FORT MYERS, Fla. — Hurricane Ian has created a burgeoning biohazard situation in at least one Florida hospital close to where the storm first made landfall.
Staffers at the Health Park Medical Center in Fort Myers told NBC News that the facility's running water went out Wednesday and hasn't yet been restored. If water service isn't back soon, the workers said, they fear disease outbreaks and infections in the wake of the storm.
Patients and nurses alike have been forced to defecate in plastic bags, then store the waste in overflowing biohazard bins, staffers and patients said.
Workers said they can't properly sanitize medical instruments for reuse, and some patients went over a dozen hours without drinking any water.
Details of the water outage and its consequences were confirmed by four staffers, who all asked not to be identified by name for fear of jeopardizing their employment, as well as three patients.
"Without the water, we can’t flush our toilets," said an operative assistant. "We can’t wash our hands. It’s kind of disgusting, but we have to do what we have to do."
Patients and staffers alike have been forced to urinate in containers that are then dumped down the drain, the assistants said.
"If we have to poop, we’re pooping in a bag and putting it in our biohazard bins," the assistant said. "If on accident someone puts toilet paper or gets poop in the toilet, our poor housekeepers have to come and scoop it out so that they can dump a bucket of water down to try to get it to flush."
Lee Health, the hospital's parent 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 a result of a disaster and infrastructure failure of this magnitude. Lee Health is committed to its patients, staff and community, and will do everything necessary to ensure safe and quality care for our patients and our teams," Mary Briggs, spokesperson for Lee Health, said in a statement.
Some staff members said that they didn't blame Lee Health for the situation, saying the facility had already been stretched thin due to Covid. Adding a hurricane, which knocked out the water supply to the entire county, to the mix pushed the hospital's infrastructure and resources to a 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 on Wednesday just east of Fort Myers, as a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds up to 150 mph. It has caused widespread power and sanitary outages. At least 23 people have died in Florida due to the storm, officials confirmed Friday night.
Health Park Medical Center began evacuating patients at the highest risk on Thursday, via ambulance and helicopter.
"They’re airlifting kids and hospice patients out because there’s no water," said a patient named Roberta Hines, who was treated at the hospital after she hurt herself in a fall. Hines, 63, spoke with an NBC News reporter when she came outside the facility on Friday to smoke a cigarette. As she spoke, helicopters could be seen landing and taking off from the hospital.
The operative assistant said ambulances from 10 counties have come to help transport patients.
"The feat that everybody has gone to is just amazing," they said.
Without running water, doctors' abilities to perform operations have been compromised. Nonetheless, the second assistant said, several emergency surgeries have had to be done since the water went out.
"We cannot properly wash our hands to operate on patients," the first assistant said. "We have no way to sterilize our instrumentation for surgery, so that means that whatever instrumentation we have we have to make 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 Health Park after the storm struck because she got hit by a piece of wood.
"Since then the conditions have worsened," she said, the bandages on her forearms visible. "Not only can you not use the bathrooms, they’re running out of food as well as water. It’s just one thing on top of another."
Patient Dan Culligan, 70, spent a couple of days in the hospital due to lingering back pain after surgery and spoke in the hospital parking lot while waiting to be transported to a shelter.
"I felt stuck," he said.
The second operative assistant, a longtime Florida resident who went through Hurricane Andrew and several other big storms, said the situation at the hospital is "nothing like I’ve ever experienced."
As Ian's winds intensified, the hospital workers said they moved patients into the hallways for safety and brought patients up to higher floors from the ground level.
"They were accepting patients by EMS until winds reached 80 miles per hour," the first assistant said. "And once that happened, we couldn’t open our doors because they risked compromising the integrity of the hospital."
The hospital has since resumed taking some patients, despite the water outage.
The first assistant said the hospital's parking lot flooded in the storm.
"We saw our cars floating sideways … My car is totaled," they said.
After the power went down, the two assistants said, the hospital was forced to rely on a generator and to choose between running the water or the AC. Administrators chose the AC. The generator requires water in order to function, so a water truck at the hospital is keeping it running, a surgical technician told NBC News.
After patients were forced to go without drinking water for hours, the first assistant said, "we ended up giving them the bottled water that we had in our bags that we brought."
Then the red biohazard bags began piling up with waste and excrement inside, and people who needed to defecate were steered to specific bathrooms “so we can try to contain the smell,” the assistant said.
But by the end of the day on Friday, the surgical technologist said, port-o-potties had arrived at the hospital.
Deon J. Hampton reported from Fort Myers, Kalhan Rosenblatt, Aria Bendix and Corky Siemaszko from New York City.