FM Issue: The Calm Before The Storm

In Boston, the new Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital was designed with features to protect against future hurricanes and storm surges. Opened in April 2013, the facility’s ground floor has no essential hospital functions and was raised 30" above flood elevations to account for sea level rise. (Photo: Anton Grassl/Esto.)
In Boston, the new Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital was designed with features to protect against future hurricanes and storm surges. Opened in April 2013, the facility’s ground floor has no essential hospital functions and was raised 30″ above flood elevations to account for sea level rise. (Photo: Anton Grassl/Esto.)

By Jason Harper, AIA, LEED AP
From the September 2013 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Hurricane Sandy was “the worst natural disaster ever to hit New York City,” according to Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The storm, which came ashore on October 29, 2012 and caused more than $68 billion worth of damage1 ($33 billion in New York City alone) laid bare the vulnerability of northeast coastal metropolitan regions to the devastating impacts of extreme weather events.

In fact, the storm impacted much of the northeast coast from Washington, DC to Boston, with winds exceeding 90 miles per hour and record-breaking tidal storm surges of 14′ plus above typical sea levels. Severe flooding and high winds throughout the region had a crippling impact, damaging at least 35,000 buildings and causing power outages and fuel shortages lasting for many days. Hospitals and other critical facilities throughout the hardest hit areas were severely impacted.

In New York City, five acute care hospitals and one psychiatric hospital were forced to close due to failure of major building systems, including backup power systems. As a result, the storm caused the emergency evacuation of nearly 2,000 patients to other facilities, including over 700 alone from Bellevue Hospital, located on Manhattan’s East River waterfront.2 As large as the impact of the storm was on these cities and their surrounding regions, Sandy was also a wake-up call for all coastal communities and the critical institutions and facilities that are their lifeblood.

The immediate response by national, state, and city leaders to the impacts of the storm will be debated for some time. Beyond the ongoing recovery efforts, the facilities planning, design, and construction industry also responded with extensive, volunteer led efforts to identify ways in which risk to the built environment could be reduced, and how facilities can become more resilient and recover more swiftly from the disastrous impacts of severe weather events in the future.

These efforts included studies undertaken by such groups as New York City’s Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency, organized by the mayor’s office, and the Urban Green Council Building Resiliency Task Force Report. Local chapters of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the New York Building Congress issued their own post-Sandy reviews. Together, these reports represent the best thinking of this gathered expertise and outline the strategies, recommendations, and policy changes that will help guide efforts to increase the resiliency of communities in the future. These are valuable resources for facility managers (fms) to prepare effectively to face similar extreme climate events in the future.

Key Findings

Some of the major findings common to all of the reports provide valuable input for facilities professionals. These include the following priority actions to reduce risk, increase resiliency, and improve disaster response:

  • Strengthen the reliability of power, telecommunications, and critical building systems.
  • Harden buildings and infrastructure to reduce storm damage from high winds and flooding.
  • Increase redundancy and alternate systems in case of primary system failure.
  • Put in place better disaster preparedness planning (based on lessons learned) to increase the speed of response and recovery.
  • Invest in systematic assessments of existing facilities and their vulnerability to the effects of extreme climate events.
  • Adopt improved zoning, regulatory requirements, and building standards where necessary to aid and encourage resiliency and preparedness.

Role Of Critical Facilities

Critical facilities play a special role in the health and resilience of communities during major climate driven disasters. The long-term survivability and sustainability of communities depends on the resilience of robust critical facilities. How do fms determine if their facility is a “critical” facility?

“A building (or a portion of one) is considered a critical facility if it is required to withstand the effects of a disaster and remain in operation, whether to safeguard the activity conducted within it, or the lives and well-being of its occupants, other disaster victims, or emergency services personnel,” according to the AIA New York Post-Sandy Initiative report. “Critical facilities include hospitals, police and fire stations, data centers, evacuation shelters, and buildings, or portions of buildings that provide essential support to them.”

As became clear during and after Sandy, such facilities should not be located in high hazard coastal zones where they are more vulnerable to the effects of high winds and flooding, and if existing facilities are located in these zones, special attention should be given to hardening them against potential storm impacts, if relocation is not a viable option.

Critical facilities also fulfill the additional role of providing community services during the disaster recovery period. In many cases, these buildings are the only locations with lights on, where power is available to charge communication devices, where information is available, and where clean water and other supplies can be distributed to the public.

“Critical facilities require resiliency to ensure continued operation and uninterrupted essential services. The same factors that make them resilient can assist the surrounding community in times of crisis,” says Robin Guenther, FAIA, LEED AP, principal and sustainable healthcare design leader at Perkins+Will New York. Guenther is also one of the authors of the post-Sandy report.

Recommended Actions

The reports also provide valuable guidance on how to prepare to withstand and recover from a climate driven disaster. Among the most noteworthy recommendations are the following.

Assessing Vulnerabilities. As a first step in preparing for a weather disaster, managers of critical facilities should undertake a vulnerability assessment. This assessment should first determine specific impacts that a facility might experience during a disaster. Up-to-date flood and wind zone maps should be consulted, and future projections of weather impacts considered.

