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ER crews plan for the long haul as hospitals treat first storm injuries

At least 215 patients had to be evacuated from NYU Medical Center when the backup generator failed. NBC's Rehema Ellis reports.

As superstorm Sandy made landfall Monday, hospitals across the Eastern seaboard kicked disaster plans into place, told emergency room crews to bring enough clothes and personal supplies to last a few days and made room for evacuated patients from low-lying areas -- and from other medical centers. 

Doctors from New Jersey and New York to Connecticut planned to bunk at work for as long as required to ensure ample staffing for storm injuries and illnesses.

“In the emergency department, this is what people live for,” said Dr. Christopher Raio, associate chairman of the department of emergency medicine at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y.

Cots were being set up and sleeping areas cordoned off as St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx prepared for a possible influx of patients as the storm, which has been downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone, took full effect Monday evening.

 “We’ve all brought sleeping bags and stuff,” said Dr. Ernest Patti, senior attending physician of emergency medicine for St. Barnabas. “We’re braced and we’re ready and we’re fully staffed.”

The storm took its toll on the hospitals themselves, knocking out generators and flooding vital areas. 

At NYU Langone Medical Center, hospital officials said about 215 patients were evacuated late Monday to nearby facilities, including the Mount Sinai Hospital,  because of the severity of the storm and "the higher than expected storm surge," according to a statement.

Patients included those in adult and pediatric critical care, neonatal intensive care and obstetrics. 

Some hospitals began grappling with sporadic power outages and flooding early Monday evening even as they treated patients for storm-related injuries including falls and cuts. At Staten Island University Hospital, flooding forced evacuation of the data center, which effectively shut down the hospitals computers and access to patient data. 

"However, SIUH staff was able to preserve patient safety by relying on paper records," noted Terry Lynam, spokesman for the North-Shore LIJ Health System.  

All elective surgeries and procedures were canceled through at least Tuesday at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and elsewhere as staffers prepared for the storm.

Hospitals in low-lying areas were ordered evacuated, including the Manhattan Veterans Affairs Hospital and New York Downtown Hospital, which got the word Monday morning. 

Five sets of parents and their newborn babies were evacuated from New York Downtown Hospital to Montefiore Medical Center, said spokeswoman Anne McDarby. One mother and baby went home Monday; the others were expected to be discharged Tuesday or Wednesday.

Dozens of critically ill patients from Staten Island University Hospital and Southside Hospital in Bay Shore, N.Y., were evacuated to other locations within the North-Shore LIJ Health System, said spokesman Terry Lynam.

About 30 psychiatric patients housed at South Beach Psychiatric Center on Staten Island were also temporarily relocated to South Oaks Hospital in Amityville.

Any patients who could be discharged were sent home over the weekend as hospitals recently tested by Hurricane Irene put disaster plans into place.

In Stafford Springs, Conn., Dr. David John, an emergency doctor at Johnson Memorial Medical Center, spent two busy 12-hour shifts over the weekend tending patients who rushed to the emergency department seeking treatment for heart conditions and infections before the weather got bad.

“It was crazy busy,” said John, who is also a spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians. “Word of mouth got out and people were saying ‘I wanted to get this done before the storm hit.'”

Hospitals throughout the region were reporting no serious storm-related injuries or illnesses as of early afternoon Monday, but John said that could change quickly.

A veteran of 20 years of disaster staffing, John said he was concerned about patients who required oxygen or nebulizers and other life-sustaining equipment, who were likely to show up in emergency departments first.

They’d likely be followed by patients who need 24-hour care whose caregivers couldn’t get to them, and then by the frail elderly.

The most serious storm-related dangers occur when people go out in wild weather and are involved in car crashes or struck by falling trees or power lines, he said.

Improperly used generators and charcoal grills used indoors for heating or cooking also cause serious injuries or deaths during most powerful storms, he warned.

As storm injuries began to fill emergency rooms, staffers said they were grateful for common sense on the part of the public. Most New York residents have heeded warnings to seek higher ground and stay off the streets, which will go a long way toward curbing harm, said Dr. Andrew Sama, chairman of the emergency department at North Shore University Hospital.

“So far, so good,” Sama said.

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In an NBC News special report, President Obama stresses the importance of abiding by evacuation orders from local officials, warning that Sandy is a "serious storm" that could have "fatal consequences" if people don't act accordingly.