Norfolk County

Study puts Boston Hospitals at high risk from hurricanes

NORWOOD, Mass. — Two years ago, a storm dropped four to six inches of rain in Norwood all at once. That triggered a flash flood that so damaged Norwood Hospital it was forced to close.

So how would area hospitals fare if an actual hurricane hit the region?

A new study suggests it could be a devastating blow.

“We’re sort of an Aquatropolis,” said study co-author Aaron Bernstein, MD,MPH, director of the Center of Climate, Health and Global Environment at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health and a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital. “We’re a city built in and around water and that makes flooding more likely than not.”

Boston is also a city built around health care — with several of the largest institutions located in areas that could potentially flood during a storm surge. In fact, the study estimates six Boston-area hospitals would especially be at risk for flooding during a Category Two hurricane — and that would potentially take out a quarter of the region’s beds.

“Baseline, we have fewer beds available for the population we serve in our metro area than many other metro areas along the Atlantic and Gulf Coast,” Bernstein said. “Many of our beds are at risk of being flooded. The reality is we get a bigger bite out of our hospital-bed pie taken out by a Category Two, and we have a relatively large number of people who depend on those beds, means that a Category Two hurricane is a relatively big deal for us.”

Bernstein’s study, which appears in the latest issue of GeoHealth, compared the impact of hurricanes on hospitals in 78 metropolitan areas in the U.S.

Boston’s healthcare system was ranked third most vulnerable — just behind Miami and New York. The study took into account inability to access healthcare, due to flooded roads from a storm surge, as well as the possibility a hospital might have to essentially close down and move patients elsewhere — something which could happen in facilities that lose water and power.

Bernstein said the study likely underestimates the impact of a hurricane on the region because it did not take into account rainfall.

“What we’ve observed is that rainfall is getting heavier in New England, much more than anywhere else in our country,” Bernstein said.

And that’s without a hurricane to pump up the precipitation totals. But in Florida, for the record, Hurricane Ian dumped up to 20 inches of rain in some areas.

“We’re not used to hurricanes,” Bernstein said. “And that is something we need to take heed of. And I think we stand to learn a lot from places that have had more experience — especially as we manage patients who may be critically ill.”

Some of those patients could die as a result of an inability to access needed care, Bernstein said.

“Even after these hurricanes pass, people can have difficulty accessing care for weeks,” he said. “Hurricanes are classic examples of what we call cascading risks.”

And the study notes that with warming ocean temperatures and rising sea levels, potential hurricane impacts are likely to get worse in the Boston area later in the century.

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