The incredible evacuation of NYU Langone Medical Center Monday night is one of the most heartwarming stories to come out of the Hurricane Sandy news cycle. But alongside reports of nurses carrying ICU infants down flights of stairs in the dark is the report of the background failure: why was it even possible for the hospital to lose power in the first place?
The hospital’s basement, lower floors, and elevator shafts filled with 10 to 12 feet of water when the storm hit. Early reports blamed the flooding in the basement for wiping out the backup generator system, as well as the backup pump system to the backup generator. NYC Council Speaker Christine Quinn told CNN that the city was assured prior to the storm that the hospital had “sufficient backup generators.”
“There are obviously enormous questions that NYU needs to answer,” Quinn said.
Gary Cohn, the president of Goldman Sachs and a trustee of the hospital, jumped in too. In an interview with Bloomberg Television, Cohn said the hospital board of directors knew the generators were “subpar and at risk” before the storm hit.
But the generators themselves are located on the roof and never in danger of flooding, according to Bob Berne, the executive vice president for health at the hospital, who spoke with NYU Local last night. Rather, the fuel pumps that supply the generators failed due to the flooding in the basement. The key to that nuance is that while the city is demanding answers from the NYU, the university is blaming the city: Berne explained that the pumps were only located there because city building codes required it.
“The level of water was two feet higher than it had ever been in history, and while we did sustain some flooding…we were told that the fuel pumps couldn’t be on the roof with the generators, they had to be below grade,” Berne said. “What we need to now look at is where you can put those fuel pumps, and maybe the city will look at it as well, now maybe this is a new circumstance for everyone.”
As Salon points out, hospitals do have a rocky history of generator failure. But Hurricane Sandy no doubt shed light on ways the city’s aging infrastructure norms no longer hold up to weather events of this magnitude. We’ll keep you posted as we learn more about the reasons for the outage.