It’s just after 6pm on September 11, and there’s an unusual sense of calm at the normally busy Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital.
There are currently no patients at the health center, located only a short distance from Havana’s waterfront Malecon.
The Ameijeiras, hard hit by Irma, has been completely evacuated.
It’s difficult to picture the reception area empty, except for one staff member at her work station graciously answering every phone call; explaining to the population why the hospital is closed, telling them to call back for updates.
I hope she knows that we have come to report on how one of the country’s principal health institutions is coping after Hurricane Irma. She stops answering calls for a moment to tells us that in the 19 years she has worked at the hospital, she has never experienced a situation like this before, and much less one that has caused the center to close. This is a first.
According to damage reports by the Ministry of Public Health, the basement of the building is flooded with one meter 20 centimeters of contaminated water, too much to pump out and affecting nuclear medicine, radiotherapy, clinical-laboratory, x-ray and out-patient surgery services.
“The record level of sea water, caused by storm surges – the principal cause of damage, even more than the wind – to have penetrated the hospital since it was founded, was one meter 12 centimeters. But Irma surpassed all predictions. According to our most recent estimates, there is currently one meter 50 centimeters of water. The basement area is still completely flooded, and the polyclinics are practically inaccessible,” stated Dr. Rigoberto García Gómez, deputy director of teaching and research at the Hermanos Ameijeiras, speaking to Granma.
As soon as the alarm phase was announced, stated García Gómez, the hospital began to put its disaster prevention plan into action, focused first and foremost on preserving the lives of patients and staff at the hospital; as well as material resources. We began moving everything out of harm’s way, he said, including electrical components, while equipment that couldn’t be moved given its size, or was attached to the wall, were also removed to prevent them from being damaged.
Instructions for the National Health Service were clear: ensure the necessary conditions to continue providing medical services across the entire country, and protect material resources in hospitals and healthcare institutions.
And that’s just what was done; although Irma caused significant damage before deciding to leave.
According to information from the Ministry of Public Health, as of September 11, damage to primary, secondary, and tertiary care centers have been reported, as well as to teaching institutions, above all to lightweight roofing, false ceilings, glass, and windows. Sidewalks have also been affected by fallen trees, while contamination to the water supply in centers that suffered flooding has been reported, in addition to problems with power and the loss of roofing.
Obviously recovery efforts began right away in order to reestablish services as quickly as possible.
Meanwhile, to ensure that the Cuban people continue to receive efficient, quality care, a total of 16 provincial mixed recovery brigades, including construction workers, roofers, plumbers, and electricians among others, where mobilized to help with recuperation efforts across healthcare institutions, noted Dr. Roberto Morales Ojeda, a Party Political Bureau member and minister of Public Health.
He went on to stress the need for the population to cooperate by rigorously complying with all hygiene-sanitary measures; noting that epidemiological plans have been implemented in every province in order to avoid the outbreak of infectious diseases, which usually occur after these kinds of events.
We had to evacuate all the patients from the hospital and ensure they were located in a safe place, stated Dr. García Gómez, because, even after all the measures we took, the water supply was still contaminated by seawater.
These patients continued to receive medical treatment. The cistern is currently being disinfected and we should shortly be receiving potable water, he added.
“Now we are in the phase of getting the Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital back up and running, and are committed to reopening services to the Cuban people, as quickly as possible. This time with better conditions than before it was damaged by the hurricane,” stated the deputy director.
He knows it won’t be easy, as do the rest of the staff, but they’ll all be there tomorrow – conditions and safety permitting – at the hospital where they work and which they love; ready to begin cleaning, sanitizing, and bringing the institution back to life.
There will be no rest until the Ameijeiras has made a full recovery.