N.C. Baptist Men and Women (NCBM) disaster relief volunteers are setting up a mobile disaster hospital in tornado-ravaged Louisville, Miss. in a unique and history-making project done in partnership with the North Carolina state government.
The tornado hit Louisville and surrounding Winston County April 29, leaving 10 dead and massive destruction of property. A hospital serving the more than 19,000 county residents in this rural area was left in ruins.
A week later a specially trained team of 25 NCBM volunteers arrived to set up a temporary mobile hospital that is expected to serve the area for a year or more. On Monday, May 5, the team began assembling the Transformers-like units into a working hospital.
Responding to storms across the country is nothing new for the disaster relief volunteers serving with NCBM. Their response to Hurricane Katrina in Gulfport, Miss. in 2005 included more than 40,000 volunteers and construction of 715 homes over a two-year period.
But this Louisville assignment is different. The mobile disaster hospital (MDH), which ships out on 18 tractor trailer loads, is owned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and assigned to the North Carolina Office of Emergency Medical Services (NCOEMS).
NCOEMS frequently partners with NCBM on disaster relief efforts. In 2011 the agency asked NCBM to partner with the agency on setting up the hospital when it is deployed.
BSC photo by K Brown
A specially trained team of 25 NCBM volunteers arrived to set up a temporary mobile hospital that is expected to serve the area for a year or more. On May 5 the team began assembling the Transformers-like units into a working hospital.
"This is most unusual. NCOEMS asked us to fill a crucial role as an official partner on this large-scale effort," said Gaylon Moss, disaster relief director for NCBM. "We are grateful for the opportunity to work closely with the mobile disaster hospital. It will provide a great service to the Louisville community," he added.
Long-time NCBM disaster relief worker and coordinator Sharon Chilton-Moser was asked to assemble a team of volunteers to learn how to set up the hospital. For the past three years the 45-member team has trained twice a year.
Monday, May 5, was the first time the team has actually assembled the hospital at the site of a disaster. Local crews worked around the clock to remove more than 100 truckloads of storm debris beside a factory which was left with a tattered roof by the tornado.
A large flat concrete foundation was left.
Next door, another factory lay in piles of debris and twisted metal fragments. A forested area behind and beside the site were left with downed trees and broken stumps sprinkled with metal fragments.
While a ramp to the concrete slab was built Monday morning, the North Carolina volunteers, sporting their traditional bright yellow caps and T-shirts, assembled five hard-sided temporary but air-conditioned buildings to house segments of the Mississippi emergency response staff and the emergency medical service personnel. The dozens of workers had been working under simple awnings before then, under cloudless skies with temperatures in the upper 80s.
Monday afternoon Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant along with a large contingent of state and local leaders, administrators for FEMA and state agencies came to tour the hospital as it was being assembled. Bryant said the temporary hospital was urgently needed both to meet medical needs and keep physicians, nurses and other medical personnel working.
Officials said the total number of homes destroyed was being counted a week after the tornado strike. Cost was estimated at more than five million dollars, but that number was preliminary and expected to increase.
The city of Louisville is surrounded by miles of rural farmland and forest; the nearest hospital is 30 or more miles away.
Asked to put a price tag on the work of the NCBM team, one leader said it was, "Priceless." Jim Craig is director of Mississippi's Office of Health Protection.
Craig recalled the work of NCBM volunteers who responded to Hurricane Katrina and praised the long-term cooperation with the Mississippi state government agencies. "We appreciate ya'll coming. We really do," he said.
Meanwhile in North Carolina, the chief of emergency medical services, was agreeing with Craig's "priceless" assessment of NCBM's contribution.
"You can't put a price on the contributions of NC Baptist Men and our partnership with them. You cannot quantify it with a dollar amount. I'm so grateful for our partnership with NC Baptist Men, Gaylon Moss and the others," said Regina Godette-Crawford, chief of North Carolina's Office of Emergency Medical Services.
