Nowhere on Long Island were hospitals more fortified against superstorm Sandy than those near the Great South Bay, where sandbags and “dam doors” helped meet the challenge five years ago — and spurred planning for a future event of even greater force and fury.
South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside, Southside Hospital in Bay Shore and Good Samaritan Hospital in West Islip all came through Sandy’s pummeling in October 2012 largely unscathed thanks to lessons learned a year earlier during tropical storm Irene.
Not so for beleaguered Long Beach Medical Center, with its 162-bed hospital and complex of buildings near Reynolds Channel, the strait that separates the Long Beach barrier island from the mainland.
Sandy sounded the death knell for the medical center, which had been ailing financially for years, flooding the complex and causing irreparable damage to three structures. Only two still stand.
“Right now, they are dark and cold. That’s the term of art,” said Joe Calderone, a vice president and spokesman for South Nassau Communities Hospital, which purchased the former medical center’s assets in 2014 for $11.8 million.
“We are taking those buildings down to steel,” he said of the studs, and starting a rebuilding project that over the next several years will reinforce the structures to withstand a 500-year storm. That kind of turbulence packs torrential rain, high-velocity winds and substantial seismic forces.
Although the terminology seems to suggest a storm that emerges once every 500 years, meteorologists define it as one that has a 1 in 500 chance of occurring in any year. Hurricane Harvey, which crashed into the Texas coast and Houston in August, was a 500-year event. Weather phenomena of similar proportions also struck the Houston region in 2015 and 2016.
Sandy, by comparison, was a 100-year storm.
And the damage in Long Beach was extensive and expensive. South Nassau has yet to reach the fortification part of its plan to transform the former site into storm-bolstered medical buildings.
To date, South Nassau has spent $38.8 million in Long Beach, including $6 million for the initial Urgent Care Center in the area and an additional $14 million to upgrade it to a free-standing 911 Emergency Department. Demolition of the three buildings that could not be salvaged cost $6 million.
On top of that, $45 million in FEMA funds is earmarked to build a permanent home for the Emergency Department on the Long Beach campus. Its first floor is to be elevated more than 20 feet above the ground.
Calderone defines his own hospital — South Nassau — as a “defend-in-place” institution in the event of a monster storm. That means the hospital is open for business and all staff members are on-the-job awaiting patients, regardless of weather conditions.
Other hospital administrators have taken the same stance and said Sandy reinforced lessons learned during Irene, which tore through the region in August 2011.
“We are just 1,000 feet from a major tributary of the Great South Bay. Our entire campus is only a few feet above sea level,” said Donna Moravick, executive director of Southside, a division of the Northwell Health system.
Irene’s surge was so potent that water flowed into the first floor of the Bay Shore hospital.
“We learned from Irene what we needed to do to protect ourselves from Sandy,” Moravick said, so that in the 2012 storm, “We identified the most critical patients and said, ‘Let’s be prudent about this and move these patients to Manhasset and LIJ’ ” — that is, North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset and Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park.
A primary lesson learned at Southside and other hospitals near the shoreline is that storm defense is as much a part of patient care as guarding against hospital infections and other pressing safety issues.
After Irene, Southside purchased “dam doors” — removable flood protection devices placed in doorways to prevent water from entering the building. During Sandy, sandbags were arrayed along the hospital’s perimeter as a barrier to hold back the surge.
Joseph Loiacono, senior vice president of business and development and planning at Good Samaritan Hospital, said that during Irene the hospital took no chances and acted in the interest of patient safety.
“We evacuated the hospital during Hurricane Irene because of the very high tidal surge predictions. Ultimately, those predictions didn’t pan out,” he said. “So during Sandy, we partially evacuated because the predictions were a little more accurate. But we didn’t get much damage other than a few [uprooted] trees and a few damaged doors.”
Since Sandy, he said, “We have been working with the state and federal government to upgrade our generators that supply power to the hospital.”
A new building that will house the generators is planned, Loiacono said, and rather than the current seven machines, only three more powerful ones will be needed in the new structure. Designs have been presented to the Town of Islip Planning Board and the hospital soon will seek construction bids, he said.