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FEMA Public Assistance Specialists Sheila Luster and and William Ciarelli inspect the Starr County Memorial Hospital with administrator Thalia Munoz to determine if the county will be eligible for federal assistance to offset expenses caused by the recent flooding.

Flood Protection for Hospitals

Photo: Rio Grande City, Texas, July 26, 2007 — FEMA Public Assistance Specialists Sheila Luster and and William Ciarelli inspect the Starr County Memorial Hospital with administrator Thalia Munoz to determine if the county will be eligible for federal assistance to offset expenses caused by the recent flooding. Bob McMillan/FEMA Photo

When a community suffers a flooding emergency, there are often injured people who need immediate medical assistance. But what happens if the nearest hospital is also affected by the flood? What if the hospital itself is flooded?

Hospitals present numerous challenges as far as flood protection. Because the patient areas must be kept clean and hygienic, it is very common for electrical equipment to be housed in basement areas, even though the loss of electrical power at a hospital can be deadly for patients who may rely on life-sustaining machines. Most hospitals have emergency back-up power systems, but these are not sufficient to weather lengthy outages. One facility in Houston was left without power for a full two weeks after a hurricane flooded its first and second floors, knocking out the electrical systems. Patients at this facility had to be evacuated, which can be a risky and complicated operation.

Once a medical facility floods, there are many epidemiological issues that would not be present in a non-medical building. For eaxample, after any large intrusion of water, there will be mold issues left behind. In the best case scenario, the water may have been relatively clean freshwater. But in most cases, the water is tainted with sewage or other pollutants. If dirty or polluted water seeps into walls and flooring, it often cannot be adequately cleaned to hospital standards. What ensues is a very costly and time-consuming process of removing the affected materials, cleaning and disinfecting the foundation, and installing new floors and walls. This operation cannot take place while patients are in residence, so there may be a need for patient evacuation during the repairs. The process is pain-staking, extremely expensive, and requires a lot of time.

Given the extreme measures to which a medical facility is subjected after a flooding event, it is no surprise to learn that these facilities go to great lengths to prevent flooding and to protect vital operations. Because hospitals play such a critical role in society, and their full capacity is required during disasters like flooding events, these facilities are given extra protection from floods while still in the blueprint stages. The most common form of protection for hospital buildings are flood barriers or gates that automatically deploy at the first sign of trouble. These flood barriers are best when built into the original design of the building, but can also be retrofitted to an existing building. As we have seen a remarkable geographical expansion in active flood plains across the country, there are many older hospitals that were once flood-safe, but are now at risk.

Fortunately, there are commercial companies that can install permanent or temporary flood protection devices that can reliably defend even huge medical compounds. Depending on the type of items or buildings that must be kept dry, there are several strategies, including:

  • Permanent waterproof casings for outdoor HVAC units.
  • Temporary flood panels that can be installed quickly by maintenance staff.
  • “Puddle guards” that can be installed in doorways to block small amounts of water.
  • Automatic flood panels that deploy instantly without need for human engagement.
  • Flood doors that can be securely closed by staff when needed.

All of these types of flood protection devices and systems can be customized to fit any existing building, and they can also be fitted during the planning and construction of new buildings. Because society relies on functioning hospitals in particular during a disaster, it is of utmost importance that medical facilities be protected by the latest technology. We have seen great strides in flood protection during the past decade, and this expertise will increasingly be required as climate change brings ever more frequent natural disasters to our doorstep.

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