Hospital back up after riding out earthquakes

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Hospital back up after riding out earthquakesRidgecrest Regional Hospital is once again 100-percent operational after riding out the 6.4- and 7.1-magnitude earthquakes that rocked the Indian Wells and Searles valleys on July 4 and 5.

“You have some very dedicated staff here at the hospital who put their own safety secondary to the care of patients,” said CEO Jim Suver. “There are a lot of things you assess after a crisis, but in terms of patient outcomes, everything went perfectly. I can’t ask for more than that.”

Suver said he was grateful to see the community fare as well as it did, as one who experienced first-hand the 6.9-magnitude earthquake in San Francisco in 1989 — which killed 63, injured thousands, and caused countless billions in damages.

Meanwhile, there were no fatalities or serious injuries reported in the local area, and the new RRH tower, designed to bounce and sway with force of the quake, did “exactly as it was supposed to” when put to the test.

The new RRH Tower on the southern end of the campus suffered superficial cracks and damage to a seismic beam, the latter of which has since been repaired. The most costly repairs are the water damages caused by broken pipes. Suver noted that RRH staff is reevaluating the plumbing to make sure it is as capable of flexing with impact is the structure itself.

What outperformed even the resiliency of the structure, said Suver, was the dedication of his staff.

“The teamwork I saw following the earthquake was unrivaled by any hospital I’ve worked at in 38 years,” he said. “By rights, these people should have been home taking care of themselves and their families. Instead, they were here taking care of our patients.”

The greatest disruption came with the decision after the 6.4 to transfer patients and move emergency medical operations into a temporary shelter on the hospital lawn.

“We had already decided to evacuate after the 6.4, but the 7.1 was confirmation that we were right to take precautions to protect the safety of our patients and employees,” said Suver.

Within two days of the second quake, RRH had transported patients back and reopened most of its operations. At press time, all services had been restored, though some had been temporarily relocated while repairs and assessments were completed.

RRH made use of its older wards to serve as swing space for the transition. Ironically, some of these areas — which fared better than newer parts of the facility — are scheduled for modernization or demolition to comply with the latest state-sanctioned seismic compatibilities.

“We are actually working with our seismic engineers on making a case to the state that our older wings should be deemed seismically fit past 2030,” said Suver.

“These buildings survived a 7.1 earthquake.” Hospital advocates are communicating these results to state legislators, he said, “and I even mentioned to Gov. Newsom when he visited that we are rethinking the enormous cost of our maternal-childhood unit relocation to the new tower after what we experienced.”

Suver is tracking lessons learned not only to inform RRH’s emergency response plans, but also to share with his colleagues on the state Emergency Medical Services Commission, which influences protocol and policies across the state.

One hiccup following the first earthquake came as a result of control being ceded to Kern County’s emergency medical service agency. “It turned out that there were some miscommunications that cost us valuable response time,” he said. “I’ve talked to Supervisor Mick Gleason about that, and he’s been very supportive in finding solutions for that.”

Suver also commended Police Chief Jed McLaughlin, Mayor Peggy Breeden and City Manager Ron Strand for their leadership during the crisis. “They were very accessible, and offered to help in any way they could.”

He said that elected officials have also reached out to find out how to address the damages sustained at the hospital. “What I have to do is determine not only how we can address our historic needs, but what we need to build out in order to serve this community in the coming decades.”

He is not certain whether the government will reimburse RRH for repairs, “but we are prepared absorb the loss, and dip into our reserves, to do what we need to do.”

So far, he has calculated some $4 million in necessary repairs, lost revenue and increased expenses — not to mention the seismic retrofitting still required by the state.

“We probably have another 45 days or so before we know the full scope and costs of the problems,” he said.

“Our employees were a bit shaken by this,” said Suver. He has brought in resources for mental health support, and is looking into what he can offer his employees in the way of financial assistance as well.

“We spend a lot of time on disaster preparedness, but I still have to say how proud I am that everyone did everything they could to ensure our patients were taken care of.”

Pictured: Ridgecrest Regional Hospital CEO Jim Suver (left) coordinates with EMS following the July 4 earthquake - Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2019-07-19