WEB EXCLUSIVE: Flooded Hospital Shortens A Long Road Back

On June 7, 2008, record flooding from nearby Haw Creek filled the basement and up to six inches on the first floor of Columbus Regional Hospital in Columbus, IN, forcing the hospital to evacuate 157 patients. The laboratory, pharmacy, IT center, radiology equipment, medical records, and food service facility that were housed in the hospital’s basement were destroyed. The hospital sustained more than $200 million in damages and was forced to close during recovery and rebuilding efforts. Initial estimates put this process at 10 to 12 months, but through the hard work of hospital employees and countless volunteers Columbus Regional Hospital reopened its doors October 27, 2008, less than five months after the flooding.

Following is the story of the response and recovery.

Flooding in Columbus, IN around the Columbus Regional Hospital
Flooding in Columbus, IN around the Columbus Regional Hospital

Dave Lenart, director of facilities and materials management at Columbus Regional Hospital, was surprised when he received a call from hospital CEO Jim Bickel on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Bickel wanted to know what the hospital’s emergency plan was if the creek behind it overflowed. Lenart told Bickel that he had discussed this scenario with security in the past and they had planned to reroute parking as necessary, but noted that he had never seen the creek overflow. Bickel also wanted to know if Lenart could get sandbags delivered to the hospital quickly.

Lenart began calling contractors to deliver sandbags to the hospital and rallied his facilities team as well. He tried calling the hospital’s main phone line and thought it was unusual that the line was busy, but chalked it up to high call volume. After a second attempt to get through, Lenart knew something was wrong. If there was any potential for flooding at the hospital, the basement where the phone switch was located, would be vulnerable. Lenart contacted Martha Myers, Columbus Regional Hospital’s manager of risk and safety services, on her cell phone as he headed to the hospital.

All the typical routes to the hospital were flooded and it took Lenart more than an hour to make the normally 20-minute trip from his home. Lenart described his approach to the hospital buildings like “walking toward a combat zone” and reported that the amount of water present was staggering. Physicians, hospital staff, first responders, military men and women, state police, and community volunteers were working quickly to evacuate the second and third floors of the hospital, set up a staging area in a small parking lot and begin transporting patients to nearby healthcare facilities.

The basement and first floor of the hospital were affected by the flooding.
The basement and first floor of the hospital were affected by the flooding.

Lenart began retrieving wheelchairs and stretchers to support evacuation efforts on the upper floors. Next, he turned his attention to ensuring the hospital’s infrastructure – electricity, water and communications – were running when they could. He worked with hospital contractors to bring in lighting, portable toilets and other necessities. At 1:30 a.m. Sunday, when the water had subsided, Lenart and Bickel walked through the evacuated building of Columbus Regional Hospital and began assessing damages. “It was surreal walking through a completely dark hospital. We lost everything to support the liveliness of what was just a few hours ago. Our primary and emergency electrical systems, boilers, chillers, and transport systems were all dead.” In total, the hospital would sustain more than $200 million in losses.

Creativity and Resourcefulness Save Money, Speed Recovery

In the hours and days immediately following the flooding, Lenart worked tirelessly with FEMA, insurers, and area contractors to clear the hospital and get it back online. He tested all systems to determine what was salvageable and what was lost. Together with his team, he moved and consolidated storage facilities on the hospital campus to create a makeshift shipping and receiving area for supplies, systematically removed all food items from rooms and the kitchen to avoid infestations, stripped beds and gathered linens, removed trash and biohazardous wastes that might pose a threat to employees and contractors working in the building, and secured medication areas. Lenart enlisted contractors to pump water out of the basement – a lengthy process – and cut out drywall that could wick up water, causing further damage. He ordered dehumidifiers and worked with industrial hygienists to clean the air in the hospital and oversee cleaning of all the mud and muck that covered equipment, walls, desktops, and furniture.

In total, the hospital sustained more than $200 million in losses.
In total, the hospital sustained more than $200 million in losses.

Conscious of the countless contractors and volunteers who would be working overtime to return the hospital to normal operations, Lenart provided any temporary solutions he could to aid rebuilding efforts. These included ventilating the building so it would not get stuffy or cause environmental problems, installing lights in the parking lot to help staff working at night feel safe, supplying power to the hospital’s mobile emergency department unit MED-1 and setting up a dietary unit to feed employees and volunteers.

When Columbus Regional Hospital physicians requested heavy surgical equipment from the hospital’s second floor so they could continue to practice at area surgery centers, Lenart and his team got creative. Elevators were not functioning so they devised a way to get a forklift to the second floor, opened up an area of a balcony and lowered large sensitive equipment from surgery to the ground floor. “We were extremely creative and resourceful to make this all happen,” said Lenart.

Lenart also moved quickly to ensure unnecessary expenditures did not hit the bottom line, suspending contracts with vendors and returning all consignments within one week of the flooding, selling back costly equipment, including a bone freezer, and recycling and reusing whenever possible. In the basement, for instance, maintenance staff stripped insulation off copper conductors destroyed by flooding and the hospital sold this as scrap. They also recycled batteries, chemical products, and metals. Contractors moved 130,000 square feet of equipment from the basement, and hospital staff moved an additional 160,000 square feet of furniture and equipment from the first floor. The contents were cleaned and stored until they could be returned to the restored hospital.

Stringent FEMA guidelines required tight scopes of work that also would minimize cost exposures. Cautious not only of costs, but also AHJ requirements, Lenart’s group was required to have thought not just of every system and component of systems, but of every level of interactiveness those systems may have somewhere else in the hospital and demonstrate to insurers that they had thought through every detail and would have the equipment necessary to support the hospital in the way they had in the past. Determining, for instance, that they had everything from hammers and drills and complex diagnostic equipment to simple pots and pans, crash carts, shelving units, and chairs. All of this needed to be documented and accounted for.

Fortunately, Lenart had been asked to assess the hospital’s systems previously as part of routine risk assessment procedures so he had a big checklist in place to work through. And because the hospital already had planned a major rebuilding effort to begin in the fall 2008, he also had architects and engineers who knew the plant and contractors who were prepared to begin work.

Columbus Regional Hospital reopened in October 2008, five months after the flooding.
Columbus Regional Hospital reopened in October 2008, five months after the flooding.

Less than five months after Haw Creek overflowed its banks behind Columbus Regional Hospital and flooded the building, the hospital reopened. Creativity, resourcefulness, and relentless effort from Lenart, the facilities team, countless contractors, consultants, architects, hospital staff, and community volunteers brought a great hospital back online quickly.


TFM asked Lenart about what changes, if any, have been made in the hospital’s emergency response plan, since the flooding in June 2008.

TFM: Have you and your team added guidelines to the emergency response plan for if the creek overflows again?
Lenart: Yes, we have a two part solution. Our short-term solution is to protect the loading dock from becoming the breach into our facility a second time. We’ve installed a temporary flood wall that will protect us from the rising waters of the Haw Creek. The second solution is building a permanent flood barrier that will protect the entire perimeter of the building from any future possible flood waters.

TFM: And have there been any other changes/additions made to the emergency response plan overall?
Lenart: The change we incorporated is to be more involved with our county emergency management officials. In particular, with flooding as being an event, we are closely in tune with the city emergency response to understand the environmental conditions that are happening “up stream.” Along with assessing future weather conditions, we now can actively determine and execute the next level of protective measures to insure protection of the facility.

(Photos courtesy of Columbus Regional Hospital)