Two years ago, the island-bound Tampa General Hospital prepared for the worst as Hurricane Irma barrelled toward Tampa Bay.
Luckily, the Category 5 storm weakened and veered away from the hospital, which serves as the region's only Level 1 trauma center. It never lost power.
But the storm served as a wake-up call, said Cheryl Egan, the senior vice president of support services at Tampa General.
The hospital's board of directors approved a $53 million project to upgrade and expand its central energy plant, and equip it with enough power to keep the entire hospital running like usual, even in the event of a disaster.
"The goal is to keep patients safe and comfortable. Because we're in Florida, a large chunk of our energy generation is for air conditioning alone," Egan said. "We obviously have a very large emergency department, intensive care unit and neonatal intensive care unit. Because of those factors, the board increased our capacity for emergency power to 100 percent."
Tampa General's current energy plant provides enough power to run air conditioning and power to about 50 percent of the hospital for a short period of time, Egan said. During a prolonged outage, like for a severe storm, the protocol is to relocate patients from certain areas of the facility, keeping them in places where the power and cooling systems still work.
The hospital can supply about 96 hours of power using its current generators before needing to refuel, a system that met federal guidelines at the time Tampa General was built. But the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has updated some of its guidelines, which is part of the reason why the switch is happening now, Eagan said.
Tampa General's staff routinely performs its own risk assessments to identify safety concerns and areas to improve. That's where they realized they needed to come up with a larger power plant instead of the generators strewn between corporate buildings on Davis Island and nearby in Tampa, said Dustin Pasteur, director of design and construction at Tampa General.
"We installed temporary provisions for generators that can be plugged in and brought to campus to provide 100 percent energy. We rent those generators for about half the year, when we might need them," he said. "In the event of a hurricane, we store generators at our corporate center, and have them on stand by. If something happens to the bridges to get to Davis Island, we've made plans to fly them to the hospital. It's a fairly thought-out plan, but a boot-strap plan."
The new 7,300-square foot energy plant will change that. To avoid flooding, Pasteur said, it will be built on the eastern side of the hospital, 35 feet above sea level. It also will house a new fleet of generators and a new set of boilers.
"Even in Irma, we turned the boilers off," Pasteur said. "They can explode."
The hospital's current boilers are located in the basement.
Construction is expected to start in 2020 and be complete before hurricane season in 2021. In addition, Tampa General is working with Tampa Electric Co. on a multi-phase project to move electrical and gas lines that serve the hospital underground. Recently-passed state legislation calls for public utilities to move much of their distribution lines, the wires that deliver power to homes and businesses, underground to better protect them from powerful storms.
Other Tampa Bay area hospitals have made several small improvements over the years to help fortify their buildings in case of a storm.
Mease Dunedin Hospital and Morton Plant North Bay Hospital increased generator capacity, said Elizabeth Hardy, a spokeswoman with BayCare, which operates 15 hospitals around Tampa Bay. The roofs were updated at St. Joseph's Hospital and Morton Plant North Bay Hospital. And new hurricane-strength windows were installed at Mease Countryside Hospital, Morton Plant North Bay Hospital and St. Joseph's Women's Hospital.
AdventHealth North Pinellas, which is undergoing a renovation and expansion, is including new hurricane preparedness features to its exterior, after patients were transferred as a precautionary measure during Hurrican Irma, said AdventHealth spokeswoman, Richelle Hoenes.
Bayfront Health St. Petersburg replaced the roof of the hospital and added new generators, fuel tanks and sub stations in recent years.
Contact Justine Griffin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.