Key Lessons about Preparedness Resonates with Local Pharmacy Owner a Decade After Hurricane Ivan

Eric Cote

Eric Cote is a principal and co-founder of Disaster Safety Strategies, a consulting firm that develops communications strategies and provides policy support for clients in the disaster safety arena.  Cote has been advising Rx Response since the program’s inception over seven years ago and works closely with Rx Response leadership to provide strategic communications support during emergencies and in non-emergency periods.

When Hurricane Ivan struck along the Florida panhandle a decade ago on September 16, 2004, it was Florida’s fourth punch from a hurricane in just over a month.

Over 1,000 miles away, Jennifer Cohen, co-owner of Lincoln Pharmacy near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, wasn’t following Ivan’s track very closely.  She was focused on running the family-owned pharmacy her grandparents started in 1928.

A day later, Cohen learned a painful lesson about the far-reaching impact of a major hurricane. Nearly six inches of rain from Ivan’s remnants drenched her Pittsburgh suburb in a short span of time, triggering a call to the pharmacy from the local fire department warning that the local creek had overrun its banks. Within minutes water was climbing the steps of the pharmacy’s front door and Cohen and her staff were trying to blockade the door.

They couldn’t hold back the water any longer and Cohen and other employees retreated the building’s second floor.  A short while later, over __ feet of water gushed through her doors destroying everything in the first floor of her pharmacy building, which included her entire retail pharmacy stock.

Cohen’s painful experience offers a powerful reminder about the importance of community pharmacists being prepared for disaster.  “We had people in our community who lost everything, including their medicine,” said Cohen. “If I wasn’t able to re-open quickly and start replacing lost prescriptions, some of my chronically ill customers could have faced serious complications.”

Cohen credits her ability to resume limited operations in a small section of her building that was elevated just above the flood waters in large part to the swift response from her supplier, Cardinal Health, and the efforts of her employees.

“Cardinal was fabulous. They created a whole new inventory for me based on my past ordering history and had it there the next morning, along with a generator. The streets were still filled with debris but they managed to get through so I could open,” said Cohen.

“My employees were real heroes. Some of them stayed with me on the second floor until the flood waters receded and then started right in with me on the clean up. We had looting in town and I had to make sure no one was going to get a hold of medicine, especially our controlled substances even though everything had been contaminated by the flood waters,” said Cohen.

One of Cohen’s key decisions after getting the call from the fire department was quickly sending home several employees while they could safely escape the rising waters. One of them was Laura Schmidt, Cohen’s Pharmacy Manager.

“Thankfully I didn’t have any flood damage to address at my own home so I was able to return to the pharmacy the next morning and begin to get a makeshift pharmacy operation up and running,” said Schmidt. “We operated out of the back of our building in a section that was high enough to avoid the flood waters. It took us 90 days to rebuild and re-open in our regular location.”

“We now have a disaster plan in place but having the plan on paper isn’t the only solution,” said Cohen. “A community pharmacy depends on so many people to be able to operate, from our suppliers to our employees. If they aren’t able to help you, the best plan in the world isn’t going to get you re-opened.”

One of Cohen’s takeaways from her experience a decade ago is the importance of helping employees be prepared. “I now encourage my employees to be prepared at home so they can quickly take care of their family’s needs before helping to get the pharmacy up and running.”

When Cohen was interviewed by Rx Response for this blog, she was unaware of the program. She has since learned about the work of Rx Response and said “it is very comforting to know that emergency pharmacy disaster support is available.”

Cohen also learned of an Rx Response program that her pharmacy is already benefiting from. Thanks to the company which processes her prescription billing, (fill in name of switch company), Lincoln Pharmacy was automatically enrolled in Rx Open, an online resource provided by Rx Response that maps the location of open pharmacies in disaster-impacted areas.

Should a large-scale disaster befall Lincoln Pharmacy’s community, Cohen’s customers will be able to go to to see if her pharmacy is open. And if power is out and customers can’t get online, they can call 2-1-1 to find out if Cohen is up and running.

If her past experience with Hurricane Ivan is any guide, Cohen and her staff are up for any challenge and can quickly bounce back to continue their important mission as a community pharmacy.