VA hospital hosts drill to train hundreds in event of hurricane disaster

Training staff to create field hospital

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - With forecasters are predicting an above average hurricane season this year, agencies are preparing for the worst.

That's why a first-ever hurricane disaster drill by the West Palm Beach VA Medical Center is being held this week called the Sunshine Endeavor.

Don DeLucia, who works for the PBC All-Hazards Incident Management Team, walked us through the scenario:

"Category 5 hurricane, that veered across Florida. It's affected the lake and caused major flooding. It's really overloaded the system," he said.

This scenario for "Hurricane Thomas" is only a drill but it's the first of its kind for Palm Beach County. The VA hospital teamed up with other agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, National Weather Service and the U.S. Coast Guard to host a full scale hurricane exercise on Wednesday, training hundreds of staff for the worst.

"Our hospitals might be overloaded with patients or may be damaged from the storm. So the VA can come in and set up a mobile field hospital," said DeLucia. "They would be in addition to our local hospitals if they're overloaded, if there is lots of injuries, lots of casualties. It's a good drill for them. The first time they've ever done this."

A mock field hospital and disaster command center took over the Palm Beach County Fire Rescue Headquarters in West Palm Beach for the exercise.

Volunteers, doctors and nurses trained on treating hundreds of "victims."

"We are set up like a hospital. Staffed with nurses, staffed with doctors and it has all the equipment you would need," said volunteer Pattie Moss.

Moss worked on processes hundreds of storm victims in the field hospital.

"It's a massive massive undertaking. It's so impressive," she said. "It would be much easier if we got called to a natural disaster, to do the same job."

We caught up with VA doctor Gio Baracco, who was busy treating victim after victim inside the tent hospital.

"Some of them are coming with traumatic wounds, some of them are coming with heart attacks or strokes. Some people have lost their medication, some people have skipped dialysis," he said. "We will be much better prepared after this exercise."

He said he had never worked a real storm before and knows the training will be valuable in the real deal.

"It's a different pace and standard of care that we are normally used to in a fully stocked hospital," said Baracco. "In a medical tent, our resources are limited. Our lab, X-ray and pharmacy capabilities are limited. We have to work and make do with what we have available."

Volunteer Tammy Culmer played a flood victim and one of Baracco's patients.

"My house flooded during the storm and I lost everything," she said. "I'm actually a diabetic so I'm having a hypoglycemic episode."

But in real life, she's a nurse in training.

"It's teaching me and putting me in a different mindset as far as what i need to do as an upcoming nurse," she said.

A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter even practiced taking patients out of the field hospital.

"Extremely valuable. We get phenomenal training out of this, just to be on this end of it," said Jesse Lataille, a U.S. Coast Guard flight mechanic.

The American Red Cross and Salvation Army were also on hand to provide hydration and meals for staff, volunteers and mock victims.

"Drills like this are really important because when the real thing happens, we'll be better prepared," said Steve Bayer, a Red Cross volunteer who was a shelter coordinator during Hurricane Matthew. "I was here in '04 and '05 when we got hit badly. If the Hurricane Center says it's gonna be a bad year, I believe it."

As they prepare for the real thing, those organizations hope to recruit more volunteers before a storm hits.

"My plea is we're looking for some more volunteers, people who can help us staff and run shelters," he said. "We need as many storms as we can get," said Bayer.

You can call 561-833-7111 to sign up to be a Red Cross volunteer or just click here for more information.

The National Hurricane Center predicts between 11 and 17 named storms this year, with two to four being major hurricanes.

The following agencies participated in Wednesday's drill:

Region 7 All-Hazards Incident Management Team (AHIMT)
US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)
West Palm Beach VA Medical Center
US Department of Homeland Security, Immigration & Customs Enforcement – Miami
US Coast Guard Air Station Miami – USCG District 7
National Weather Service – Miami-South Florida
Federal Bureau of Prisons – Miami
Edward J. Healey Center
Florida Department of Health – Epidemiology
Florida Department of Health Region Seven Hazmat Team
Palm Beach County Fire Rescue
Palm Beach County Healthcare Emergency Response Coalition
City of Coral Springs 

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