How to prepare for disaster: Lessons from Katrina

Business interruption insurance compensates you for lost income if you have to vacate the premises due to disaster-related damage.

I am a urologist in private practice in the New Orleans area and I work at two hospitals located in the middle of the city in the uptown and Garden District areas. Shortly before Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in August, I took one of the last flights out and moved my family to Austin, TX. As you know, our city and much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast were violently thrashed by Katrina in one of the worst disasters ever to hit the United States. (For more on the effect of the hurricane on urologists practicing in New Orleans, see "Life after Katrina: 'We can move on,' urologists say".)

After the storm, I was caring for patients using the Internet, my electronic medical records program, and the telephone. The many stories of the heroics performed by the medical profession in this community certainly eclipse some of the unfortunate events that took place with a few terminal patients. Because the clinical activities have been so well reported, I want to share with you my experience on disaster prevention as well as some advice from another Katrina colleague, urologist Joe Macaluso, MD.

The best time to respond to a disaster is before it happens. A relatively small investment of time and money now may prevent severe, irreparable loss and disruption of business in the future.

Please don't think that this kind of disaster is unique to the areas at risk for hurricanes. Every area of the country is subjected to some kind of disaster: floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, ice storms, landslides, etc. Manmade disasters-an oil spill, civil unrest, a terrorist attack-can devastate the surrounding neighborhood and the economy. Even though an area has never been damaged, there is no guarantee that it will not happen tomorrow.

I suggest you begin by asking yourself these questions:

Next, I suggest finding out which natural and technological disasters can happen in your area or community. Even if you are not in a disaster-prone area like the Gulf Coast, something like a chemical tanker truck overturning can prevent you and your staff from reaching your facility. Many disasters, like windstorms, tornadoes, and earthquakes, can strike quickly and with little or no warning. At this time, when so many of our practices depend on computers and the Internet for their daily operations, power outages, brown-outs, or surges can affect your business and can bring it to a screeching halt.

No medical practice should be without a disaster plan. Numerous reports have shown that as many as 40% of small businesses do not reopen after a major disaster. The shattered practices of New Orleans were unprepared for a disaster; they had no plan or backup systems and suffered financial ruin.