"We signed a memorandum of agreement three years ago and it has been invaluable. You can't put a price tag on that. The volunteers and their spirit of cooperation in partnering with us have been great. They train with us, they work with us, we deploy together," she said. "I look forward to future initiatives with NC Baptist Men.”
As tractor-trailers pulled into the Louisville hospital site, two large crates were unloaded from each trailer. Each crate contained two standard hospital beds, bolted down for transport, plus an assortment of wiring and plumbing connections ready to be plugged together.
But each of these customized crates had plywood panels installed on the sides; once these were removed, the units were lined up together with a forklift tractor operated by NCBM volunteer Rex Wood, a member of Denver Baptist Church, Denver N.C.
Sharon Chilton-Moser said the complete hospital was not being installed, because some of the units are canvas tents which would not hold up for the longer deployment period anticipated in Louisville.
The completed hospital will have a mobile surgical unit and a 12-bed care unit with two full-fledged emergency bays, a pharmacy and X-ray equipment.
"We're just getting the shells set up so far, Mrs. Chilton-Moser said Tuesday. "We still have oxygen systems, plumbing and electrical systems to get installed and then tons of cleaning to do," she said.
Cleaning must meet the considerable hospital standards, she said, meaning every surface will be cleaned three times.
Once the hospital is fully set up, she said, the team will train local workers to maintain the system and keep it operational. One crucial element is having electrical power, which will be provided by generators until the local electrical system can take over the task.
Millie Smith told how severely the Louisville area had been impacted. She coordinates special medical needs for the Mississippi State Department of Health.
The 114 residents of a senior citizen home had to be evacuated to a church gym before they were moved to other facilities or families. Because the city's dialysis clinic was destroyed, 51 dialysis patients have to be transported many miles each day to other counties for treatment.
"The nearest major trauma center is 90 minutes away in Jackson," said Smith. She was pleased with the mobile hospital's arrival for two reasons.
First, the mobile hospital would provide care and keep their professional staff working. "This is going to be nationally known. We are so excited," she said.
Second, she was happy NCBM volunteers were on site to help. She knew of them already: When she and other emergency workers took part in a disaster response exercise in Goldsboro, NC, NCBM volunteers cooked their meals for them.
"I wish my Dad were here. He passed away last August," she said, explaining he was a Baptist minister who had worked with a Chinese mission of First Baptist Church in Greenwood, MS. He was 89.
"He would be so pleased that you are doing this and I really appreciate it," she said.
As tractors moved metal fragments with non-stop clanging and as people gathered for a press conference, the NCBM volunteers continued their orderly, efficient assembly of the hospital. Gray was the predominant hair color for the volunteers; most of them are retired.
Gerald Stancil is not retired; he drives a truck for a farmer in Clinton, where he is a member of Serenity Baptist Church. Assembling the real hospital is more rewarding to him than the practice, "I just want to help people as best I can, whatever I can do," he said.
Asked how long the hospital project would take, volunteer Larry Gragg said, "I have no idea how long we'll be here. It doesn't matter. We'll get the job done and then we'll go home." Gragg is a 15-year disaster relief volunteer veteran. He went on several disaster relief assignments during 2013.
Six of the volunteers are from Pleasant Garden Baptist Church near Greensboro. Member Roger Howerton of Randleman, N.C., said he has been doing disaster relief ministry for 12 years. His most recent assignment was three weeks responding to the ice storm which struck Greensboro earlier this year. Asked where else he has served, he answered Texas, West Virginia and Mississippi. "I can't remember them all," he said. "We go a lot." When the Pleasant Garden team is not responding to disasters, they build wheelchair ramps for people who need them.
Two other Pleasant Garden members were Wayne and Patsy Skeen. "We serve anywhere there's a hurricane," she said. "We get the bigger blessing out of helping in disaster relief. People are just so thankful for everything you do and it is a blessing to know that you can help somebody some way."
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Mike Creswell writes for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.)