Future of Williamsburg Hospital Uncertain A Year After The Flood
The future of a South Carolina hospital damaged by water a year ago is uncertain. The Williamsburg Regional Hospital in Kingstree was damaged by heavy rains last October and it is still waiting to hear if it will get funding to repair or build a new facility.
The only hospital in Williamsburg County, about 80 miles north of Charleston, Williamsburg Regional serves more than 30,000 residents spread out over more than 900 square miles. It was forced to close its doors in February after water damage left the building unusable. In April, the hospital opened a temporary modular emergency room.
CEO Sharon Poston said back in April, the makeshift facility would be used to stabilize people before transporting them to other inpatient hospitals.
“This will be one big room [for] any lifesaving procedures that you will have to do,” she said. “There will be plenty of room, so you have all the people, all the equipment that you need to get around that person so we can save their lives.”
While Poston and the hospital’s chief doctor Troy Gamble were relieved to have the emergency room, they were concerned about transferring patients.
“I’ve flown in helicopters with patients worried sick that I was missing something because I couldn't hear the blood pressure, because I couldn’t hear the heartbeat,” Gamble said in April.
Five months later their fears were realized.
“There has been one near drowning, a baby that we had stabilized and was breathing when they left here, but I understand did not make it to the next hospital,” Poston said.
She said other people who have come into the ER for heart attacks have also not survived the ambulance ride to the next hospital.
“I guess anybody can say, all these people would have died anyway. Well, I don’t know that. I would have like to have given them every opportunity to survive, every opportunity,” she said. “We are able to stabilize and get help to them. The pure distance is the biggest reason these folks are not surviving”
Poston is working to open a temporary inpatient hospital as quickly as possible. It will be a facility like the one constructed in Joplin, Missouri, after a tornado ripped apart the city’s hospital in 2011. The white building being assembled piece by piece is set to open in the next few months. It will be half the size of the original red brick facility, but will be able to accommodate the same number of patients.
For Poston, the temporary hospital can’t open soon enough. Since the permanent facility closed almost nine months ago, the hospital has been operating on insurance money.
“It’s like living off your savings account,” she said.
Poston is trying to stretch those funds until the temporary facility opens. She doesn’t want to follow the fate of other hospitals in rural towns, like the Bamberg and Barnwell facilities which have closed in the last few years.
“We are striving very hard not to. Only thing keep us from operating is not having cash to continue. We are being even more frugal,” she said. “Hoping by the grace of God we will get there.”
Poston is expecting a decision from the Federal Emergency Management Agency about whether it will fund repairs or a complete rebuild of the hospital. According to FEMA, if the cost to repair disaster damage is more than half the cost to replace the facility to its pre-disaster design then it will fund a rebuild.
FEMA has evaluated the hospital multiple times over the past nine months to make this decision. But according to Recovery Division Director Terry Quarles those previous damage assessments no longer factor into the decision.
“At this stage of the game that’s really irrelevant because we have now come to a consensus on a room by room inspection of disaster related damages with all parties involved.”
Poston has not seen the latest assessment yet. She doesn’t know why so many different evaluations are needed. She said, “It is odd, very strange.”
The inside of the more than 50 year building has mold. Hospital staff said anyone who enters the building needs to wear a hazmat suit.
The hospital is in U.S. Representative James Clyburn’s district. FEMA confirms he met with the agency regarding this issue.
“I have urged FEMA to rebuild and reopen the Williamsburg Regional Hospital as soon as possible. I am hopeful that the agency will move the project forward soon,” Clyburn said in a statement. “The people of Williamsburg County and the surrounding region desperately need the access to medical care that the hospital provides.”
FEMA plans to release a final decision in October.