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Colleagues share lessons from an F4 tornado
e-Reports, April 16, 2012
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“An event like this really touches your soul,” said ISMA Treasurer Deepak Azad, M.D. With the next breath, he added, “I wish we would have done more disaster planning.”

That’s a message repeated by ISMA leaders, past and present, who faced the tornado’s wrath March 2 and observed the need for routine practice drills and improved communication.

Racing an F4

Dr. Azad was headed from Scottsburg down I-65 to Floyd Memorial Hospital in New Albany when he looked out his right window and saw it – the F4 tornado. He pushed his car as fast as it would go while his heart pounded. “I was outrunning the tornado,” he said. “It’s an experience I’ll not forget.”

Deepak Azad, M.D.
Deepak Azad, M.D.

When he reached Floyd Memorial, he found everyone in the hallways. One of his patients there already knew his home was gone. With help from a local church, Dr. Azad saw him reunited with his family and moved on to assist in other ways.

“We started to setup for people who would need medical supplies and prescription medication,” he recalled, as he began to realize the community was unprepared for a disaster on the scale of last month’s event.

Lessons to take away
  • Plan thoroughly, regularly for disasters.
  • Establish communication between state and local police and agencies.
  • Coordinate press conferences among agencies.
  • Conduct disaster drills, emergency response at regular intervals.
  • Plan to reroute traffic, close roads.
  • Determine if emergency radio frequencies are adequate.
  • Explore new technology for communication.
  • Have a medical reserve corps clearly instructed about when to report.

He repeated a litany that began “I wish we would have….” He wished for more disaster planning, better communication between state and local police and the health department, disaster drills at regular intervals, and the closing of I-65 to reduce traffic.

Ready to restore the damaged community, Dr. Azad said, “I feel like God has given me a second life and I want to reach out to anyone who needs my help.”

Learning from every emergency

Everyone knew conditions were right. Ambulances were pre-positioned in anticipation of severe weather. But immediately after the twister blew through, there was “no information or inaccurate information,” said ISMA Past President Kevin Burke, M.D., of Jeffersonville.

Kevin Burke, M.D.
Kevin Burke, M.D.

A witness to the destruction, he’s still amazed at what an F4 tornado can do. “It’s like God sent a giant bulldozer to go over the ground. Nothing but rubble was left behind.”

The twister took down telephone lines and cell towers so people couldn’t call for help. “News helicopters were our best source of information,” Dr. Burke said. Press conferences by local and state police and federal agencies were not coordinated and radio frequencies set aside for disasters were overwhelmed.

A county health officer, Dr. Burke noted the importance of a medical reserve corps – doctors and nurses to help with mass casualties – as well as better technology for communication and one person with authority to make assessments and disseminate information.

“I guess you can never practice enough,” he said. “We all need to practice emergency responses, but also learn from every emergency how to handle things better next time. The agencies involved will debrief at some point in the future and we’ll make things better.”

Relying on your training

ISMA Past President David Welsh, M.D., was returning home to Batesville after attending a training session in Cincinnati. He heard the news on the radio. The health officer for Ripley County, he called the response he witnessed in Batesville excellent.

David Welsh, M.D.
David Welsh, M.D.

“Everyone on the medical staff was there to help,” he said. “We sent people out to trauma centers. Our nursing homes enacted their readiness plans, and there was great cooperation from surrounding health departments.”

Dr. Welsh ended up that Friday night in Versailles and Holton, where the tornado claimed two lives. He treated wounds, mostly blunt force trauma and nail injuries in the feet. “Your physician mindset kicks in,” said Dr. Welsh. “Despite the situation, you rely on your training.”

Yet, he explained the real challenge was to get the right people involved at the right time. First, EMS, fire/rescue crews and law enforcement conducted search and rescue. When no one else was trapped in debris, clean up began. That’s when Dr. Welsh helped set up shelters, gave tetanus shots, and assured the food and water that arrived were safe.

He recognized a need for local hospitals to hold more practice drills and for the medical reserve corps to have more instruction about when to show up. But his lasting memory? “Watching the response from people from all over – it’s heartwarming!”

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