Even 'relatively weak' hurricane could sideline hundreds of coastal hospitals, study warns

As several hospitals either hunker down or work to restore damages caused by Hurricane Ian, researchers are warning that an increasing number of East Coast metro hospitals are in danger of flooding should even a “relatively weak” hurricane come their way.

Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health say there are currently 25 metropolitan service areas across the Atlantic and Gulf Coast in which more than half of the hospitals could be flooded by a Category 2 storm—and that number is only going to increase during the next century of expected sea level increases.

“While innovation and investments to protect hospital buildings and operations are necessary to ensure care delivery during hurricanes, finding ways to improve patient and staff access to care may also be needed,” the researchers wrote in GeoHealth.

Across their full sample of 78 metropolitan statistical areas within 10 miles of a coast, the team estimated 147 hospitals (21.6% of total beds) could be inundated by a Category 1 storm while 306 hospitals (44.2% of total beds) would be at risk during a Category 4 storm.

Weighting the impact of threatened beds against a metro area’s population, the researchers found that a Category 2 hurricane would have the greatest impact on care for Florida’s Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach areas, followed by the Northeast’s New York-Newark-Jersey City and Boston-Cambridge-Newton areas.

Road flooding is also a substantial concern for coastal hospitals, according to the analysis. In 18 of the examined metro areas, more than half of the roads within a mile of a hospital were at risk of flooding during a Category 2 storm, researchers wrote.

Sea level increases projected to continue in the coming years should also be a concern, they wrote.

An 0.82-meter (2.69-foot) rise expected to occur in the next century significantly increases coastal hospitals’ odds of flooding from a hurricane of any strength, according to the study. The rise would also increase the number of hospital beds at risk of flooding during a Category 2 storm by more than 50% in seven of the study’s metropolitan service areas, the researchers wrote.

“With prospects of more intense hurricanes making landfall atop higher seas owing to climate change, greater resilience to hurricanes will be necessary to ensure that healthcare remains viable when it is needed most,” researchers wrote in the journal.

The Harvard researchers’ warning comes roughly a week and a half after a congressional report in which the majority of health systems and other provider organizations reported operational disruption from several extreme weather events within the past half-decade.

Those events cost organizations anywhere from $28,000 to $22 million in facility damage and service interruptions, Congress found, yet just over a third said they had implemented a climate action or preparedness plan for any future weather-based disruptions.

Notably, the Geohealth study’s Category 2 cutoffs were well below what much of Florida faced Wednesday when Hurricane Ian hit the western coast as a Category 4 storm, according to the National Hurricane Center. The storm passed through the state and reentered the Atlantic Ocean, where it returned to a Category 1 status before hitting the Carolinas.

Sixteen hospitals, 47 nursing homes and 115 assisted living facilities had been evacuated or were in the process of evacuating as of Friday afternoon.

Mary Mayhew, president and CEO of the Florida Hospital Association, told Fierce Healthcare that structural damage to hospitals paled in comparison to the impact of power grid shutdowns and water supply cutoffs.

Healthcare organizations have little control over these local infrastructure issues as well as the road flooding warned of in the GeoHealth study, Mayhew said. For emergency situations, hospitals can best prepare by maintaining relationships with local, regional and state leaders.

“When the crisis occurs and the phone call is made, it is incredibly beneficial to have had an established relationship,” she told Fierce Healthcare. “The response to Hurricane Ian is a perfect example of why these relationships are critical, and [of] the importance of sustaining that kind of relationship building even when the crisis isn’t at your door.”