NPR Story
10:48 am
Sat November 3, 2012

What Went Wrong? N.Y. Hospitals Swiped By Sandy

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The power outages and flooded also critically affected New York's hospitals. Several had to evacuate patients during the storm. New York University's Langone Medical Center was one of them. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has the story.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: The trouble at NYU Langone Hospital began on Monday evening. The lights went out in the emergency room. Power was down in the transplant unit. And even today as I stand in front of one of the most modern advanced hospitals in the United States, this place is wall-to-wall maintenance trucks. Now it is being powered by three mobile generators parked in containers out front. Last Monday, its backup generator died when the basement flooded.

DR. ARTHUR KELLERMANN: Most hospitals have not taken seriously enough the need to avoid being a disaster themselves.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Dr. Arthur Kellermann, who studies health care issues and preparedness at the RAND Corporation.

KELLERMANN: But the problem is hospitals on any given day are more worried about their immediate operations, their immediate bottom line, and when hospital boards get together and talk about capital spending, a generator is typically not the first thing on their purchasing list.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Apparently the hospital's board of directors knew that the backup generators were outdated and vulnerable to flooding. A trustee who talked to Bloomberg Television said the hospital was undergoing a renovation. They just hadn't gotten to the generator yet.

So that's NYU. But it wasn't alone. Five New York hospitals had to evacuate patients. One of them was Bellevue Hospital. It had to evacuate more than 700. So how did all this happen? New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg had the simplest explanation.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: There were too many generators that were in the basement of buildings and we've got to really start focusing on planning for floods down the road and hope that they do not come.

TEMPLE-RASTON: But that planning was supposed to have already have happened. An organization called the joint commission oversees and accredits hospitals. All accredited hospitals must be able to manage themselves for 96 hours. That's actually a Federal Emergency Management Agency timeline. It assumes it'll take three days for FEMA to arrive on the scene and another day to stand up operations.

Though NYU and Bellevue are accredited hospitals, they didn't meet that standard, though no patients died. In Bellevue's case it had a generator going, but the hospital sustained so much damage, it decided to relocate its patients anyway. Again, Arthur Kellermann of RAND.

KELLERMANN: And that should be a lesson for all of us. If it can happen in New York City, it can happen anywhere, and we all can do a better job.

TEMPLE-RASTON: A consulting firm, Lawrence Associates, studied hospital preparedness last year. It found that health care facilities across the country have antiquated backup power systems and generators sitting in basements. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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