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Mass. hospitals at risk of disruption, flooding even in moderate hurricanes

Cars drive through a flooded Stuart Street during the heavy rain from Tropical Storm Elsa.
Cars drive through a flooded Stuart Street during the heavy rain from Tropical Storm Elsa. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

A new study warns Boston-area hospitals with little experience operating during a hurricane will see increased disruptions like flooding and power outages during the damaging storms.

The analysis of federal storm surge modeling finds hundreds of hospitals within 10 miles of the Atlantic or Gulf Coast face some risk. Hospitals in the Boston metropolitan area have the third-highest risk for disruptions in care during a relatively moderate Category 2 hurricane, after Miami and New York.

While the overall risk of a Category 2 hurricane making landfall in New England is low, the strength and duration of hurricanes are increasing due to climate change. In current conditions without additional sea level rise, many hospitals face flooding risk.

Places that haven't seen hurricanes before are now going to be at risk, said Dr. Aaron Bernstein, the study’s senior author, “and our infrastructure is not ready for it.”

Bernstein says hospitals in the Boston area need to prepare for flooding and patient evacuations. Those in the Longwood area must be ready for power failures if the nearby plant that powers those medical facilities goes down. And hospitals that are not flooded may be cut off by roads that are, making it difficult for patients to reach care and interrupting the delivery of supplies.

Cape Cod Hospital, Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital and others on or near a waterfront have taken steps to prepare for flooding, including moving generators out of basements. But many hospitals in eastern Massachusetts have not made changes. Miami, Houston and New Orleans hospitals — where hurricanes are a more common threat— have worked to adapt.

The study’s findings align with a Mass General Brigham analysis, said Dr. Paul Biddinger via email. Biddinger is the network’s director for emergency preparedness; he said that the internal report shows a risk of some hospitals being inaccessible to patients and staff due to flooding during a Category 2 or 3 hurricane, but not “in the near term.”

Boston’s cluster of major teaching and specialized hospitals could make transferring patients more difficult than in other cities.

“An evacuation of these facilities due to flooding would likely require support from tertiary care hospitals across the entire New England region,” Biddinger said.

Sea levels are predicted to rise more than two and a half feet this century. The study found that will increase the risk of flooding for hospitals by 22% on average.

Related:

Martha Bebinger Twitter Reporter
Martha Bebinger covers health care and other general assignments for WBUR.

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