NYU says Langone generator failure due in part to city code

UPDATED: this article, originally published on Saturday Nov. 3, was modified to reflect new reporting and research in the Nov. 5. 

NYU Langone Medical Center was forced to evacuate during Hurricane Sandy Monday night when the storm surge in New York City raised water levels to unprecedented heights and cut off Langone’s backup generator fuel reserves and pumping systems.

The hospital administration initially drew some received criticism for the power failure that caused the hospital to be plunged into darkness and forced patients to evacuate. Many media outlets have described the power outage as a generator failure, but the university disputes that claim.

In an interview with WSN, executive vice president for health Bob Berne stated that the power outage was caused by a fuel tank malfunction that occurred because the tank was built to conform with city code, which mandated that fuel pumps were placed in the basement of the hospital.

“When the water breached the lower level and surrounded the fuel tanks, the fuel tanks … shut down,” Berne said.

According to building code consultant David Doddridge in an interview with Reuters, fuel tanks for rooftop generators are often placed at low elevations to in order to use gravity to facilitate fuel tank loading and to prevent lightning accidents and other weather-related corrosion.

Once the sensors on the fuel tanks processed the water level, they automatically shut down the generators located on the roof of the hospital, causing the power outage.

“What was called a generator problem was not,” Berne said. “It was a fuel problem.”

But many were increasingly angered by what they believed was an oversight on the part of the university. New York City Council speaker Christine Quinn publicly criticized the power failure.

“We were assured, we being the city, that the hospitals within Zone A had the capacity to get patients out before the storm … and that they had sufficient backup generators,” Quinn said. “There are many questions that NYU needs to answer.”

However, some at Langone have countered that the unanticipated flood levels meant the hospital was not entirely to blame for its inability to prevent a power outage.

“The onus is on the city to prevent Lower Manhattan from being flooded,” said Dr. Marc Siegel, an associate professor of medicine at NYU and a medical director at Doctor Radio. “It’s the city and state’s responsibility to protect hospitals.”

He added that building seawalls and other storm control measures would be helpful in preventing similar situations in the future.

Allison Clair, senior public relations specialist at Langone, also cited the historic magnitude of the storm, with storm surge flood

ing reaching 13.8 feet.

“We were prepared for 12 feet of flooding…but flooding was at unprecedented levels, more than 2.6 feet higher than the 1821 record,” she said.

FROM STAFF TO HEROES

As a result of the power outage, the staff at Langone were handed the enormous task of evacuating all patients out of the hospital. Their extraordinary efforts and efficiency were widely praised, turning everyday workers to heroes.

Working in near darkness, nurses and other hospital personnel escorted patients down long flights of stairs, in some cases manually providing oxygen through bag valve masks, in order to transport them to ambulances that delivered patients to nearby hospitals.

Langone had discharged many of its patients before the storm. All of the remaining 300 patients were successfully evacuated by 11 a.m. Tuesday morning.

“I’d like to point out how well-organized the evacuation was. None of the patients were lost or injured, and all were completely and safely evacuated throughout the night,” Clair said. “The doctors had to make a very quick decision to evacuate following the flooding.”

Corey Sullivan, whose nephew Leif Sullivan was one of the 20 premature newborns at Langone when the power failed, described the evacuation as “the most efficient process I’ve ever seen.”

Leif, who was in the prenatal intensive care unit on the ninth floor of the hospital, was among one of the first patients to be evacuated.

“The whole time, each child had nurses and firefighters around them,” he said. “[The nurses] used battery-powered equipment after all other backup plans failed. These kids were evacuated within a half hour, and in a new hospital within an hour.”

Sullivan was pleased to report that Leif had gained a pound since the hurricane, despite spending his first night away from the hospital on Nov. 1.

The evacuation process received praise from President Obama.

“When the storm was darkest, the heroism of our fellow citizens shone brightest,” Obama said in his weekly address, giving an honorary mention to “the nurses and doctors at NYU Medical Center who evacuated fragile newborns, carrying some down several flights of stairs.”

Langone expects to re-open ambulatory care centers, the Center for Musculoskeletal Care and the Clinical Cancer Center this Monday, contingent on restoration of power, as well as The Hospital for Joint Diseases.

*At time of publication, WSN has not received a response specifying which city code the hospital abides by. Check back for updates. 

Additional reporting by Alistair Blacklock and Amy Zhang. Wicy Wang is a contributing writer. Email them at cstate@nyunews.com.

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