HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — The tornado outbreak on April 27, 2011, killed 253 people across the state and thousands were injured. When a nightmare like that becomes real life, the place that is meant to serve, protect, and heal the wounded must step up.
Huntsville Hospital was a big part of healing the injured in North Alabama. While hospitals prepare for the worst-case scenario, some say that scenario actually came true.
“A lot of those worst-case scenarios were coming true,” said Joyce Thomas, the Emergency Preparedness Manager for Huntsville Hospital. “They were all happening and it was unbelievable. You sit back and think, we plan for this but it’s really happening and that was the scary part.”
Thomas was working in the Emergency department of the hospital in 2011 when tornadoes ripped through the area.
“There was a lot coming in and the injuries that we did get were severe,” she remembered. “We did get a lot of the severe head injuries and chest injuries.”
Because they were tracking the storms days in advance, Thomas says the hospital was prepared for an influx of patients and day of the outbreak, the Emergency Operations Plan was activated.
Tracy Doughty, the Operations Senior Vice President of Huntsville Hospital, says he could never forget April 27, 2011.
“I think a thing that we really noticed that people really step up when they need to,” said Doughty. “We had employees who were at home, headed to vacation, doing all sorts of stuff and they just came to work to help out and see what they could do.”
He says the hospital learned a lot from that day and says communication is key, inside and outside the hospital.
“With fire, police, the city, EMA, the state… we think those communication ties we had with them that we had practiced and we had done ahead of time helped a smooth transition,” said Doughty.
Though they were as prepared as they could be ten years ago, there were lessons that they learned from that day like the importance of emergency power to keep the hospital running and communication.
“We actually changed our emergency codes that we use internally,” said Thomas. “So instead of using the heavy codes before, we use plain language now. So if you’re a patient or a visitor here at the hospital… if we say there’s a tornado watch or tornado warning, it’s clear, plain language and people know how to respond to that.”
Besides severe weather, other overhead announcements in plain language include an active shooter or an evacuation. Thomas says this betters the hospital as a whole and years later, they are even more prepared.
While the hospital staff learned a lot from April 27, 2011, the one thing they want the community to remember is to take weather warnings seriously.