Hospitals in the Florida Keys bracing for Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm with sustained winds of up to 185 miles an hour, are evacuating patients and preparing to close their doors.
Three hospitals in the Florida Keys — Lower Keys Medical Center, Mariners Hospital, and Fishermen’s Community Hospital — have been discharging patients capable of going home since earlier this week and are coordinating air and ambulance transports for the 20 or so inpatients who remain inside their walls.
“This storm is much more powerful than any storm that’s threatened the Keys since 1935,” Wayne Brackin, chief operating officer of Baptist Health South Florida, a not-for-profit hospital chain serving the greater Miami area, told STAT. “People in the Keys, by and large, are rugged individualists and, historically, it’s been difficult to motivate people to evacuate. The fact this storm is such a monster, and given what they witnessed during Harvey, people are getting out.”
The evacuations, first announced by Gov. Rick Scott at a press conference Tuesday evening, are part of a broader series of mandatory evacuations happening at the behest of local officials. Tourists were ordered to leave the Keys starting early Wednesday morning; residents had until 7 p.m. before they had to drive up the Overseas Highway toward the mainland.
Projections currently show the hurricane may make landfall there early Sunday.
Lynn Corbett-Winn, a spokesperson for the 167-bed Lower Keys Medical Center, not far from the southernmost point in the continental United States, told STAT that hospital officials expected between 10 and 13 inpatients to be transported Wednesday afternoon to Gadsden Regional Medical Center in Gadsden, Ala., on one of the North Carolina National Guard’s C-130 transports. Lt. Col. Matt Devivo, a North Carolina National Guard spokesperson, said the state reserves’ aircraft are routinely used for emergency medical evacuations — including after Hurricane Ivan threatened the Keys in 2004 and during the Haiti earthquake in 2010.
“We are preparing our patients and their families and providing information to them,” Corbett-Winn said. “Patient safety, as always, is our top priority.”
Brackin, whose health system owns Mariners Hospital and Fishermen’s Community Hospital, said the company made the unprecedented decision to shut down both critical-access facilities. The seven inpatients left at those two hospitals, both of which are closer to mainland Florida than Lower Keys Medical Center, will be transferred to one of the system’s hospitals in Miami.
Fisherman’s Community Hospital, located in Marathon, will close at 7 a.m. Thursday. Twelve hours later, Mariners Hospital, a 25-bed facility in Tavernier, will shut down — with its CEO planning to be the last person out of the building.
“There’s a fear factor I haven’t personally observed before,” Brackin said. “The magnitude of the storm and the vulnerability of the Keys make [the closures] an extraordinary decision for us.”