Hundreds of Atlantic and Gulf Coast hospitals at risk of hurricane flooding, study reveals

BOSTON — Both Atlantic and Gulf Coast hospitals are susceptible to flooding during even relatively weak storms, according to a new study. Researchers at Harvard systematically investigated flooding risk among hospitals up and down the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts during Category 1-4 storms.

With sea levels expected to rise considerably this century due to climate change, study authors from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health estimate that hospital flooding risk will increase by 22 percent in these areas.

“We now have a better sense of which hospitals are likely to flood from a hurricane today and those that need to prepare for greater risks in the future,” says senior study author Dr. Aaron Bernstein, Interim Director of Harvard Chan C-CHANGE, in a university release. “Hurricanes are expected to get more severe and may strike regions further north than in the past due to climate change. In places like my hometown of Boston, we can avoid crises that other hospitals have had to endure by learning from their experience and creating plans that build on best practices. But we must act now, before disaster strikes.”

The research team — which also included scientists from the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment, Boston University School of Medicine Department of Family Medicine, and PSE Healthy Energy — analyzed 682 acute care hospitals across 78 metropolitan areas within a 10-mile radius of the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. That area spanned a population just under 85 million people, equating to about one in four Americans.

The investigation revealed that more than half of the hospitals located in 25 out of those 78 metropolitan areas are at risk of flooding from a Category 2 storm.

The 10 metropolitan areas most at risk of restricted hospital care access in the event of a Category 2 hurricane are:

  • Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL
  • New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA
  • Boston-Cambridge-Newton, MA-NH
  • Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, FL
  • New Orleans-Metairie, LA
  • Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL
  • North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton, FL
  • Jacksonville, FL
  • Cape Coral-Fort Myers, FL
  • Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD

What does a prepared hospital look like?

According to a series of models, expected increases in sea level this century will result in the Baton Rouge, Virginia Beach, Corpus Christi, Philadelphia, and Boston metro areas experiencing over 90-percent increases in the number of beds at risk of flooding from a Category 2 storm.

Even if a particular hospital doesn’t experience flooding during a storm, the nearby roads may flood, restricting or preventing access to care. At least half of the roads within one mile of hospitals were at risk of flooding from a Category 2 storm in 18 studied metro areas. Flooded roads are a common challenge during hurricanes, as they seriously impede the transport of patients to emergency medical facilities during storms, and then make it harder for doctors and nurses to access hospitals for days and even weeks after the storm.

Study authors point to the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care Center as an ideal example of how coastal hospitals and health systems can improve hurricane resilience. Built in 2016, the facility replaced the VA Hospital and Charity Hospital in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Designed to remain operational for seven full days even in the event of city utilities and infrastructures becoming compromised, the SLVHCC boasts back-up fuel supplies, on-site sewage treatment facilities, and sufficient accommodations for as many as 1,000 staff and patients to safely shelter in place. The hospital also places all critical mechanical and electrical equipment, as well as patient care areas, at least 20 feet above the 100-year floodplain.

The study is published in the journal GeoHealth.

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