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Bellevue Hospital evacuates hundreds

Flooding damage to emergency fuel pumps prompts removal of all patients

Troops evacuate a patient Wednesday night from Bellevue hospital in Manhattan. Photo courtesy the National Guard.

Bellevue Hospital has become the third New York City medical center to evacuate patients since hurricane Sandy tore through the region on Monday night.

Preceded by the dramatic evacuation late Monday night of NYU Langone Medical Center just blocks up the street after emergency generators failed, and the removal of Coney Island Hospital’s remaining patients Tuesday night, Bellevue Hospital started to evacuate its roughly 300 remaining patients to nearby facilities early Wednesday morning.

Bellevue, a New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation facility and the oldest public hospital in the country, sits in a flood zone and by Wednesday had collected an estimated 17 million gallons of water in its basement. The flooding damaged critical fuel systems for the hospital’s backup generators that were running on higher floors because main power to the area was out.

“To evacuate any hospital, especially one like Bellevue, is not made lightly,” said HHC President Alan Aviles at a press conference Wednesday evening. He said that the damage to the hospital was extensive, and while he could not give a specific cost or time estimate yet, he said, “If we are back in operation in two or three weeks, we’ll be doing very well.”

Aviles said that patients would be going to “any hospital you can think of,” without specifying their destinations. He said that in working with the city and state health departments as well as the Greater New York Hospital Association — a trade group for state hospitals —nearly all the necessary beds had been found. Aviles said that the evacuation would likely be completed by Thursday.

He added that family and friends would be notified as to where their loved ones were moved and that in the coming days HHC would work with the city’s 311 telephone information system to help family and friends to locate loved ones.

Hospital staffs around the city had been working since Sunday, while ambulance drivers from around the country had driven hours to get to storm-sieged New York City. And while many were evidently exhausted, they didn’t waver.

One EMT, Marcus Jones, 31, drove 15 hours on Sunday from Eerie, Indiana, to help, as part of a seven-ambulance fleet.

“It’s trying. We’ve gone a while without hot food or water,” he said. But Jones, who said he also helped evacuate people during Hurricane Katrina, wouldn’t complain. “We’re here for a purpose.”

A total of 725 patients were at the hospital at the time the storm hit on Monday, and while many were evacuated and transferred to other hospitals, Aviles said that “a significant number” of other patients were safely discharged. One, Michael Harris, 44, had been at Bellevue for three weeks following an assault. By Wednesday, he was stable but said he wished he had more time to recuperate.

“I need a little more time to get things situated,” he said with his bag of personal items and hospital bracelet on his wrist. “Now that’s kind of iffy.”

Unlike NYU’s, Bellevue’s generators were not placed in the basement of the hospital. But the emergency fuel pumps that fed the generators were, forcing a unit of over 100 National Guard members to manually carry five-gallon pails of fuel up flights of stairs in a “human bucket brigade” to keep the hospital running.

Aviles said after the conference that the hospital’s main focus was to complete the evacuation, but suggested that emergency systems may need to be reevaluated in the future.

“I don’t doubt that after a storm of this magnitude there will be lessons learned that affect how we go moving forward,” he said.

Many health policy experts have urged that hospitals susceptible to flooding move their backup generators and critical emergency fuel systems to higher ground to avoid situations like these.

“Hospital preparedness and well-functioning backup systems are a costly distraction from daily business, until they are needed. Like now,” tweeted Arthur Kellermann Monday night during the crisis at NYU Langone.

He said in an interview Tuesday that he didn’t have any knowledge of specific New York City hospitals, and that his comment reflected a national problem. But he added that even “a decade after Katrina we still have backup systems in the basement that are subject to flooding.”