Nearly four years after Hurricane Sandy caused devastating damages to local hospitals, New York City Councilmembers are calling for less talk about repairs from city officials and more action.
Tuesday morning’s oversight meeting on the city’s hospitals recovery quickly got tense. Mark Treyger, City Councilmember and chair of the Committee on Recovery and Resiliency, repeatedly asked representatives from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office and NYC Health and Hospitals (H+H) when construction will begin on the various projects supported by Federal Emergency Management Agency, which provided funding back in 2014.
“The public wants to see action now,” said Treyger.
Daniel Zarrilli, senior director for the Mayor’s Office of Climate Policy and Programs, said the city has “been working tirelessly” to protect public hospitals from future storm damage. Some of the progress he cited included moving patient care areas above flood elevation, establishing standby power systems and guaranteeing drinkable water sources. However, construction on major projects such as a Bellevue Hospital flood wall and a new Coney Island Hospital clinical services building has yet to begin, as Treyger pointed out.
Funding for these projects came from FEMA’s new 428 program established after Hurricane Sandy. The funding would be split between Bellevue, Coler, Coney Island and Metropolitan Hospitals. De Blasio and U.S. Senator Charles Schumer held a press conference November 2014 to announce the $1.6 billion commitment.
“The largest of its kind,” Schumer said, according to the NYC.gov website. “This FEMA Public Assistance award will help ensure that our public hospitals have the necessary safeguards in place to operate continuously during a storm, mitigate damage and power loss, and, if evacuation is necessary, quickly return to normalcy.”
Zarrilli and Roslyn Weinstein, senior assistant vice president at Health and Hospitals, said they expected the projects to finish on time and on budget. Treyger was not convinced, given other hospitals have made more progress.
“Can you explain to me why was NYU Langone, a private hospital, able to secure commitment sooner than HHC [Health and Hospitals]?” said Treyger. “I’m sure that you would agree with me that time is of the essence when it comes to the populations our hospital systems are serving.”
FEMA gave NYU Langone Medical Center $1.13 billion in recovery aid in July 2014, the second largest award ever at the time. During Hurricane Sandy, the basement of the medical center flooded, shutting off power. Damages at the time were estimated to be between $700 million and $1 billion.
But Zarrilli quickly brushed off Treyger’s question. “The point that’s being made here is a bit in the past,” he said.
Zarrilli compared the differences between the two situations, with NYU Langone being one “well-resourced” hospital and NYC Health and Hospitals applying for four hospitals in “an incredibly complex environment.” Weinstein agreed and explained how the public hospitals were able to reopen emergency services months after the hurricane hit.
Treyger then asked why major projects are still in the design phase. The New York City Housing Authority worked on their designs before money from FEMA was confirmed, according to Treyger, and the flood wall at NYU Langone is already finished.
“I’ve seen these renderings now for quite some time,” said Treyger, referring to the design for Coney Island Hospital. “But why aren’t there shovels in the ground today?”
Zarrilli described some of the completed projects. Major equipment at three out of the four hospitals has been moved above flood elevation. At Bellevue Hospital, emergency flood barriers are in place at the two delivery ramps. He promised for more work to come.
“I think we’re working as aggressively as we can to make sure we are as prepared as we can be,” said Zarrilli.
Weinstein said construction is scheduled to begin in 2017 and end in 2020. That would be eight hurricane seasons from the time FEMA gave funding to the scheduled repair of the last hospital.