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Blog: Hospitals post-Sandy: First, open the doors

Critical infrastructure vulnerable to flooding—including electrical switches and fuel pumps—will be moved to higher ground at New York City-owned hospitals that remain closed by damage from superstorm Sandy, said the president of the city's health system.

But first, the hospitals must open, Alan Aviles, president and CEO of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corp., told an audience in Manhattan for the Crain's New York Business Health Tech Summit.

That will not happen until January for Coney Island Hospital and February for Bellevue, though limited emergency room and outpatient services will resume sooner.

Coney Island Hospital, which lost all power for four hours during the lethal storm, has already resumed its outpatient services. Bellevue will do so next week, Aviles said on Monday when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced plans to increase the city's capital budget by $500 million, including $300 million for the health system's Sandy repairs. The City Council approved the spending on Tuesday afternoon.

Limited emergency room service will open by the end of the month at Bellevue and Coney Island with New York State Department of Health approval, though Bellevue's emergency department will rely for a while on generators.

The total cost to reopen and relocate critical infrastructure—including construction to ensure that some elevators will continue to operate in event of flooding, which was not the case during Sandy—is not yet known, Aviles said, “because we are completely focused on getting these hospitals up and running again as quickly as possible that means that there will be limited opportunity to address some of the repositioning issues that are involved here that are really quite complicated,” he said.

“We're going to have to do some of that at a later point, yet we're going to have to do that with urgency once we get past this initial challenge of getting the hospitals up and running. It will be expensive,” he said.

Aviles said the rushing floodwaters dislodged elevator doors and flooded all Bellevue's elevators shafts. Without elevators, two patients could not be evacuated from the hospital, which began to empty after the storm but to fully evacuate on Oct. 31.

Aviles said plans to remodel Bellevue to withstand future storms include some elevators that will operate on emergency power, with shafts that will be protected from flood waters. The plans will also relocate electrical, fuel, power distribution, water and communication infrastructure vulnerable to flood damage.

During the storm, Bellevue lost power from the local utility company and operated on generators that supply roughly 30% of the hospital's normal power, he said. The force of floodwater pouring into the hospital's basement disabled electricity to pumps that provided fuel to Bellevue's generators on the 13th floor, he said. Employees and the National Guard hauled 5-gallon containers of fuel to the generators to maintain power.

Coney Island's generators, located about 2 feet above ground, will be raised. Aviles was in the hospital's command center during the storm and said the advancing flood waters prompted engineers to cut off power to generators for roughly four hours.

Bellevue and Coney Island Hospital are two of the five flood-damaged hospitals that remain closed a little more than two weeks after superstorm Sandy made landfall. Nine hospitals were evacuated because of the storm. Hoboken University Medical Center, which reopened on Monday, continues to repair flood damage on its lower levels.

You can follow Melanie Evans on Twitter: @MHmevans.

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