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Preparing 9 months for the fruits of a storm


NEW YORK » Late last October, Hurricane Sandy pumped 6 feet of water into the lobby of a residential building in downtown Jersey City, N.J., trapping Meaghan B Murphy and her husband, Patrick, in their apartment and leaving them without electricity for days.

Murphy, 37, deputy editor of Self magazine, is expected to give birth to her third child at the end of July. "We were content with two children; three were not in the plan," she recalled. "But with no power, no TV, no lights, even without that much food, there was not much else to do."

"And my husband is so handsome," she added of Patrick Murphy, a 33-year-old private client manager for a bank. "I couldn’t resist."

In rural India, sociologists have found links between improved electrical service and declining birthrates. In New York, Hurricane Sandy may have induced the opposite effect. Couples stuck at home for days with the lights out, elevators inoperable, and lobbies deluged may have had more time for romance.

Call it Sandy Syndrome.

Several New York hospitals are bracing for an increase in births during the last weeks of July and early August. That would be about nine months after power failures and floods caused by Hurricane Sandy paralyzed large swaths of the New York metropolitan area and kept couples at home.

The idea that blackouts, whether caused by storms or accidents, lead to a rise in births has become a virtual clichi. But it is not necessarily accurate, according to researchers. "My first instinct is that people are home, they want to be together more and so there’s an increased rate," said Dr. Michael R. Berman, medical director for labor and delivery at Beth Israel Medical Center. "But after looking at some of the past catastrophes there wasn’t."

No statistically sound effect on births was found after the 1965 power failure in the Northeast. Nine months after the 2003 blackout in the region, the number of births in New York City actually dipped slightly compared a year earlier.

A study several years ago in the Journal of Population Economics revealed a mild correlation between more births after minor squalls, but the opposite effect after severe storms like Hurricane Sandy. Other research found that birthrates sometimes rose during a hurricane, possibly the result of anxiety, but not necessarily nine months later. And the number of births in New York often peaks in July.

Still, officials at other local hospitals say that, based on patient due dates, they are anticipating increases of 10 to 30 percent in midsummer births compared with the last year.

"There’s definitely an uptick," said Dr. Jacques Moritz, director of the division of gynecology at St Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center. "This is just old basic physiology. There’s no Internet and no cable. What else is there to do?’

Moritz estimated that the number of women expected to deliver at his hospital at the end of July would be 10 to 20 percent higher than it was last year.

At NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, Dr. Amos Grunebaum, chief of obstetrics and gynecology, said, "when we looked at the numbers, it’s 20 to 30 percent busier than usual for the last week of July and going into that first week of August."

One of his patients, Rachel DeGregorio, has a 3 1/2-year-old daughter and had been trying for nearly two years to have a second child. She had even scheduled fertility treatments. Then the hurricane struck.

DeGregorio, 34, who has a doctoral degree in neuroscience, and her husband, Scott, a 33-year-old radiologist, spent the day stranded in their Upper East Side apartment after his office in New Jersey was closed because of the storm. Their son, who they are planning to name Jack, is due July 24.

"I have documented the day Jack was conceived," she recalled. "We had sex three times, because Dr. Grunebaum said, ‘the more the better."’

Murphy’s brother and sister-in-law, lawyers who were stuck in their New Jersey apartment in the storm’s aftermath, are expecting a baby a week after Murphy’s is due.

Some doctors, while acknowledging the increase in the number of anticipated births, are reluctant to immediately make a correlation between the storm and the expected blip in the birthrate.

"Obviously, people are talking about ‘Sandy babies,’" Grunebaum said.

If there is an increase, it could be attributable to other factors, including an improving economy.

Still, Moritz said, "I don’t think the economy has gotten good enough to say that last October people were deciding to have babies."

Caroline Hagood, a 30-year-old doctoral candidate at Fordham whose baby is due in late July, said that she was unaffected by the hurricane at home and "wasn’t conscious of Sandy’s effect," but, nonetheless "as a poet, I can’t deny that there’s something lyrical about the concept of a seize-the-moment hurricane baby."

At New York Downtown Hospital in Lower Manhattan, Dr. Warren Licht, the former chief medical officer and now a specialist at the hospital’s Women’s Health Center, said his colleagues were anticipating a "notable increase" in deliveries for midsummer.

"It makes perfect sense," Licht said, "that during a period of a prolonged loss of electricity, people take comfort in creating their own."

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