Hundreds of hospitals at risk of flooding from hurricanes, Harvard study finds 

A study published as Hurricane Ian makes its way through Florida found that at least 50 percent of hospitals in 25 metropolitan areas along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts are at risk of flooding from a Category 2 hurricane. 

The study, from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, is the first to systematically investigate hospitals' flooding risk from storms in Categories 1 to 4. It was published Sept. 29, one day after Hurricane Ian made landfall along the southwestern coast of Florida as a Category 4 storm. 

Researchers identified 682 acute care hospitals in 78 metropolitan areas located within 10 miles of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, covering a population just under 85 million people — about a quarter of Americans. The vulnerability of each metro area to hurricane-induced disruptions in healthcare delivery was determined by both how far inland storm surge reaches and the likelihood that a hurricane strike occurs in the metro area.

In 25 metro areas, half or more of the hospitals are at risk of flooding from a Category 2 storm. Just over one-half of all MSAs are predicted to contain flooded hospitals if struck by a Category 1 storm. An estimated 147 hospitals with 41,493 beds may be at risk of inundation from a Category 1 storm; 306 hospitals with 84,842 beds may be at risk of flooding with a Category 4 storm. 

The study accounted not only for hospitals' brick-and-mortar infrastructure, but for access to facilities. In 18 metro areas, at least half of the roads within 1 mile of hospitals were at risk of flooding from a Category 2 storm. 

Risk of flooding increases exponentially for certain metro areas when accounting for forecasted rises in sea level this century, with the Baton Rouge, La.; Virginia Beach, Va.; Corpus Christi, Texas; Philadelphia; and Boston metro areas facing increases greater than 90 percent to the number of beds at risk of flooding from a Category 2 storm. Overall, the sea level rise expected within this century from climate change increases the odds of hospital flooding by 22 percent, the study found. 

The 10 metro areas where a Category 2 hurricane threatens access to hospital care most are listed below, along with the number and proportion of hospitals at risk in each area.

  • Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach — Fla. (38, or 77.6 percent of hospitals)
  • New York-Newark-Jersey City — N.Y., N.J., Pa. (25, or 19.5 percent of hospitals) 
  • Boston-Cambridge-Newton — Mass., N.H. (6, or 15 percent of hospitals) 
  • Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford — Fla. (1, or 33.3 percent of hospitals)
  • New Orleans-Metairie — La. (15, or 78.9 percent of hospitals)
  • Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater — Fla. (8, or 28.6 percent of hospitals)
  • North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton — Fla. (6, or 85.7 percent of hospitals) 
  • Jacksonville — Fla. (6, or 42.9 percent of hospitals)
  • Cape Coral-Fort Myers — Fla. (4, or 80 percent of hospitals) 
  • Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington — Pa., N.J., Del., Md. (5, or 10 percent of hospitals)

"We now have a better sense of which hospitals are likely to flood from a hurricane today and those that need to prepare for greater risks in the future," said senior author Aaron Bernstein, MD, interim director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. "Hurricanes are expected to get more severe and may strike regions further north than in the past due to climate change. In places like my hometown of Boston, we can avoid crises that other hospitals have had to endure by learning from their experience and creating plans that build on best practices. But we must act now, before disaster strikes."

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