Just days after Hurricane Sandy assaulted Coney Island Hospital – flooding the facility and leaving it without electricity, phone service, or internet service with staff and more than 200 patients inside – a steady stream of patients was being seen by medical staff in a 24-hour a day walk-in, non emergency clinic set up at the hospital. It was a beacon of light in an area where the storm had moved houses off their foundations, scattered personal possessions and memories, and left many residents in despair.
“We wanted to provide care as quickly as possible to this community that was so devastated by the storm,” said Dr. John Maese, Medical Director of the hospital.
The hospital itself faced catastrophic system failures during Hurricane Sandy, losing full electrical power and experiencing land line and cell phone outages in all three buildings. Nurses and physicians cared for patients using flashlights and with the support of service line managers, department heads and administrative executives.
“In a situation like this, our primary concern is the patients,” said Chief Nurse Terry Mancher. “We cared for them, we reassured them, we kept them safe.”
As soon as the storm had passed, more than 200 patients were evacuated. It was the second time in 14 months that Coney Island Hospital has transferred out all patients because of a hurricane. The hospital was also evacuated in advance of Hurricane Irene in August 2011.
During the weekend before Sandy hit on Oct. 29, hospital staff had moved all patients from the Main building to the newer, more technologically modern Tower building in case of system failures. Ventilator patients who would be most susceptible to disruption in power were transferred to other hospitals.
Joseph Marcellino, Assistant Director of Emergency Management at Coney Island Hospital, said the night of the storm, rather than coming in in waves, the water suddenly rose up around the hospital. “We went from no flood waters to three feet of water in about 10 minutes,” he said.
“All the redundancies failed. The telephone system, emergency phones, cell phones, mobile radios,” he said. When the power plant flooded, engineers turned off the backup generator to preserve its stability and systems, a strategy that worked and allowed them to turn it back on a few hours later when the floodwaters receded.
“We drill regularly for all kinds of emergency scenarios,” Marcellino said. “At a time like this it comes down to the people that you’re working with thinking on their feet, remembering their training, and asking, ‘What do we need to do to move to the next step?’ ”
When the emergency department in the main building flooded, the staff coordinated efforts and safely transferred about 30 patients through 3 inches of water to the Tower Building.
As the water rose in the parking lots, cars alarms were short circuiting, setting off alarms. One car caught fire, sending the frightening smell of smoke through the lower floors of the hospital. The fire was extinguished by hospital staff using a fire hose snaked through rooms and out a window.
During the night about 50 area residents who had not evacuated came to the hospital seeking shelter when they realized the intensity of the storm. They were wet and frightened when they arrived. Staff members dried them off and gave them food and blankets and housed them in the auditorium. For about 4 ½ hours the hospital was without power. As the water receded, engineers restarted the generator and it came back on line.
On Tuesday, Oct. 30, hospital staff evacuated about 140 patients to other HHC hospitals as well as hospitals outside of HHC, and the next day hospital staff transferred the remaining 41. The rest of the patients were well enough to be discharged. An impressive line of 50 ambulances at one time stood staged and ready to transport patients. Local ambulances including mutual aid and partner companies participated in the evacuation.
Coney Island Hospital is now providing primary care and clinical care services including pharmacy services for prescription renewal. Limited emergency room services are expected to open by the end of November and full emergency room services and hospital admissions will reopen in January.