FORT MYERS, Fla. — Hurricane Ian has created a growing biohazard situation in at least one Florida hospital near where the storm first made landfall.
Staff at Health Park Medical Center in Fort Myers told NBC News that the facility’s running water was shut off Wednesday and has not yet been restored. If water service doesn’t return soon, workers said, they fear outbreaks of disease and infection in the aftermath of the storm.
Both patients and nurses have been forced to defecate in plastic bags and then store the waste in overflowing biowaste containers, staff and patients said.
Workers said they are unable to properly disinfect medical instruments for reuse, and some patients have gone more than a dozen hours without drinking water.
Details of the water cut and its aftermath were confirmed by four staff members, who asked not to be identified for fear of jeopardizing their jobs, as well as three patients.
“Without the water, we can’t flush our toilets,” said an operational assistant. “We can’t wash our hands. It’s kind of gross, but we have to do what we have to do.”
Both patients and staff have been forced to urinate in containers that are then thrown down the drain, aides said.
“If we have to poop, we’ll bag it and put it in our biohazard bins,” the aide said. “If someone accidentally puts toilet paper or poops in the toilet, our poor housewives have to come and get it out so they can dump a bucket of water and try to flush it.”
Lee Health, the hospital’s main network, said Friday that its facilities and staff have faced numerous challenges while operating since Ian made landfall.
“The precautions we took were necessary due to the lack of running water in our community. We assure our patients and our staff that the actions we have taken today address these challenges, which were the result of a disaster and infrastructure failure of this magnitude. Lee Health is committed to its patients, staff and community and will do whatever it takes to ensure safe, quality care for our patients and our teams,” said Mary Briggs, a spokeswoman for Lee Health, in a statement.
Some staff members said they didn’t blame Lee Health for the situation, saying the facility was already sold out due to Covid. Adding a hurricane, which knocked out the entire county’s water supply, into the mix brought the hospital’s infrastructure and resources to breaking point.
Health Park Medical Center was one of at least nine hospitals in Florida known to have lost access to running water as of Thursday.
Hurricane Ian made landfall Wednesday just east of Fort Myers as a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of up to 150 mph. It has caused widespread power and sanitation outages. At least 23 people have died in Florida due to the storm, authorities confirmed Friday night.
Health Park Medical Center began evacuating patients most at risk Thursday, by ambulance and helicopter.
“They are airlifting children and hospice patients because there is no water,” said a patient named Roberta Hines, who was treated at the hospital after being injured in a fall. Hines, 63, spoke to an NBC News reporter as she left the facility Friday for a cigarette. As she spoke, helicopters could be seen landing and taking off from the hospital.
The operational assistant said ambulances from 10 counties have arrived to help transport patients.
“The feat everyone has gone to is just amazing,” they said.
Without running water, doctors’ ability to perform operations has been compromised. However, the second assistant said, several emergency surgeries have had to be done since the water went out.
“We can’t wash our hands properly to operate on patients,” said the first attendee. “We have no way to sterilize our instrumentation for surgery, which means whatever instrumentation we have we have to make it last because we can’t reuse it on patients.”
A patient named Michelle, who declined to give her last name, said she was taken to the Health Park after the storm because she was hit by a piece of wood.
“Since then, conditions have worsened,” he said, the bandages on his forearms visible. “Not only can’t you use the toilets, but they’re running out of food and water. It’s just one thing on top of another.”
Patient Dan Culligan, 70, spent a couple of days in the hospital due to persistent back pain after surgery and spoke in the hospital parking lot while waiting to be transported to a shelter.
“I felt trapped,” he said.
The second operational assistant, a longtime Florida resident who lived through Hurricane Andrew and several other major storms, said the situation at the hospital “is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.”
As Ian’s winds intensified, hospital workers said they moved patients into hallways for safety and moved them to higher floors from ground level.
“They were accepting EMS patients until the winds hit 80 miles per hour,” said the first attendant. “And once that happened, we couldn’t open our doors because they risked compromising the integrity of the hospital.”
Since then, the hospital has resumed receiving some patients, despite the water cut.
The first assistant said the hospital parking lot was flooded in the storm.
“We saw our cars floating sideways… My car is wrecked,” they said.
After the power went out, the two aides said, the hospital was forced to rely on a generator and choose between running the water or air conditioning. The administrators chose the AC. The generator requires water to run, so a water truck at the hospital keeps it running, a surgical technician told NBC News.
After patients were forced to go hours without drinking water, the first attendee said, “we ended up giving them the bottled water that we had in our bags that we brought.”
Then the red biohazard bags began to accumulate with waste and excrement inside, and people who needed to defecate were herded into specific toilets “so we can try to contain the smell,” the aide said.
But by the end of the day on Friday, the surgical technologist said, the portable toilets had arrived at the hospital.
Deon J. Hampton reported from Fort Myers, Kalhan Rosenblatt, Aria Bendix, and Corky Siemaszko from New York City.