NEW YORK – Bellevue Hospital cares for some of New York City’s neediest residents, serving more than 500,000 patients annually.
Since 1736, it has operated through the American Revolution, Civil War, Great Depression and 9/11. After Hurricane Irene in 2011, the hospital, located near the East River in Manhattan, took steps to protect its operations against future storms. Bellevue built a special encasement for its fuel pumps, equipped with airtight doors. The hospital’s bulk oxygen and nitrous tanks were similarly protected. The protective measures were based on flood mapping data available at the time.
When Hurricane Sandy struck Oct. 29, 2012, it became clear that the historical data was no longer sufficient. Sandy’s storm surge in lower Manhattan forced Bellevue to close temporarily and move patients. FEMA has since issued new flood elevation data and Bellevue is making plans to use the new data to protect itself and its patients from future storms.
Steven Alexander, a pharmacist by training and Bellevue’s chief operating officer, became its incident commander on Sunday, Oct. 28, as the storm approached. “We are a Level 1 trauma center, so we know how to handle emergencies,” Alexander said. Because public transportation was scheduled to be suspended, the hospital brought in extra staff, food, fuel and supplies and began to secure the five buildings on campus.
The storm surge from Sandy overwhelmed the hospital’s defenses, filling the 182,000 square foot basement with water that ranged in depth from four to 18 feet. The basement housed over 200 pieces of critical equipment, including computers that were the mainstay of the hospital’s IT department, bulk oxygen and nitrous oxide tanks, electrical switches, heating, air conditioning and water pumps. Some of this equipment was salvaged but most was destroyed.
The pits for the hospital’s 32 elevators were also in the basement. As a precaution, the elevator cabs had been parked on the first floor before the storm. After Sandy, all of the elevator cabs were able to be cleaned and reused; the cables and some electrical equipment were replaced.
The hospital’s generators were on the 13th floor. After the pumps stopped working, the New York Police Department brought in a fuel tanker and hospital staff spent the next 13 hours carrying five-gallon containers of fuel up 13 flights of stairs so the generators could continue to operate. The next day, the water pressure started to deteriorate and a decision was made to evacuate the hospital.
Once the basement was dry, Alexander asked his staff: “What’s the damage, when are we re-opening and what are we going to do about hurricane season 2013?”
Federal Emergency Management Agency specialists arrived at Bellevue a few days after the storm to advise hospital officials on rebuilding with greater resilience to future storms. New York City provided $300 million to the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, which runs Bellevue, to speed repairs and help the hospital reopen as quickly as possible. FEMA’s Public Assistance program is helping with the costs of emergency cleanup and remediation.
In January 2013, FEMA issued updated Advisory Base Flood Elevation (ABFE) data, reflecting new flood zones as a result of Hurricane Sandy. Bellevue began planning for future storms soon after Sandy, using the latest FEMA data.
- Many of the electrical and mechanical systems that flooded were replaced on higher floors and platforms were built to elevate those systems above the 500-year flood level.
- Selected elevator pits are being moved to the ground floor so they can function during an emergency.
- The emergency power distribution system is being expanded to bring generator power to key areas of the hospital, including sections that house CT scanners and MRI machines, pharmaceutical and chemotherapy facilities and research laboratories.
- Options for water pumps include moving them to a higher floor or bringing in additional pumps at street level that can be used as a backup system.
- Engineering experts are looking for ways to improve protection for the fuel pumps and medical gas tanks.
- The hospital is adding connections for mobile boilers that can be brought in to distribute steam to provide heat and hot water if necessary.
This project serves as a model for protecting against future disasters. Mitigation involves educating the community, protecting the environment, providing risk management and taking steps to rebuild stronger and safer.
To see a video of Bellevue’s mitigation efforts, click here.
By FEMA External Affairs, Hurricane Sandy New York