Sandy prompts harrowing NYC hospital evacuation

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Vehicles submerged in flood waters from superstorm Sandy at the entrance to a parking garage in New York's Financial District , New York City

Vehicles submerged in flood waters from superstorm Sandy at the entrance to a parking garage in New York’s Financial District , New York City (AP photo)

NEW YORK (AP) – Evoking harrowing memories of Hurricane Katrina, nearly 300 patients were evacuated floor by floor from a premiere hospital that lost generator power at the height of superstorm Sandy.

Rescuers and staff at New York University Langone Medical Center, some making 10 to 15 trips down darkened stairwells, began their mission Monday night, the youngest and sickest first, finishing about 15 hours later.

Among the first out were 20 babies in neonatal intensive care, some on battery-powered respirators.

“Everyone here is a hero,” Dr. Bernard Birnbaum, a senior vice president at Tisch Hospital, the flagship at NYU, told exhausted crews as he released all but essential employees late Tuesday morning. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

More than two dozen ambulances from around the city lined up around the lower Manhattan block to transport the sick to other hospitals, including Mount Sinai, the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer, Lenox and Bellevue Hospital Center.

Meanwhile, other New York hospitals canceled outpatient appointments and elective surgeries. Several closed and evacuated patients, including Coney Island Hospital in Brooklyn, a Manhattan campus of the VA New York Harbor Healthcare System and other NYU-affiliated facilities. Bellevue lost electricity but as of mid-morning was operating on backup power.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg was clearly angry about the NYU Medical Center crisis when he addressed reporters late Monday, saying hospital officials had assured the city they had working backup power.

Last year, NYU evacuated in advance of Hurricane Irene on the order of city officials, spokeswoman Allison Clair said. “This year we were not told to evacuate by the city.”

Without power, there are no elevators so patients – some of whom were being treated for cancer and other serious illnesses – were carefully carried down staircases. As the evacuation began, gusts of wind blew their blankets while nurses and other staff huddled around the sick on gurneys, some holding IVs and other equipment.

NYU did send home about 100 of its 400 patients earlier Monday to lighten its load, starting the evacuation of the remaining 300 patients at about 7:30 p.m. when backup generators began to fail, Clair said. There were no injuries during relocation.

The scene was reminiscent of hospital evacuations in New Orleans after Katrina, with patients being carried down stairs on stretchers because elevators were out, and nurses squeezing oxygen bags for them because of lack of power to run breathing machines.

The difference is that in New Orleans, patients were trapped in flooded hospitals; in New York, dozens of ambulances could get through to move patients to safety.

The hospital blamed the severity of Sandy and higher-than-expected storm surge that flooded its basement but had little else to say beyond a short statement emailed to reporters after the evacuation was complete.

“At this time, we are focusing on assessing the full extent of the storm’s impact on all of our patient care, research and education facilities,” the statement said.

Most of the power outages in lower Manhattan, where Tisch is located, were due to an explosion at an electrical substation, Consolidated Edison said. It wasn’t clear whether flooding or flying debris caused the explosion, said John Miksad, senior vice president for electric operations at Con Edison.

At NYU, sporadic telephone service made it difficult for the hospital to notify relatives where patients were taken. It relied instead on receiving hospitals to notify families.

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