New York University Langone Medical Center, the Manhattan VA Hospital and Staten Island University Hospitals began to evacuate patients Friday afternoon in response to the encroaching danger posed by Hurricane Irene.
"In my career, I've never been in a situation where they said we're emptying the hospital," said Dr. James Speyer, medical director of the clinical cancer center at NYU Langone Medical Center. He said he never imagined that he'd be in the same situation as doctors in New Orleans, who had to evacuate hospitals in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Speyer said he was making arrangements to transfer cancer patients to other medical centers on higher ground. Some colleagues had made arrangements to move particular patients to medical centers in neighboring New Jersey.
The three New York City hospital evacuations are the latest evidence that hospitals in the path of Hurricane Irene are preparing for the worst as the whirlwind heads north. The greater New York area should begin to feel Irene's blast late Saturday night and Sunday, according to the National Weather Service.
ABC News contacted other medical facilities up and down the coast in Irene's course to get their take on this weekend's safety plan.
"All acute inpatient facilities need to have disaster preparedness committees, and we routinely practice for these kinds of scenarios," said Dr. Michael Lucchesi, chief of emergency medicine at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. "Some hospitals are better at disaster preparedness than others, but all have a plan."
"We've closed shutters, put boards over windows [and] we'll be sandbagging the doors later today," said Jarie Ebert, spokeswoman for North Carolina's Outer Banks Hospital, which is less than half a mile from the coast and a mere 14 feet above sea level. Hurricane Irene will make its first U.S. stop near the shores of North Carolina Saturday morning, according to the National Weather Service.
Hospitals Prepare for Hurricane
"Anyone considering elective or nonemergency surgery has been already done or rescheduled," said Ebert, noting that 40 to 50 hospital staff members, known as Team A, will arrive Friday night and stay through the duration of the storm.
Emma Inman, a spokeswoman for Sentara Norfolk General Hospital in Virginia, also in Irene's Saturday morning path, noted that the hospital has been testing backup generators and stocking supplies, medications, food, water and fuel to last several days.
"A number of our facilities are contemplating lockdowns," said Inman. "They won't make that decision until tomorrow, though."
One Sentara nursing home located on coastal Currituck, Va., has already been evacuated. Patients have been dispersed to facilities in Hamptons Roads, which is farther inland from the hurricane's path.
Located in one of the most vulnerable area's of New York City, Brooklyn's Coney Island Hospital was evacuated Friday morning. Patients were transferred to SUNY Downstate Medical Center, which sits more inland.
"We're going to have 25 to 30 percent of additional reserves on hand because of the transfer," said Downstate's Lucchesi. "When you get a surge of patients, you have to make sure you have enough medication, and [that] ventilators are all functioning."
As the fire departments and emergency medical services go into "transport mode" for the next 24 hours, 911 calls in the New York area may not receive as quick of a response as they normally would, Lucchesi said.
For patients on dialysis, SUNY Downstate will extend Friday evening hours "so patients can get dialyzed who would normally come in Saturday," said Lucchesi.
Hospitals cannot be too prepared for disasters, said Lucchesi. After much criticism of the emergency response when Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf region in 2005, medical facilities and federal and state government agencies are not leaving anything to chance this time.
"We have to worry about the panic that goes across the population, but a little bit of preparation beforehand, like getting enough water, flashlights, gas in the car, can go a long way," said Lucchesi.
Carrie Gann contributed to this report.