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Team Effort Minimizes Isabel's Damage to NIH

By Brad Moss

A little bit of luck, a lot of preparation, and a dedicated group of employees helped to minimize the damage and disruption of services to NIH during Hurricane Isabel.

Even though federal agencies in the metro area were closed, a coordinated group of employees stayed behind on Sept. 18-19, and many remained throughout the weekend to ensure critical operations were maintained before, during and after the storm.

Key personnel from the Office of Research Facilities, Office of Research Services, Clinical Center and the Center for Information Technology participated in emergency preparedness meetings held throughout the week leading up to Isabel's arrival.Each component also held its own meetings to prepare the campus for everything from a glancing blow to a direct hit from the hurricane. The entities either activated their command centers or placed them on stand-by. Even NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni had his own Director's Command Center operating on stand-by status. Each center serves a different function: "The Clinical Center deals principally with clinical issues, facilities deals with facilities issues and supports the Clinical Center," explained Arturo Giron, NIH deputy chief security officer. "The COOP (Continuity of Operations Program) — the NIH corporate command center — brings all the people and elements that we need to bring into the fore." Zerhouni's Senior Management Command Center is "strictly for senior management" to be activated in the event "we had major losses where we needed managers to congregate to make some very serious decisions," Giron added.

When the storm hit, some power lines went down, numerous trees were lost and certain on-campus and off-campus facilities experienced short-term power outages requiring backup generator power, including the Cloisters (Bldg. 60), Bldgs. 61, 82 and Twinbrook I & II. However, there was only minimal damage to facilities, including a few leaks and a tree falling on a trailer. "The ORF staff, the grounds people in particular, were real champs during the storm…they were out during the storm ensuring that fallen trees were dealt with so we wouldn't have major problems down the road," said Giron. "We got lucky in two ways, the most important being that the storm didn't hit us head on, we only got a glancing blow. Number two, we lucked out in that the majority of damage that we had, particularly fallen trees, didn't fall on structures."

How does NIH plan for a hurricane? At the Clinical Center, staff made preparations to keep the hospital operating through the storm, including feeding, housing and keeping patients, employees and visitors safe. During the height of the storm, the CC had 165 inpatients, 3 outpatients and approximately 160 employees who spent the night in the hospital. Critical clinical and operational departments assessed their readiness and added to inventories to ensure adequate supplies would be available beyond any potential emergency. CIT ensured radio and other telecommunications antennas were secure, maintained full operations of all data service centers and web servers including email for NIH, the Office of the Secretary, HHS, and HRSA. Extra telephone operations staff was added to handle any additional emergency-related calls.

The ORF staff secured construction sites and any freestanding or loose objects (for example, metal picnic tables were chained together upside down and tethered to trees), particularly on rooftops, cleared storm drains and placed more than 3,000 sandbags in areas subject to flooding. During the storm, they cleared downed trees, repaired downed power lines, restored power outages, laid more sandbags and installed emergency generators in buildings with temporary power outages. The NIH Police and security personnel maintained security for all NIH facilities including continuous patrols and surveillance, and placed guards in buildings without power. The Fire and Rescue services responded to 13 emergency calls including one minor electrical fire in Bldg. 45. Veterinary staff ensured the well-being of all animals on campus and at the Animal Center in Poolesville.

When employees returned to campus on Monday, except for a few missing trees and some minor roof damage, the buildings, roads and grounds were substantially back to normal.

All of the preparation paid off. "I think, at least in part, the reason we suffered as little damage as we did was because of the planning that we did," Giron emphasized. "Everybody made sure that everything was battened down; the ORF in particular, did a real good job in tightening all the bolts...The community needs to feel comfortable that these things just don't happen and we react, but that we were proactive in planning, that with all of these organizations, there was a corporate planning effort."

While a power outage at home might mean spoiled food or an unplanned candlelight dinner, a power outage at NIH can mean essential hospital equipment could fail, animal care could be compromised or important research interrupted. "The commitment and dedication of the front-line workers in all of the service organizations involved was outstanding," Giron concluded. "These men and women deserve a great deal of credit and gratitude for ensuring the ongoing operations of the NIH."

From now on, NIH will also be conducting "after incident" exercises to take the lessons learned from this experience to help emergency response staff prepare for similar situations in the future.

"If there is a moral to the story of Hurricane Isabel," said Giron, "it would be, 'The dedication, preparation and perseverance of the NIH employees pays off yet again!'"

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