Hurricane Katrina hit the New Orleans area on August 29, 2005, with such ferocity that half the city’s residents were displaced. The storm’s more than 100 mile-per-hour winds damaged or destroyed homes and businesses. But New Orleans’ residents are resilient, and city leaders were committed to rebuilding the city.
Warner Thomas, CEO and president of New Orleans-based Ochsner Health System, Louisiana’s largest nonprofit, academic health system, had a healthcare organization to run. Pre-Hurricane Katrina, his strategy to keep the health system operational involved creating a Team A and a Team B.
When the hurricane hit, Team A would be on scene to run the health system during the storm, and Team B would take over health system operations post-Hurricane Katrina.
Timely, regular communication is key
To keep in synch with his leadership team during and after the hurricane, Thomas had scheduled check-ins every morning, late afternoon, and evening. The goal? Get all hands on deck and focus on the work of keeping the health systems’ doors open, while treating patients and supporting staff members.
Post-Hurricane Katrina, many of Ochsner Health System’s staff members didn’t have homes to return to at the end of the workday. The storm had damaged 70% of the city’s occupied housing units, according to CNN. In addition, other hospitals in the area had sustained damage in the storm. Ochsner Health System ultimately acquired three hospitals from Tenant Healthcare Corporation after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.
Lisa Goldstein, associate managing director at Moody’s Investor Service and a nonprofit hospital analyst, told CNBC, “It was a market that…went from over 2,000 hospital beds, to—shortly after Katrina—just 500.”
In the best of times, hospital mergers are difficult. The three hospitals Ochsner Health System acquired from Tenant Healthcare had different systems and cultures—that’s typical with hospital mergers. But this was the worst of times: Medical records had been destroyed, in addition to physical structures—and the staff at the new hospitals were also struggling with housing and uncertain about the future of the city and the surrounding area.
Thomas acknowledges that recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina—in addition to the hospital mergers—were challenging. Clear and ongoing communication among his leadership team and throughout the health system was pivotal to Ochsner Health System’s success.