Voices of Angels: Disaster Lessons from Katrina Nurses

Nursing Book Club

Voices of Angels: Disaster Lessons from Katrina Nurses

Facing a crisis, nurses rise to the challenge

By by Gail Tumulty, RN, Ph.D., CNAA, and John R. Batty, RN, MSN, HCSM (Pelican Publishing, 2015)
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Reviewed By Christine Contillo, RN, BSN

Labor Day weekend of 2015 was the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina striking the Gulf Coast. Like most of the country back in 2005, I watched the 24-hour television coverage of the hurricane’s aftermath, riveted to the disaster unfolding in front of me and wondering how I would have acted if I’d been closer. Two new books I read recently helped me put into context what the nurses on the scene confronted while also providing information that could be useful in the future.

Lessons From the Gulf

The first book, Voices of Angels: Disaster Lessons from Katrina Nurses, was co-written by the late Gail Tumulty, RN, Ph.D., CNAA, who was the inspiration behind the creation of the master’s-level Loyola Health Care Systems Management Program at the Loyola University New Orleans School of Nursing. Coauthor John R. Batty, RN, MSN, HCSM, is a psychiatric nurse and disaster management expert.

Together, they interviewed nurses and healthcare workers in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Tumulty and Batty later presented their findings at an American Nurses Association conference, where they argued that young nurses need to learn the lessons taught by the storm and understand how nursing practice needs to change in preparation for future disaster management.

In Voices of Angels, Tumulty and Batty share the stories of some of the people they interviewed. While many of us have heard the accounts of individual New Orleans hospitals following Katrina, this book calls out the individual employees who made a difference and includes small but significant details that might otherwise go unnoticed in disaster planning.

One of the most pointed lessons to emerge from Katrina is that backup generators placed in the basement of a flood-prone building will be useless when that building floods. Only one hospital in the New Orleans area had been built with generators above basement level and thus was able to maintain their electrical service, including elevators and lights.

The area hospitals that didn’t have above-ground generators suffered severe consequences. Modern hospitals are dependent on electricity for a lot more than lights and air conditioning. Much of the machinery that we now rely on for patient care, like medication-dispensing systems, won’t work at all without power. Loss of electrical power was only one of the problems that ensued. Without water, toilets wouldn’t flush. Without daily deliveries, food soon ran short — most hospitals now operate with only a two- to three-day supply of food.

The “angels” of the title are the RNs who had the leadership skills and ability to improvise necessary to overcome those obstacles. For example, one hospital sent employees to a nearby Walmart for food and supplies. Those improvisations made an unforgettable difference to those nurses’ patients and make these stories unforgettable for the reader.

A Textbook for Disaster

The second book, Designing and Integrating a Disaster Preparedness Curriculum: Readying Nurses for the Worst, by Sharon A.R. Stanley, RN, Ph.D., RS, FAAN, and Thola A. Bennecoff Wolanksi, RN, MSN (Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing, 2015) complements those inspiring stories with practical advice, providing a fascinating textbook for nursing leaders at every level.

Since 9/11, government agencies have recognized that casualties can be minimized through effective disaster preparedness. Since nurses are the largest segment of the healthcare workforce and are trained in critical thinking, effective communication and collaboration, incorporating disaster management into their education can benefit both the facilities in which they work and the surrounding communities.

The authors present the rationale for disaster preparedness and the how-tos of accomplishing it. The book discusses various types of disaster-preparedness education, including simulation, online training and classes offered by various government agencies (such as FEMA, and Homeland Security) as well as community involvement and drills with non-governmental organizations like the Red Cross.

The book explores many possibilities for theory and practicum. It provides photos and examples of tabletop exercises; offering sample associate, bachelor’s and graduate-level curricula; and even considers internships and global initiatives.

The information provided is invaluable and should earn this book a place on the shelf of every nursing administrator, nursing educator and anyone else in a leadership position who may have to deal with the kind of incidents we don’t like to contemplate: floods, infectious disease outbreaks, active shooters or massive explosions. This book will help you plan, control, collaborate and respond to any incident with the potential for mass casualties. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.   

Christine Contillo, RN, BSN, is a public health nurse who suggests joining a book club as a reason to put down trashy magazines and look smart on the subway.

This article is from workingnurse.com.

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