurricane Irma was no exception, as both emergency rooms met the storm with a solid plan and increased staff levels during and after the storm. 

“Everyone did a great job under less than ideal conditions and had a great attitude,” said Ashley Norse, MD, medical director of the UF Health Jacksonville emergency room.

Many area hospitals closed during the storm, rerouting ambulances to one of the UF Health emergency rooms. Due to the weather conditions, some patients who came in before the storm were held because they could not be safely discharged and transported. Those who came in during and after the storm added to the existing full patient load. For both downtown and north campuses, these conditions created a patient surge.

Both emergency rooms saw a 25 percent increase in patient volume. The highest volumes were on Tuesday and Wednesday after the storm, with 246 at one point downtown and 159 at north.

Causes for the surge of patients included added ambulance traffic, an inability to discharge due to weather and lack of transportation, and routine medical needs that required electricity.

Jedd Roe, MD, medical director of the UF Health North emergency room, saw higher-than-expected patient volumes, especially starting one day after the storm. When the patient volume began to drastically rise, Roe focused on problem-solving solutions. He went into the waiting room to see some patients and also set up places to see less-severe cases in the triage area.

“The post-storm recovery period is the toughest time to get through,” Roe said. 

Another contributor to the dramatic increase in patients were those who rely on electricity in their homes to run oxygen tanks. This created a challenge that Norse said was met with creativity and teamwork.

“Our hospital staff were amazing and worked together to make sure all the patients were taken care of,” Norse said. 

Roe plans to use the patient volume numbers gathered from this experience to be even more prepared in the future.

“Each event is different. We always learn from each one,” Roe said.

Featured Faculty

Ashley B. Norse, MD

Ashley B. Norse, MD

Associate Chair, Clinical Operations; Medical Director, Emergency Medicine Clinical Center