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Hurricane Ian flooded some Florida hospitals — climate change puts even more at risk

Hurricane Ian flooded some Florida hospitals — climate change puts even more at risk


Hospitals on the coasts could flood during even weak hurricanes. The roads leading to them could flood, too.

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Hurricane Ian Impacts Orlando
Photo by Paul Hennessy/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Rising sea levels and increasing storm intensity will put more and more hospitals in danger of flooding, just like the ones facing Hurricane Ian this week, a new study found.

Ian sent water pouring into HCA Florida Fawcett Hospital in Port Charlotte, Florida, this week. The hurricane churned through the coastal town just north of Fort Myers on Wednesday, flooding the building’s lower levels just as winds ripped the roof off — letting the pounding rain in from above. Doctors in the hospital were expecting issues, internal medicine specialist Birgit Bodine told The Associated Press.

“We didn’t anticipate that the roof would blow off on the fourth floor,” she said.

Doctors at the hospital are doing their best to care for patients on the non-damaged floors. But incidents like this one can make it difficult for hospitals to care for patients during situations when more people than usual might need healthcare. And climate change makes these types of situations more likely, according to new research published in the journal GeoHealth.

Hospitals up and down the Atlantic and Gulf coasts are at increased risk of floods as climate change contributes to rising sea levels and makes hurricanes more intense. In 25 metro areas within 10 miles of the coast — including Orlando, New York City, and Boston — half or more of hospitals are at risk of flooding from even weak hurricanes, the new study found. Sea level rise increases the risk of a hospital flooding by 22 percent.

“We now have a better sense of which hospitals are likely to flood from a hurricane today and those that need to prepare for greater risks in the future,” said study author Aaron Bernstein, director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard University, in a statement.

There are 682 hospitals within 10 miles of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and they serve around 85 million people. Of those hospitals, 147 are at risk from flooding in a Category 1 hurricane, according to the analysis. Over 300 are at risk of flooding during a Category 4 hurricane. The biggest risks are in Florida — one of the states most likely to be struck by hurricanes and a state that also has a high percentage of hospitals at risk of flooding.

Sea level rise makes these numbers worse. Around two feet of sea level rise would bump places like Savannah, Georgia, and Hammond, Louisiana, into the group of places with hospitals that could flood from a Category 2 storm. In Boston, there’d be a 90 percent increase in the number of hospital beds that could be affected by floods.

And flooded hospital buildings aren’t the only type of rising water that could impact the healthcare facilities. Roads that lead to hospitals could flood, too, blocking the way in or out. In most places, the roads at risk of flooding are around hospitals that also could flood during storms. But the analysis showed that in some places — like the New York and Jersey City metro areas — between 10 and 30 percent of roads around “dry” hospitals could flood.

The study authors noted that this is just a starting point for projections around which hospitals are likely to flood. Climate change might be changing where hurricanes go, which could shift the hospitals most at risk. Sea level rise might happen more quickly on the East Coast and in northern states — so the analysis might have underestimated the danger in those areas.

The findings are a warning to hospitals and healthcare facilities to step up preparations for extreme weather events. The authors pointed to places like the main medical center at the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System as prime examples of how to prepare for a more turbulent future. The hospital has systems in place to stay running for a week even if city utilities break down, and all critical equipment and all patient care stays far above potential flood lines. If they want to stay operating at the highest levels during emergencies, more hospitals will have to make similar investments.

“Greater resilience to hurricanes will be necessary to ensure that healthcare remains viable when it is needed most,” the authors concluded.