With power outages and emergency evacuations of seriously ill patients in hurricane-strength winds, New York hospitals faced their biggest challenge this week since the September 11, 2001 attacks, according to a senior doctor.
Institutions including New York University Hospital and another in Coney Island were forced into patient evacuations after flooding and loss of electricity in superstorm Sandy on Monday and Tuesday.
Bellevue Hospital, the oldest in the country, was evacuating its 500 patients Wednesday, officials said.
"This is perhaps the most complicated situation that New York has seen in 30 years," Carlos Cordon-Cardo, head of the pathology department at Mount Sinai Medical Center, said.
"I was here on September 11 and I was more involved than I'd have liked to be. On 9/11 there were people with lung problems, some poisoning, but there were not people who were very sick or with urgent medical needs because unfortunately we lost many people. This time it was a medical emergency in the real sense," he said.
Mount Sinai, which is in the unscathed upper Manhattan area, took in 64 patients from NYU Hospital on Monday evening in the middle of the storm. Overall, NYU Hospital transferred 300 patients to safer facilities.
"There was a major need for transferring very critical patients. We had a relatively short window to work in. Although the weather was very poor it wasn't such a strong wind that the ambulances would be damaged," he said.
"We had a very sick patient arrive without his electronic records, only a few half-soaked papers," he recalled. Many of the 650 staff on his team slept in the hospital that night.
"It was emotional and extraordinary to see how a whole group of professionals worked together in a harmonious way, without sleeping or sleeping on top of conference tables, or in cars that had been left it the garage."
Even after the storm, the situation remained complex for hospitals.
"At this time, we are focusing on assessing the full extent of the storm's impact on all of our patient care, research, and education facilities," NYU Hospital said in a statement.
Coney Island Hospital had a more difficult task after storm damage, Evelyn Hernandez, a spokeswoman for New York public hospitals said.
It had to transfer about 200 patients, some of them to other hospitals and the less sick back to their homes.
Cordon-Cardo said that worse was avoided by good preparation.
"We began coordinating at the end of last week. We put beds in various conference rooms. People who lived far away and would have trouble came to the hospital from Sunday. When the storm arrived we already had the team ready.
"Now the task continues," he said. "We need to catch up with a whole series of patients who needed seeing. We will continue working 24 hours a day."