Millions of gallons of sea water rushed into Bellevue Hospital's basement during Hurricane Sandy, forcing a massive evacuation of patients and the closing of the nation's oldest public hospital for the first time in centuries. NY1's Cheryl Wills went on an exclusive tour of Bellevue to find out when the hospital will be fully operational again.
Signs of the holiday season are finally on display at Bellevue Hospital on Manhattan's East Side, after Hurricane Sandy crippled the crown jewel of the city's Health and Hospitals Corporation.
There are still remaining signs of the storm's wrath, like darkened hallways, a candy-red tube that funnels heat throughout the chilly facility and handwritten messages of hope for recovery.
Before Sandy made landfall, officials at the 276-year-old medical facility initially believed they could shelter their 725 patients from the storm. But when more than 10 million gallons of the East River rushed into the hospital's basement through a loading ramp, all bets were off.
"We called in, literally, the National Guard," says Steven Alexander, Bellevue's chief operating officer.
The National Guard, the FDNY, NYPD and just about every emergency responder available were dispatched to Bellevue. While the emergency generators were on the 13th floor, the fuel pumps for the generators were flooded in the basement, so a bucket brigade was hastily put together to haul fuel up 13 flights of stairs to prevent the hospital from plunging into darkness.
It was a moment that pediatrician Dr. Julia Chang-Lin says she will not soon forget.
"I was in the newborn nursery and moms who just delivered babies. We had to help them down the stairs," says Chang-Lin.
Alexander led emergency operations from a tiny command center which at times had dozens of people lined wall to wall. Among other tasks, they figured out how to evacuate patients and staff and simultaneously pump water out of the basement.
"Every utility that you can think of, if they were located in the basement, they all got wet," Alexander says.
Now, more than a month after Sandy, all of Bellevue's primary care and speciality clinics have reopened, but the main hospital is still closed. The emergency room, operating rooms and many other services will not be fully restored until February.
"We've had contractors working 24/7, both pumping out the basement and cleaning out debris," says Michael Rawlings, Bellevue's associate executive director.
Although it will take until the new year to get the hospital fully operational, Bellevue officials say they are proud of their staff, who saved lives and kept their cool in a chaotic situation.