Ten years after Hurricane Sandy flooded the emergency room at the old Coney Island Hospital in Brooklyn, a new, climate-resilient hospital has been erected in its place. Surrounded by scaffolding and construction equipment, the 11-story building that will be the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Hospital in the South Brooklyn Health campus is almost complete. The hospital is about a 20-minute walk from nearby Brighton Beach—an area badly hit by the 2012 superstorm—and it’s the first new public hospital in the city since 1982.
In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy swept over the tristate area, striking South Brooklyn especially hard. The storm arrived just before Halloween, knocking out power for millions, flooding 17% of the city, and shutting down entire sections of the subway system. Sandy also inundated coastal communities with a 14-foot storm surge and led to 72 deaths across New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.
The night of the storm
Terence Brady, the hospital’s chief medical officer, remembers the evening that the storm finally reached the city. Staff had been aware of the storm making its way up the coast for several days, so as a precaution, they had some of the most critical patients moved to other hospitals, Brady explained. Some were sent to different facilities in the city, while others transferred to hospitals far away as Westchester County.
The storm made landfall over the New York area on October 29. That evening, Brady didn’t see any flooding at first. He hoped the storm would just pass over, without causing major disruptions. But later in the evening, Ocean Parkway began to flood. Water rushed into the emergency room.
“Literally, the ocean started to come through the doors. Every door. It was probably about a foot and a half high,” Brady recalled. “We had all the doors closed, and it was coming through all the closed doors [and] under the doors.”
The water rushed into the hospital’s basement, where the power cables were placed. Over an hour after the first floor was inundated, the power in the building went out. “You could hold your hand out in front of you, and you couldn’t see a thing. So that was really scary,” Brady said.
As the water rose higher, the hospital decided to shut off the generators as a safety precaution. The medical staff used flashlights to treat patients and keep notes on paper while computer systems were down. The generators were turned back on a few hours later. That same night, staff smelled smoke and feared a fire inside of the hospital. In fact, a car in the parking lot was aflame—the patients were not at risk. “Not one single loss of life,” Brady said proudly.
“We still wound up getting walk-ins. Matter of fact, we got people who were delivered by boat to the lobby,” said Daniel Collins, the hospital’s head of facilities.
A state-of-the-art replacement hospital
Future floods shouldn’t be able to reach the new emergency department, which is located on the second floor instead of the first. A 4-foot concrete wall along the perimeter of the parking lot is intended to protect the medical facility from a 500-year flood. This means that the hospital is protected from intense flooding that has a 1-in-500 (only 0.2%) chance of happening.
Other new features take our current climate reality into account. Ambulances can access the second-floor emergency department via a concrete ramp that goes up to that level. The new Ginsburg building now houses backup power, water, and heating on the fifth floor. Staff should be able to keep the lights on, even in the face of powerful storm surges and flooding.
The area is still susceptible to future flooding. The new NYC Health + Hospitals/South Brooklyn Health is at the edge of the Sheepshead Bay, right above the Brighton Beach neighborhood. According to the Risk Factor website, an online tool used to assess future flood risk, the area is at moderate risk of flooding in the next 30 years, which means “flooding is likely to impact day-to-day life within the community.”
The damage from Sandy has led to other necessary upgrades across the medical campus. The future second-floor emergency department is now larger. There are now more operating rooms with updated technology, a robotic surgery theater, and inpatient dialysis. When it opens in the first half of 2023, the hospital will house 60 behavioral health beds and 80 private medical surgical beds. The walls are painted light blues and greens, to match ocean themes, and higher floors feature large windows with views of the borough and of Manhattan.
“This hospital is going to be state of the art. So, you’re going to have the ability to take care of people through heat, illnesses, cold,” Brady said. “Well, with climate change, I’m not so sure how much we’re gonna have freezing anymore.”
Projections from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggest the country’s coastline will see about a foot of sea-level rise by 2050. Coastal cities like NYC that already struggle with flooded infrastructure will only become more vulnerable, and this will make it harder for residents to access emergency services during and after heavy rainfall events. Other medical facilities may need to take inspiration from the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Hospital as extreme weather only becomes more common.