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Long Beach hospital's potential new owner weighs whether to raze all or part of Sandy-damaged structure

Exterior view of the Long Beach Medical Center

Exterior view of the Long Beach Medical Center in Long Beach, Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014. Two years after superstorm Sandy the financially strapped 162-bed hospital is expected to be partly demolished. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

It's a case of wait and hurry up.

Close to two years after superstorm Sandy shuttered Long Beach Medical Center, architects are drawing up plans to demolish part of the hospital while its potential new owner awaits assurance from the federal government that it will help pay for building a free-standing emergency department.

In May, a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge approved the sale of the financially strapped 162-bed Long Beach hospital to 435-bed South Nassau Communities Hospital for $12 million. Before it can go forward with the bankruptcy, the Oceanside hospital said it must get a final letter of undertaking from the Federal Emergency Management Agency promising what it hopes will be more than $170 million.

Once it owns the property, South Nassau chief executive Richard Murphy said, South Nassau will decide as quickly as possible what, if any, part of the hospital is salvageable and develop plans for opening the free-standing emergency department it has pledged to build.

"This is the most complicated thing I've ever been involved with," Murphy said. "It's like a Rubik's Cube."

South Nassau recently received a draft letter of undertaking from the agency, which the hospital has sent back for further clarification, said Bill Ulrich, vice president of facilities management.

FEMA spokesman Michael Wade said it "is being processed between FEMA, the state and applicant. Once the appropriate language is approved by all parties the LOU [letter of understanding] will then be signed. A definitive time line cannot be provided."

In the meantime, South Nassau, at about $300,000, has hired Blitch Knevel Architects of New Orleans. President Ron Blitch said his firm is developing plans to demolish the three oldest parts of the facility, the central, the original "founders" and east sections. The Long Beach hospital initially spent about $20 million from FEMA to fix up the badly damaged structure, but Murphy said those three sections -- about half of the hospital -- remain irreparably damaged by saltwater.

The firm, which was initially a consultant for the Long Beach hospital, is also studying whether the newer main and west sections can be repaired.

Blitch said it is sometimes more cost effective and efficient to replace a building.

"Sometimes adaptive reuse makes sense and sometimes it doesn't," he said.

Murphy said the study, which should be completed next month, will help determine where the freestanding emergency department will go. One option is to locate it in the former emergency department in the west wing, he said. If that proves too expensive, South Nassau will build an emergency department from scratch on the hospital grounds or at a site more centrally located in Long Beach.

Once the emergency department is under construction, the hospital will work with the state Department of Health to see if the urgent care center on the hospital grounds that South Nassau opened in July can operate as a temporary emergency department, he said.

Ultimately, Murphy said, he envisions building more than an emergency department, which "by itself is not sustainable" financially. Instead, it will be part of a larger plan that could include a medical campus with specialty outpatient care such as pediatric, geriatric and imaging services, he said.

Blitch said if all goes well, demolition on the older part of the hospital could begin in January and take about six months. If it is decided to raze the rest, that should "dovetail nicely," he said.

For local politicians, action can't come too soon.

"Our city council continues to place top priority on re-establishing a 911-receiving emergency room," Long Beach City Manager Jack Schnirman said.

Assemb. Harvey Weisenberg (D-Long Beach) said he is anxious to see an emergency department on the barrier island, but he is grateful to South Nassau and understands the situation. "They can't move forward until they have ownership," he said.

Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) said, "I'm encouraged by the recent developments but remain concerned over the lack of a 24-hour, ambulance-receiving emergency department on the barrier island."

Blitch said the Long Beach process is similar in many ways to projects his firm has worked on in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

By comparison, he said, the Long Beach project is going at "warp speed." One of the firm's projects included the 900-bed Charity Hospital. FEMA initially estimated that repairing the 1930s Art Deco structure would cost about $24 million, but Louisiana State University, which operated the hospital, said it would cost $257 million. Five years later, the dispute was resolved by an arbitration panel, which ruled that FEMA had to pay $475 million toward building a hospital at another site. The new $1.2 billion facility was completed last year. Charity remains empty.

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