Lessons from Storm Sandy: When Hospital Generators Fail

In the wake of superstorm Sandy, much of New York City was plunged into darkness. What happened to the patient?

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Hospital workers evacuate patient Deborah Dadlani from NYU Langone Medical Center during Hurricane Sandy the evening of Oct. 29, 2012 in New York City.

In the wake of “superstorm” Sandy, much of lower Manhattan was plunged into darkness. What happened to the patients?

New York University Langone Medical Center was forced to evacuate patients due to power outages during the peak of the storm. “We lost power when ConEd cut [it], and our auxiliary generator malfunctioned,” says Lorinda Klein, the NYU Langone Medical Center spokesperson. “As a result, we have had to transfer 215 patients to neighborhing hospitals and they are still in the process of doing that now. The staff is working admirably and they are exhausted.”

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Emergency personnel including firefighters and medical staff hurried to transfer patients into ambulances for evacuation, often climbing several flights of stairs. CNN reported the hospital’s basement, lower levels and elevator shafts flooded with 10 to 12 feet of water. “Things went downhill very, very rapidly and very unexpectedly,” Dr. Andrew Brotman, senior vice president and vice dean for clinical affairs and strategy of NYU told CNN. “The flooding was just unprecedented.”

NYU Langone said in a statement that the evacuations were “due to the severity of Hurricane Sandy and the higher than expected storm surge.” The hospital’s telephone service, email and website were all down Tuesday.

Klein says NYU took all necessary disaster precautions and generators were functioning well prior to Monday night, “as far as she knows.” She says NYU does not know why the generators did not work properly. In those situations, hospitals can only rely on being able to transfer their most critical cases to other facilities. And that’s exactly what NYU did. Late Monday evening, the hospital began moving patients to nearby Mount Sinai hospital and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and continued the evacuation Tuesday morning, sending some patients to New York-Presbyterian Hospital as well as Continnum Health Partners Hospitals which include Beth Israel Medical Center, St. Luke’s Hospital and Roosevelt Hospital.

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When it comes to preparing for a natural disaster like superstorm Sandy, hospitals drill for such evacuations and activate emergency command centers to manage any increase in patients. Still, events like superstorm Sandy are hard to prepare for.

“It’s been an unprecedented situation that has required an unprecedented response from the whole tri-state health care system,” says Jim Mandler, assistant vice president for public affairs for Continnum Health Partners hospitals. All three hospitals took in patients from NYU with St. Luke’s and Roosevelt Hospital taking in 63 patients ranging from cardiac patients to preemies.

NYU is trying to determine why its back-up generators did not kick-in properly; assessing generators is one of the first measures taken by hospitals during storm preparation. “Whenever there is an anticipated event, even if it remote, we always make sure the generators are fully fueled and ready to go for at least several days. That was the case for Beth Israel. They went on their generators because they lost power,” says Mandler.

Part of the issue may have been the unanticipated amount of water that flooded NYU’s lower floors, which hampered the hospital’s contingency plans.

In the meantime, NYU’s patients are receiving care at neighboring hospitals who have created beds for them; Mount Sinai allocated two post-operative surgical units for patients in adult critical care, pediatric critical care, neonatal intensive care and obstetrics who were transferred to Mount Sinai by NYU staff and physicians.

Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center has taken in 19 adult patients from NYU, says media spokesperson Caitlin Hool. “We had adequate staffing to care for all our hospitalized patients before and during Hurricane Sandy [and] as of [Tuesday morning] we are operating under stable conditions. The hospital has had continuous power throughout the storm and continues to be adequately staffed to care for our patients.”

Bellevue Hospital in New York City was also reportedly evacuating patients due to similar power outages, but spokesperson Evelyn Hernandez says the hospital is working on backup generators and is not transferring patients.

(MORE: In the Eye of the Storm: Capturing Sandy’s Wrath)

According to Mandler, all hospitals’ command centers keep in constant contact with a city’s main health care command center. All New York City hospitals were in touch with the Greater New York Hospital Association as well as the city’s Office of Emergency Management. “We are in constant communication with them to see what needs we have and need from them, or what they need from us, which was the case when NYU had to evacuate,” says Mandler.

Those concerned about hospitalized family members can call area hospitals for the latest updates. However, hospitals still advise against traveling outdoors if the city recommends against it.

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