NJ Hospital Officials Begin Planning, Building for the Next Sandy

Andrew Kitchenman | February 21, 2013 | Health Care
State health commissioner, hospital executives share lessons learned in wake of the storm

Joseph F. Scott, president and CEO Jersey City Medical Center, with state Health Commissioner Mary E. O'Dowd.
Joseph F. Scott recalls looking out a window at Jersey City Medical Center last October and watching Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge flood the hospital’s parking lot and first floor.

Soon after the storm, he began planning to prevent a repeat of that sodden experience.

“I said to the architects: ‘Design me a system that will make sure that we don’t ever flood the hospital again,’ ” said Scott, president and CEO of the medical center and its parent company, LibertyHealth System.

Hospital executives across the state have been applying lessons learned from Sandy to better prepare for and communicate during future emergencies. State Health Commissioner Mary E. O’Dowd has been encouraging these discussions, including a forum for Hudson County healthcare executives yesterday in Jersey City. She spoke to reporters during a tour of the medical center after the event.

The hospitals in Hudson County were the hardest hit by the superstorm, with Hoboken University Medical Center and Palisades Medical Center temporarily closed. While Jersey City Medical Center’s first floor was inundated, it moved patients to the second floor and remained open.

“Fortunately for us, we were able to maintain our generator,” Scott said, noting that the water came within inches of the generator fuel pumps. After the storm, the hospital raised the pumps eight feet above the high-water mark.

Jersey City Medical Center also is planning a series of raised embankments, automatic floodgates, and waterproofed walls to head off future disaster. The plans are inspired by Lourdes Medical Center in Binghamton, New York, which has used a similar system to keep water out.

O’Dowd said she has advised hospitals affected by the storm to apply for Federal Emergency Management Agency funding for similar projects. She noted that FEMA funding for future emergencies is in the early phases, with most of the current focus on fixing problems left in the wake of the hurricane.

O’Dowd added that nonprofit foundations may also support hospital emergency-preparedness projects.

Going Mobile

Jersey City Medical Center was able to complete its repairs in December, thanks in part to its use of the Mobile Satellite Emergency Department. The U.S. Department of Defense-funded MSED rides on a 43-foot semi trailer and includes an emergency room with seven critical-care beds, oxygen and digital radiography. It is operated by Hackensack University Medical Center but was available to Jersey City, enabling it to continue to provide emergency care during renovations.

“It was really remarkable,” Scott said. The mobile unit was also used in New York City after the storm.

State officials are planning a study that may demonstrate the benefits of deploying New Jersey’s two MSEDs elsewhere in the country, which could aid in funding them. O’Dowd noted that the mobile department is expensive to maintain, adding that the state is applying to FEMA to reimburse MSED costs relating to the storm.

O’Dowd said the MSED was one of several ways the state supported hospitals during and after the storm. It also waived some state regulations and coordinated the arrival of 135 ambulances from other states. Jersey City Medical Center has replaced the eight ambulances it lost in the flood.

Learning from the Storm

O’Dowd highlighted two lessons from the storm that her department plans to apply across the state.

The first is to provide additional information to the public and medical providers
before an emergency occurs. While the state did put out some information on storm planning and preparation, many people were unclear on what to do as the state of emergency continued and the situation deteriorated .

“People outside of the state knew more about what was going on in New Jersey than New Jerseyans did,” due to problems with communications, O’Dowd said. She said that people should have information on hand before the storm, so they’re not completely clueless when TVs, phones, and radios aren’t available.

O’Dowd’s second goal is to increase communications among hospitals when they are planning to evacuate. While she praised the coordination in Hudson County during the storm, she said hospitals might benefit from incorporating national guidelines on evacuations.

Scott agreed that hospitals would benefit from guidelines, including further work coordinating where patients would be moved in the case of multiple evacuations.

“You want to be there to serve your community, but at the same time, you don’t want to put your patients at risk if something catastrophic were to happen,” Scott said.

O’Dowd said Hudson County evacuations benefited from having had to deal with Hurricane Irene. These experiences can be shared with officials at hospitals where evacuations have never occurred.

“What we know about preparedness and response is that with each experience, you learn,” O’Dowd said.

Scott added that the if enough coordination occurs at the local level, then hospital officials may not need to turn to the state for help.

“Each area is unique unto itself and having the people coordinate on a local level is so important,” Scott said. “I want to text her saying, ‘Having a ball, everything’s fine,’ not, ‘We need gas.’ ”

While Jersey City has completed more than $3 million in renovations, one final expense from Sandy remains — reimbursing 60 employees for the cars that were damaged or destroyed while parked in the hospital lot after hospital officials had assured them that it would be a safe place for their vehicles.

“We feel a responsibility to our employees, because we told them, ‘Go ahead and leave your car there,” Scott said. He noted that the New Jersey Hospital Association is helping to pay the costs.