FEMA will help fortify trauma center Tampa General Hospital.
Published Jun. 12, 2007|Updated Jun. 13, 2007

Emergency planners usually frown when people who run the region's top trauma center insist they will stay put during a hurricane. Tampa General Hospital sits at the edge of an island, just 12 feet above sea level in a primary evacuation zone.

But the Federal Emergency Management Agency said Monday it will spend $3.2-million to fortify the hospital against wind and water damage, providing watertight doors, tougher rooftops and shutters capable of withstanding Category 5 storms.

The FEMA grant will pay for 75 percent of planned improvements. Tampa General, which began renovations for hurricane preparedness three years ago, expects to cover the difference.

"We've spent millions of dollars hardening the facility and developing a plan to be able to take care of patients during and after a storm," said hospital spokesman John Dunn. "The FEMA grant will help us take care of a lot of those things we were not able to budget."

"Little by little, we've been adding more and more protection," said Oslec Fernandez, the hospital's facilities management director. "We feel very confident we've done everything possible."

Aging gravel rooftops that leaked in previous storms will be repaired with flat roofing materials, eliminating dangers posed by flying pebbles.

New stainless steel mesh shutters - permanent fixtures color-coated to blend with hospital windows - can withstand debris flying at 157 miles per hour, Fernandez said. The 14-gauge metal is less than a tenth of an inch thick.

Windows on newer sections of Tampa General already can withstand a Category 3 hurricane and won't be improved, Fernandez said.

Workers have already installed shutters on some upper level floors expected to house patients during a storm. Monday, shutters went up on a bridge that connects the hospital to its Rehabilitation Center.

Larry Gispert, emergency manager for Hillsborough County, worries less about the bridges that connect hospital buildings and more about the bridges that connect Davis Islands to the mainland. A big storm could knock them out, he said, leaving Tampa General to fend for itself.

"I've always been concerned about isolation," he said. "This money does nothing to speak to that."

Hospital spokesman Dunn said the facility could, if need be, operate for up to five days on its own.

Even that leaves Gispert wondering.

"I would figure after five days we would figure something out," he said. He just isn't sure what that "something" would be.

As a Level 1 trauma center, Tampa General's patients include burn victims and people with newly transplanted organs. Moving those patients requires special equipment, which is in short supply, Dunn said. It's safer and more practical to relocate them within Tampa General than to move them elsewhere, he said.

Fernandez said the hospital made some facility changes after Hurricane Katrina. One was configuring the top floor of Tampa General's new parking garage to hold the weight of a Chinook helicopter, the largest rescue chopper used by the U.S. military.

Tampa General is the only bay area hospital so far to receive grant money from FEMA's Florida Long-Term Recovery program, but the agency is still reviewing applications.

Kevin Graham can be reached at or (813) 226-3433.


Hurricane plan

Part of Tampa General Hospital's plan to shelter patients if a hurricane hits:

-Move patients out of rooms with windows.

-Move patients up to the third floor and down from the top floor, in case of roof damage.

-Send patients home who are close to discharge and cancel elective surgeries.

-Relocate the emergency room from the ground floor to a designated area on the fourth floor. When the hospital's new emergency room opens in November, it will be on the second floor.

-Use power from six generators, housed 20 feet above sea level with enough fuel for three to four days.