“The flooding occurred by those (creeks) overrunning their banks. It's never happened before,” said Alan Aviles, president and CEO of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corp., which had to evacuate more than 900 patients from three hospitals because of the storm. “We have to appreciate that it could happen again.”
The recovery efforts—whose costs are close to $1 billion for Aviles' health system, which owns Coney Island Hospital—have shifted away from the early mad scramble to restore operations at the clinics, operating rooms and laboratories left flooded and dark by the storm's forceful winds and water. Now, officials say, the focus is on preparing hospitals for what many are afraid could become routine—climate change-driven superstorms.
The necessary safeguards are still being mapped out by some hospitals. Others are moving ahead with plans that officials believe will be more than what is required to prevent damage and evacuations from future Sandys.
They are taking their lead from new state recommendations that redefined the 500-year flood standard for new construction. New York City recommended that existing hospitals in vulnerable zones meet 500-year standards by 2030. A state health committee on construction standards called that elongated timeline “reasonable.” A state analysis found 1 out of 3 hospital beds in the state is located in a flood zone.
Hospitals are moving to meet the standards even though the regulations are not final, according to Susan Waltman, executive vice president and general counsel for the Greater New York Hospital Association. Recovery funding from FEMA requires that hospitals meet its 500-year-flood maps.
Some are going further. NYU Langone Medical Center, which evacuated about 300 patients during the storm after emergency power failed, is raising critical services 2 feet higher than the new FEMA flood-proofing standard. The federal flood maps don't go far enough, said Paul Schwabacher, NYU Langone's senior vice president for medical center facilities management. “We want to be protected against that long into the future.”
The medical center continues to operate with a mobile MRI and has not reopened its emergency room, which was slated for expansion ahead of the storm. Officials decided to keep the emergency room closed and complete the entire project—repairs, renovation and expansion—all at once. The project should be finished next spring. A new power supply and backup building, also proposed before Sandy, is underway and plans have been adjusted to reflect new flood standards.