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Disaster averted in NYC

January 16, 2009
by kate
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Those of us working and living in New York City had a huge scare yesterday. In the late afternoon, breaking news hit that a commercial plane had crashed into the Hudson River. Immediately, most of us feared the worst. Even if the impact itself didn’t cause serious damage, the waters were frigid, meaning it would be impossible for anyone to swim to safety (temperatures yesterday were at the coldest they had been all season — until today).

As the media learned and related more information, and reports started to surface that all of the 155 passengers and crew members were believed to be safe, a huge wave of relief swept over the city. But it was more than relief; it was shock — particularly as the details become known.

· First, the accident was caused by geese that had flown into not one, but both of the engines. As a result, the pilot, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, had to float the plane into the river.

· Second, the reason that the temperature of the water — a chilling 36 degrees — wasn’t a huge factor (experts said that hypothermia can hit within five to eight minutes at that temperature) was that the response was so rapid from nearby commuter ferries as well as the coast guard. Passengers were able to stand on the wing of the plane as they were ushered right onto rescue boats (see the amazing photo below). Only a few had to wade in the water, and not for very long.

My take from all of this is that there were two key factors that saved the passengers and crew — leadership by the pilot, who was able to remain calm and make a landing that is being called the “Miracle on the Hudson,” and preparedness on the part of the ferry operators and local authorities.

The November, 2008 issue of HCI features an article I wrote on disaster preparedness (Weathering the Storm); in that piece, the same two themes kept emerging: leadership and preparedness. I realize that in light of the economic situation, disaster preparedness/recovery may not be on top of every healthcare executive’s priority list, but yesterday’s incident serves as another reminder that you never know what might happen. A hospital could get hit by a storm, a blackout, a flood, an earthquake, or even a terrorist attack (scary, but a reality), and executives need to do their best to ensure that if disaster strikes, their facility is ready.

Take a lesson from Lynn Witherspoon, vice president and CIO at Ochsner Health System in New Orleans (which, after surviving Hurricane Katrina, was much better prepared when Hurricane Gustav hit this past fall).

“We had a real-life experience that taught us the value of getting our disaster plan in place.”

Be prepared, because you never know what tomorrow could bring.

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