The Hospitals of Hurricane Sandy: 1 Year Later

This week, we passed the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. The storm was a disaster in every sense of the term.

Hurricane Sandy led to almost 300 indirect and direct fatalities across seven countries, and it was the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history, resulting in more than $68 billion in damages.

A few things became vividly clear in the wake of the tragedy. These intense, extreme storms are likely to become more common due to anthropogenic climate change. There's irreversible damage in the Earth's climate system, and for those in healthcare, you are most certainly on the front lines.

New York policy leaders said Hurricane Sandy wrecked havoc on the state to the tune of $42 billion in damage. About $3.1 billion of that total represented damage to hospitals and other healthcare organizations. Five acute-care hospitals in New York City alone were forced to close temporarily due to electrical and mechanical system failures, flooding and other storm-related issues, while hundreds of patients had to be evacuated to more stable facilities. NYU Langone Medical Center, Bellevue Hospital, Coney Island Hospital, Long Beach Medical Center and many other organizations took the brunt of the storm's effects.

So how are these hospitals doing today?

It's a mixed bag, really.

Almost all of the hospitals are open again, save for the 162-bed Long Beach Medical Center, which essentially is on the edge of never reopening. In October, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo doled out $6.6 million to South Nassau Communities Hospital to establish an urgent care center in Long Beach, which is expected to replace Long Beach Medical Center.

Bellevue Hospital and Coney Island Hospital, both part of New York City Health and Hospitals Corp., are returning to normalcy. However, Coney Island Hospital still has its MRI and CT imaging services in mobile units. In addition, the hospital is still awaiting state approval to reopen its psychiatric and pediatric inpatient units.

NYU Langone's emergency department is still closed as construction wraps up. Other hospitals in the metro area are still in the process of "hurricane-proofing" their hospitals if/when another storm of Sandy's size rolls in.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg laid out a $20 billion plan in June to protect the largest city in the U.S. against the effects of climate change, and hospitals were a major part of the plan. If anything, the plan should be applied to all hospitals and health systems in low-lying and coastal areas. I spoke with Gary Cohen, co-founder and president of Health Care Without Harm, earlier this summer after the White House named him as one of 11 "Champions of Change" within the public health sector. He talked about how climate-related impacts like Hurricane Sandy need to be a wake-up call for healthcare providers to change their operations. One year after the hurricane, the hospitals and communities are slowly making their way back, but the work is far from over.

"Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina — those were major public disasters, and hospitals need to be first responders," Mr. Cohen told me. "In the cases of both Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina, because there was a lack of resilience in the infrastructure of hospitals, the hospitals were also victims of the disaster as opposed to being the last building standing. People haven't planned for climate change in healthcare. That's a big transformation that needs to occur."

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