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Looking back at June 2008: the scene at Mercy

Volunteers carry sanbags to protect Mercy Medical Center just after midnight on June 13, 2008. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Volunteers carry sanbags to protect Mercy Medical Center just after midnight on June 13, 2008.

The one-year anniversary of the flood is about three weeks away, and I’m working on a story that will give a blow-by-blow account of some of the key events of the flood. One of those is the evacuation of Mercy Medical Center. Hopefully I’ll post a few more of these before I have to turn this story in, which is Tuesday.

Here’s what I’ve got on Mercy so far. Thanks to Karen Vander Sanden, Chad Ware and Bob Olberding for talking to me. As usual, would appreciate your ideas/criticisms:

1300 hours, Thurs., June 12 —- Doctors and administrators at Mercy Medical Center were planning for an influx of patients. They figured the swollen Cedar River would force officials to shut down the Virginia Gay Hospital in Vinton, and that some nursing homes along the river would have to be evacuated.

But as Thursday dragged on, water crept up Eighth Avenue and started pooling under the canopy outside the hospital’s emergency room.

“A lot of the water started coming up through storm drains around the building as it was coming up Eighth Avenue,” said Chad Ware, a former program coordinator who was promoted to emergency management coordinator after the flood. “Mid-afternoon, water started coming out of the toilets.”

That’s when workers started laying sandbags around the glass wall of the hospital’s entrance and running from bathroom to bathroom, ripping toilets and sinks out and plugging the holes with towels, sandbags, inflatable rubber bladders.

The staff at Mercy fell into the work with a cool-headedness and seriousness that still impresses Ware. The man in charge of stopping the water was Bob Olberding, the hospital’s director of plant operations. He’s worked at the hospital for 37 years and sometimes refers to it as “my hospital.”

He didn’t leave the hospital for four days during the flood, and fought his hardest to preserve the building’s electrical switch gear in the basement.

“We were running around like chickens down there,” he said. “Emotionally, it was a pretty difficult situation.”

Some 25 pumps were running, including eight in the basement, but Olberding didn’t trust the glass wall at the hospital’s entrance, and water was getting closer to the concrete pads where the electrical gear rested.

About 9 p.m., the evacuation was ordered. The hospital was already on backup power, but if water reached the switchgear, patients would have been stranded on the upper floors of the hospital in the dark.

About 2 a.m., Tim Charles, the CEO of Mercy, walked up to Ware, who was helping coordinate the evacuation.

“Chad, we have a problem,” Ware remembers Charles saying. “We may lose the elevators within the hour.”
The evacuation had begun on the ninth floor, where the most serious patients were staying. The first priority became moving everyone to the ground floor before the elevators went down.

Patients were lined up near an east entrance to the hospital. Ambulances, humvees and city buses waited outside for them. Patients in good health were rolled to buses in wheelchairs, some carrying vases of flowers.

“I walked outside and I remember seeing the line of ambulances…and the lake of water, and it just hit me,” Ware said. “It was scary. It really was.”

The army of volunteers that had saved the pumphouse on Edgewood Road (and thus the city’s water supply) rushed over to Mercy in a throng, and bolstered the sandbag walls around the glass walls. Even when firefighters told them to get out of the water, they stood their ground.

“To see people doing that stuff, it was absolutely incredible,” Olberding said.

By 8 a.m. Friday, 183 patients, including very sick newborns, had been transferred to St. Luke’s Hospital and other medical facilities around Iowa — as far away as Des Moines or Guttenberg.

After a short meeting, most of the staff was sent home. Ware, who lives in Walker, headed out.

“I remember getting in the car and driving home, and by the time you get to Blairs Ferry Road, it was very surreal. It was business as usual,” he said. “You felt like you went from one world to another.”

That evening, his friends called him to play softball in the men’s league that plays at the field below the town’s grain elevator. It was a lovely night.

“Well, all right,” he said.

Olberding, who lives in Dyersville, didn’t go home for ten days.

Photo by Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette.

Filed under: Flood, , , , ,

One Response

  1. AMANDA MURRAY says:

    there were hundreds of us helping at the hospital and that is how chad ware was promoted due to our hard work and tim charles great efforts saved us.

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