Hurricane Sandy: Five years later | Surviving Sandy. Staten Island, together and strong

Super Storm Sandy
Super Storm Sandy

By Lou Tobacco

Five years after Super Storm Sandy, we watched devastation far worse from afar. As we open our hearts and offer our help to the victims of Hurricane Maria, we recall our own struggles during Sandy with lessons learned and unexpected rewards.

October 29, 2012

A monster in motion was set to strike our coastal community. We were prepared but unknowing.

“What we did know,” according to Brahim Ardolic, SIUH chair of Emergency Medicine, “was that we could avert loss of life and damage through advanced preparation in communication procedures, evacuation planning and resource allocation. We had proof.”

Through a century and a half history, SIUH had come through for our community during outbreaks of disease, wartime shortages and disasters; and, most recently, the ferry crash and Hurricane Irene.

Still, the tense days leading up to Sandy were filled with foreboding.

The monster approaches.

Late afternoon October 29: the skies darkened. The winds picked up. The hospital’s incident commanders hung on every ominous word coming from the Mayor’s office and Office of Emergency Management. Planning and support continued throughout the Northwell Health system.

In the quiet before the storm: a key decision

At 4pm, a hush came over SIUH’s emergency operations centers North and South — a mindful finale to the arduous days of preparation that would give the hospital the ability to react and adapt to whatever Sandy would bring.

Donna Proske, who is now the hospital’s executive director, issued the order: all non-essential personnel were to leave..

On a normal day, most of SIUH’s 745-beds are filled and more than 6,500 staff members are at work on three shifts. During Super Storm Sandy, the “stay team” included personnel essential to care for patients, maintain and secure both facilities and be ready to help anyone who came through our doors.

Surviving Sandy

SIUH North made it through with core services intact, ready to take in new patients, while at the South Site power was sustained by its co-generation plant.

ED North and South stayed the course

In the late evening to early morning hours patients trickled in on their own even after EMS ambulance service ceased at 3 am. As the wrath of the storm brought surge waters in reach of the front door at the North Site, we experienced the miracle of the black Bronco; the iconic SIUH making it through the swirl of flood waters to deliver a stroke patient whose life was saved by the ED team.

The unexpected surge that came after the storm

“We were astounded by the rising volume of patients as far out as 72 hours after the storm,” said Dr. Ardolic. Among the 167,000 Staten Islanders experiencing power outages were those deprived of oxygen flow in their homes and in need of hospital admission for survival. In a first of its kind journal publication, the ED team noted that on the day of landfall, daily volume exhibited a precipitous drop over the days preceding the storm followed by a return to usual volumes shortly after. A notably larger percentage of patients were seen for medication refills in 2012; 5.8% versus 0.4% Lacerations and cold exposure also increased substantially in 2012 at 7.6% versus 2.8%”

Hospital- ity

We met the influx of neighbors with hospitality as SIUH welcomed those who left devastated homes with their pets and belongings to seek shelter and sustenance with us.

Tragedy at home

Tragically, nearly 200 of our employees working around the clock to help others learned they themselves were displaced: their homes in ruin, their belongings gone. In response, co-workers opened their homes. In a formal response, a relief center took up shop at SIUH. As donations and supplies poured in, they were also shared among SIUH staff and with a devastated community.

On reflection

“We survived a storm surge, a storm of stress and emotions,” said Donna Proske. “In recovery, we found solace in selflessly supporting one another and our community.”

The future

Emergency planning at the hospital is ongoing. Pertinent to this and with government support is the construction project underway to raise core power sources above ground and above flood zone levels at SIUH North and South.