The Anatomy of Coney Island Hospital’s Hurricane Evacuation

BY Jason Kane  August 26, 2011 at 8:56 PM EST


Ambulances wait on Friday to evacuate patients at Coney Island Hospital as Hurricane Irene headed northward; Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Coney Island Hospital has been staring down the Atlantic Ocean for the past 137 years. On Friday, a retreat was ordered.

Hurricane Irene sent the biggest employer in southern Brooklyn scrambling to complete the hospital’s first full-scale evacuation. At the orders of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, hospitals in low-lying coastal flood zones of the city — called “Zone A” — began transferring patients to facilities on higher ground.

That meant Friday was marked by a steady stream of ambulance traffic departing from Manhattan’s NYU and V.A. medical centers, as well as Staten Island University Hospital North, Staten Island University Hospital South and a number of senior centers and psychiatric homes.

Just blocks from the ocean, Coney Island Hospital began preparations for the potential evacuation Wednesday evening, Gregory Maizous, the hospital’s marketing director, told the NewsHour Friday evening.

When the evacuation became official, “our staff worked through Thursday night to identify available beds in safe areas, everywhere from Manhattan to the Bronx to Brooklyn, depending on the severity of a patient’s diagnosis and how many specialty beds these facilities had to offer.”

The parade of 15 newborns, two children and 248 adults in various states of distress started early Friday. Sixteen were on ventilators. They lined up in the hospital’s foyer one by one and were loaded into a line of awaiting hospital and for-hire ambulances.

The retreat lasted until 7:43 p.m., with some doctors and nurses for critical and specialty-care patients joining them at their new hospitals.

Joseph Marcellino, the hospital’s associate director of emergency management, spoke with the NewsHour immediately after the last ambulance was loaded.

How do you evacuate an entire hospital?

A lot of coordination, especially in an emergency like this. The medical staff, nursing staff, ancillary staff and support staff all need to work in concert. But it also involves multiple other hospitals, emergency medical services, the New York City Police Department, the fire department and many other groups. We were fortunate that our facility has trained and tested the evacuation in the past couple of years. This was our first full-scale evacuation and it went almost seamlessly.

Was the biggest threat to the hospital structural damage or other factors, like electricity outages?

Hospitals traditionally are always prepared for power failures. They have multiple redundancies and back-up systems built in. And they’re also very well constructed. The majority of hospitals throughout the country are built beyond the basic building codes. So when you look at a hurricane, it’s not whether it can withstand wind and rain, but more importantly, is it going to flood, and are the surrounding roads going to flood? It’s not only about protecting the people inside the hospital, but also those who might try and make their way here if they think the hospital is open.

Do transfers pose a danger to patients?

People are in a hospital because they’re sick. So if a patient is critical when they’re in the hospital, they will be critical during transfer. But this process doesn’t pose an extra risk.

If the storm damage is minimal, when would you expect to start transferring patients back?

I wouldn’t even anticipate that. What it comes down to is making sure the facility is functional and operational. And that depends on the damage after the storm.