Sumter Regional's tornado shutdown teaching lessons

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ATLANTA - Tearing down a community's only hospital isn't how most people would test their plans, but when a deadly tornado destroyed Sumter Regional Hospital, many experts were taking notes.

Sumter Regional Hospital served nine counties around Americus, Ga., when a tornado struck March 1. No patients or staff were killed, but rebuilding the 50-year-old facility will take years.  Sumter Regional/Morris News Service
Sumter Regional/Morris News Service
Sumter Regional Hospital served nine counties around Americus, Ga., when a tornado struck March 1. No patients or staff were killed, but rebuilding the 50-year-old facility will take years.

The lessons learned March 1 in Americus, Ga., when the county hospital was put out of commission are being implemented across Georgia, in neighboring states and even in Kansas, where a tornado two months later leveled the town of Greensburg, including its county hospital.

State inspectors have been spending time in Americus observing, said David Seagraves, the president of Sumter Regional.

"It's not addressed in any of their manuals," he said.

Like all accredited hospitals, Sumter Regional had drafted plans to cope with various types of catastrophes, from floods to nuclear strikes.

"We always expected that we would be responding to a disaster that occurred in the community in one form or another," he said. "We never expected that we would be the disaster. ... In your wildest dreams, you would never expect that you would lose an entire facility."

When state officials warned the hospital of the possibility of a large tornado, evacuation plans were put into action.

By the time the giant twister formed and zeroed in on the hospital and surrounding medical offices, every patient and staffer was safely tucked away in hallways and basements.

Though the storm killed two people in the community, none was seriously injured at the hospital.

Four hours after it hit, by 1:30 a.m., all the patients and their medical records had been transferred to one of several hospitals in neighboring counties by ambulance or even by school bus.

"We did a good job at the hospital, getting the patients triaged and transported," said Dr. Michael Busman, whose office building was also destroyed.

Within days, President Bush and a slew of federal and state officials arrived to bring help, a temporary treatment structure and funds for reconstruction.

And last Tuesday, Americus voters overwhelmingly approved a bond issue to fund reconstruction of the hospital beyond what the insurance companies will pay.

Reach Walter Jones (404) 589-8424 or walter.jones@morris.com.

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