LONG BEACH, N.Y. (AP) — Of the more than half-dozen hospitals in the New York area forced to close because of damage from Superstorm Sandy, only one has yet to reopen, idling hundreds of workers for months and forcing thousands of residents to travel farther for emergency health care.
If Long Beach's 2.2 mile-long boardwalk destroyed by Sandy gave this seaside community its soul, then the hospital was its heart.
Besides being the only major medical facility on this barrier island east of New York City, the Long Beach Medical Center was also the city's largest employer, and the idling of 700 of the hospital's 1,200-member workforce in the aftermath of Sandy — a natural disaster that destroyed many of those workers' homes — has been doubly tough on the community.
"We're getting calls every day from people wanting to know where to go for services," says CEO Douglas Melzer, who has been affiliated with the hospital for 36 years. He and a small office staff work out of a nearby office building, hopeful they can return to the 160-bed hospital and neighboring nursing home by early April. Melzer says the reopening will likely happen in stages.
"We have a mission to care for this community," he said. "They've been traumatized by this."
Just before Sandy hit in October, patients in the 162-bed facility were relocated to 12 hospitals under evacuation orders. When the storm struck, a small crew remained in the hospital, including Mark Healey, the hospital's director of facilities and engineering, who recalled spending several days at the hospital before, during and after the storm.
That night, he and his team were in the basement hoping to do whatever they could to stop the floodwaters from gushing through every window and air duct, to no avail.
"The water was weeping through the walls," Healey, 41, recalled. "At a certain point we knew it wasn't going to be manageable."
The facility lost power — it didn't come back until February — and Healey and the others debated whether to stay on a higher floor but ultimately decided to hunker down near the emergency room entrance for the night.
At one point, Healey said, they discussed the possibility of swimming away if it became necessary. "Thank God, there was no need for anything of that nature."
Still, the storm caused $56 million in damage, according to Melzer. The basement flooded completely. Destroyed were the building's boiler plant, three of four emergency generators, its kitchen, laundry, morgue, pharmacy, family care center and central supply departments. An adjacent 200-bed nursing home also had flooding on its ground floor, though patients returned to that facility in late January.
"This place has always been here for these people," Healey said. "There is a definite hope and need. We've got to have this facility."
Now, during emergencies, ambulances must travel farther to reach hospitals. The next-closest hospital to Long Beach is about seven miles away in Oceanside. City officials have clocked ambulances averaging up to 90 minutes on round trips through heavy local street traffic. They said they are not aware of any patient deaths resulting from the longer trips.
South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside has seen a huge increase in emergency department visits from Long Beach residents, said Mark Bogen, chief financial officer. An average of 380 Long Beach residents have come to the ER over the past four months, an increase from an average of 180 residents over the first 10 months of last year, said Bogen.
"There's no question there's been a backup in our emergency room," he said.
It's an effect that has lingered much longer than at other hospitals closed by Sandy. Bellevue Hospital, NYU Medical Center, Coney Island Hospital and a Veterans Affairs facility in Manhattan were also forced to close after the storm. NYU opened in late December; Bellevue reopened last month and Coney Island Hospital has started reopening. Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport also closed for about a day.
Two New Jersey hospitals were closed briefly. Hoboken University Medical Center reopened after two weeks, and the Palisades Medical Center in North Bergen was closed for two days.
The damage at Long Beach means a new hospital will essentially be built from the inside out, Melzer said.
On a recent visit to the Long Beach hospital's first-floor emergency room, crews were working to replace Sheetrock in damaged hallways, electrical fixtures and high-tech medical components while air filtration machines whirred in the background, clearing dust stirred up from the work.
Melzer expects FEMA reimbursements and insurance to cover most of the repairs. Flood-prevention efforts moving forward include elevating the hospital's boiler plant and electrical distribution systems above the flood plain, and flood-proofing other sections of the hospital. Such essential departments as the pharmacy, purchasing/stock room, and communications are being relocated to higher floors. The reopening is expected to take place in stages.
City officials noted that the December unemployment rate for Long Beach jumped from 6.9 percent in 2011 to 10.9 percent last year; they attribute most of that to the loss of the workers at the hospital.
"Long Beach Medical Center is the largest employer in the city, and its closing has had adversely affected numerous families trying to recover, as well as the local economy," said City Manager Jack Schnirmann.
Most of the 700 people who were laid off live in Long Beach, and many of their homes were damaged by Sandy. Some have returned to work to help with the repairs. Employees were eligible for FEMA emergency unemployment Insurance as well as a relief fund administered by the United Hospital Fund.
Marnie Greenfield, an X-ray technician for the past 23 years and lifelong Long Beach resident, said her home was flooded by about 3 feet of water, destroying personal items including her technician licenses and certifications. Like many in Long Beach, her car was also destroyed. Then she learned days later that she would be unemployed until further notice.
"You just wake up one morning and overnight your life has changed," Greenfield, 46, said. "In the course of 12 hours you go from having a good job, a nice home and a nice car to no home, no car, no health insurance and now you have to start worrying about having a mortgage to pay."
Nevertheless, Greenfield described herself as an optimist.
"I'm very hopeful it will be soon," she said. "I really can't wait to go back to work."
Associated Press writer Katie Zezima in Newark, N.J., contributed to this report.