VA is no stranger to federal coordinating centers, or storms with names like Rita, Gustav, Ike, and now, Harvey and Irma, which usually prompt the opening of one.

When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston and Texas’ Gulf Coast August 25, bringing fear and devastation, facilities throughout VA’s South Central Health Care Network and Oklahoma City VA Medical Center put their training, expertise and experience to work in support of a federal coordinating center stood up to support the storm’s victims.

VA staff and teams of volunteers with the Oklahoma City VA Health Care System, the G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery VA Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi and Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System in Little Rock, Arkansas, all stood up centers with state and local emergency response agencies and officials to be on alert to receive, triage and transport patients evacuated from Hurricane Harvey’s wrath.

Federal coordinating centers are built on the voluntary commitment of local health care communities and emergency response networks,” said Dr. Skye McDougall, VISN 16 network director. “Our dedicated VA professionals are experts in definitive care and treatment for our Veterans, and this expertise and experience is invaluable when horrific events like Hurricane Harvey challenge our neighbors.”

VA relies on an existing structure of highly-trained medical professionals to fill alert emergency operations teams well versed in all aspects of coordination, evacuee patient staging and interoperability of efforts with multiple local hospital networks. Once activated, these centers use a full complement of staff including physicians, nurses, clinicians, social workers, mental health specialists, food and nutrition personnel and administrative staff to provide essential care and treatment to those who may have lost homes, possessions, dignity and hope, to disaster.

“It’s very important to our team that we bring our heart and soul to those in great need. We might not be able to replace an evacuee’s home, but we can help restore hope and well-being through empathetic, compassionate care,” said McDougall.

Although all three coordinating centers stood down over Labor Day weekend, they were prepared should the need arrive.

The VA medical center in Jackson was designated as the only federal coordinating center in Mississippi – tasked with creating a patient reception area, and coordinating a network of hospitals in the local area capable of providing definitive care for patients from other states.

In addition to the coordinating center, the Little Rock VA also activated a temporary call center, acting in relief of the Houston VA call center on the 7th floor of the John L. McClellan Memorial Veterans Hospital in Little Rock. The Jackson VA Medical Center also assisted the Houston Call Center by answering more than 23,000 calls.

Oklahoma City was one of 63 federal coordinating centers across the United States and was led by the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center. It was comprised of volunteers from local area hospitals and supporting agencies. Previously the Oklahoma City federal coordinating center was activated for Hurricane Rita in 2005 (99 patients received), Hurricane Gustav in 2008 (30 patients received) and Hurricane Ike in 2008 (activated but no patients received).

About the author: Jeff Clapper is a public affairs officer for VA’s North Texas Health Care System.

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Published on Sep. 6, 2017

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