NEW YORK (Reuters) - More than three months after Superstorm Sandy forced Manhattan's Bellevue Hospital Center to evacuate 500 patients and shut down one of the busiest emergency rooms in the city, the hospital reopened for normal operations on Thursday.
Bellevue, located near the East River, was evacuated on October 31 when its basement - which housed electrical switching gear and other equipment critical to the hospital's operations - took in millions of gallons of water. It was the hospital's first evacuation in its 276-year history.
Several area hospitals, including Mount Sinai and St. Luke's Roosevelt, took in evacuated patients.
Lynda Curtis, Bellevue's Executive Director, said that while "ramping up to full service" will take more time, the hospital is again functioning as a Level 1 Trauma Center, meaning it is able to admit patients, perform surgeries, receive ambulance cases and deliver inpatient behavioral health services.
Bellevue's closing followed the dramatic evacuation at New York University's Langone Medical Center on the night of the storm. All 215 of its patients, including critically ill infants, were carried out of Langone when its backup generator failed after some eight feet of water flooded its basement.
The Manhattan Veterans Affairs Hospital and the New York Downtown Hospital, both in low-lying areas of Manhattan, evacuated patients before the storm hit. Brooklyn's Coney Island Hospital near the Atlantic Ocean beaches was later evacuated.
All of the evacuated patients survived the transfer.
Lower Manhattan, as well as large stretches of Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island, lost power, while flooded subway tunnels took much of the city's mass transit system out of commission for days.
Bellevue's reopening has been gradual since Superstorm Sandy slammed into the northeast coastline in late October.
On November 19, Bellevue reopened several primary care clinics, 24-hour walk-in urgent care and outpatient pharmacy services. Several weeks later, its emergency department reopened in a limited capacity and two weeks after that, it began receiving ambulance for non-critical cases.
"It has been a labor of almost unimaginable scope but Bellevue is back," said Alan Aviles, head of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation. "We reopen Bellevue not just with a plan for today, but also with a long-term plan to strengthen Bellevue against storms that may strike in the future."
The equipment failures at NYU and Bellevue brought to the fore what emergency experts have warned for years: U.S. hospitals are far from ready to protect patients when disaster strikes their facilities.
Since the storm, Bellevue has relocated critical equipment from its basement to higher elevation areas on the first floor. Maintenance crews have also focused on fortifying electrical systems, elevators and water supply pumps, the hospital said.
(Reporting by Edith Honan, editing by Paul Thomasch, desking by G Crosse)