The specific impacts of Hurricane Sandy were due to its nature as a coastal storm with high winds (90mph max.), coastal tidal storm surge flooding, and coastal wave action. Each of these weather phenomena had specific effects, the severity of which depended on the type of structure impacted and its location. Coastal storms differ from other extreme weather disasters such as tornadoes, ice storms, blizzards, sustained heat waves, and the like. Each of these potential risks, their possible impact on various systems, and their likelihood of future occurrence at a facility should be considered.

Another key area is essential building systems’ vulnerability to failure and their ability to support continued operations during disaster scenarios. Such systems include both normal and emergency power, mechanical ventilation, vertical transportation, and potable water delivery. When evaluating the risks a facility faces, fms should carefully consider the strengths and weaknesses of their essential systems and think through how each essential system would be stressed at each point and what would happen if each component that could fail were to fail during an emergency. Priority should be placed on mitigating the greatest risks and strengthening the weakest links.

Excerpt from AIA-NY Post–Sandy Initiative Report, courtesy AIA New York Systems Matrix; For full report, visit
Excerpt from AIA-NY Post–Sandy Initiative Report, courtesy AIA New York Systems Matrix; For full report, visit

The systems matrix (seen above), prepared by the AIANY Commercial and Critical Buildings working group as a component of the AIANY Post-Sandy Report, breaks down anticipated risks to major building systems of critical facilities, and the recommended measures to strengthen those systems for both new and existing buildings.

Loss of critical systems, no matter how well a facility has prepared, can still occur, due to failure of the power grid or other municipal systems out of the facilities’ control. Redundant infrastructure systems; local power generation; stockpiling of fuel, potable water and other supplies; and availability of natural ventilation in lieu of mechanical ventilation—are all strategies that should be considered as ways to mitigate the loss of systems caused by off-site events. Essential building systems can fail, and contingency plans are needed in case they do.

Creating an action plan. Once vulnerabilities have been assessed against the risks identified, an implementation plan should be developed to reduce them. Remedial actions should be prioritized against the most serious vulnerabilities and greatest risks. Facility upgrades necessary to reduce risk of failure of essential building systems should be prioritized in capital budgets while a cost-benefit analysis can determine how resources should be applied. Necessary projects should be identified, planning and design work prioritized, and corrective measures accomplished as quickly as possible.

Planning For The Next One

An effective strategy should also include operation plans to keep the facility functioning properly during weather events as well as plans to return to full functionality as quickly as possible in the event of systems failure. The ultimate goal should be to maintain essential safety for occupants and the community throughout disaster and recovery periods.

The 262,000 square foot Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston has its cogeneration plant and emergency generators located on the roof to ensure the facility remains operational if the power grid infrastructure is disrupted. (Photo: Anton Grassl/Esto.)
The 262,000 square foot Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston has its cogeneration plant and emergency generators located on the roof to ensure the facility remains operational if the power grid infrastructure is disrupted. (Photo: Anton Grassl/Esto.)

Not all disasters can be foreseen, but extreme weather events can often be forecast in advance, giving fms time to prepare and take actions necessary to implement the facility’s “disaster mode.” Planning should include securing last minute supplies and necessary personnel; reviewing emergency procedures and verifying the functioning of emergency communication systems; shutting down non-essential systems; securing any vulnerable items or system components; and, potentially, advancing evacuation of building occupants and staff. Arrangements should be made with government agencies and vendors of essential supplies before the emergency hits so the recovery period is shortened as much as possible.

Planning for operations during a disaster should anticipate what’s necessary to remain in operation including building security, distribution of staff and supplies, and the capability to house and feed staff that may not be able to return home. Hospitals should also include plans for increased emergency capacity to handle a surge of casualties if necessary. Securing the function of backup power systems of sufficient capacity is critically important. An evacuation plan, even if the essential goal is to remain in operation, is also imperative.

Operation of the facility during the recovery period is also important, with vulnerabilities of the facility’s normal supply chain carefully considered in case of disruption. Disaster plans should consider such alternatives as advance stockpiling of critical supplies or the identification of alternative supply sources should the normal supply be disrupted. If possible, arrangements should be made for the delivery of emergency supplies and for secure storage so that items such as backup power generators, water pumps for surface water disposal, temporary heating units and ventilation fans, water or oxygen supplies as well as clean up and decontamination supplies and equipment are readily available during disaster and recovery periods.

No Sign Of Stopping

Extreme weather events appear to be increasing in frequency and severity, meaning the risk to communities from similar events is on the rise. Critical facilities play a crucial role in the sustainability of communities and their ability to respond to and survive disasters. Fms in critical facilities should be proactive about preparedness and planning.

Fms can assess vulnerabilities by looking for the weakest link in essential systems, and putting a plan in place to address them. A deliberate risk management approach is called for, balancing the costs and potential benefits of each action or new technology that could be deployed so that scarce resources are best used. Hopefully, noone will have to face another storm of this devastating intensity. However, none should risk leaving themselves and their critical facilities exposed should another “superstorm” head their way. A dollar spent today can save multiple dollars tomorrow.


Harper is associate principal, senior medical planner at Perkins+Will, New York. He is co-chair, AIA New York Chapter, Health Facilities Committee.


1 “Billion-Dollar Weather/Climate Disasters.” National Climatic Data Center. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 2013. Retrieved June 13, 2013.

2 PlaNYC/New York City Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency Report: A Stronger, More Resilient New York, P.147-148.

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