Houston’s medical system was staggered, but it stood up to the pounding inflicted by Hurricane Harvey’s winds and rains. But for the millions of residents of the nation’s fourth largest city huge challenges will persist for some time to their health and well-being. Texans’ tragedies may offer us painful reminders we should heed about planning and disaster preparedness.
The Gulf Coast, of course, knows hurricanes well, and experiences with Katrina, Rita, and other storms had gotten doctors, hospitals, nursing homes, and other care=giving facilities well-launched into emergency planning.
Still, Ben Taub—one of the metropolis’s major emergency and public care facilities—found itself inundated and struggling with sudden patient evacuations, while other hospitals, including many in the city’s sprawling medical center complex, stayed drier and open. The big Texas Medical Center had installed huge submarine protective doors, which it shut to successfully protect vital equipment critical to running hospital infrastructure. Even so, rising, rushing waters cut the center and many other hospitals off, making them islands away from stranded staff and patients in potential need.
As hospitals grappled with the difficult questions of whether to evacuate patients—where would they go, how would they get there in the middle of the storm and how long would they stay away?—medical care in the city ground to a near standstill. Appointments and services were canceled. Patients needing dialysis treatments fretted, and doctors and facilities raced to create work-arounds. Medical supplies have run short, as demand for them and medical services have run high.
The end of record rains and flooding has now shifted the immense challenges confronting residents throughout east Texas, as they struggle to move into the disaster’s clean up and recovery phases.
In health terms, the issues testing residents are Texas sized, including dealing with various biological and chemical taints in the standing waters that still swamp the region. It temporarily has swept mosquito woes away, with racing waters carrying off full-sized bugs, larvae, and eggs. Soon, however, the pests and possible pestilence—including West Nile, dengue fever, and Zika—may threaten Houston anew. The flood waters also have riled snakes and fire ants, not to mention that the air, too, has been befouled in some areas of the city where damaged chemical and petroleum facilities are burning.
Houstonians and others in the region displaced by Harvey also will be grappling with norovirus and other communicable diseases common to the close contact of many stressed, weary people crowded into public shelters. If, and when, they get back into their damaged homes, storm-struck Texans will be ripping apart what’s left of structures to try to avert serious problems with water-related rot, especially harmful molds and mildew.
It will take years for full normalcy to return, including dealing with a giant need for housing, and, meantime, huge numbers of people will be displaced and distressed. Psychological woes, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), will not be uncommon.
Houstonians, in short, will be in need for a long time. Disaster aid appropriations may seem huge at first blush. But they will be helping Americans in dire straits get back to productivity.
And Houston certainly has been a booming economic zone. Its residents and those who have raced to help them also already have demonstrated great courage, resilience, and inspiring humanity in their willingness to reach out and even to take big personal risks to help each other. The first-responders and medical personnel serving the entire hurricane- and flood-stricken region deserve deep thanks and praise. There are many excellent ways all of us also can pitch in to assist—and we must.
Disasters like Harvey also offer an excellent opportunity for those of us not in the midst of them to plan better for the next and inevitable calamity. Urban planners certainly will look at Houston and ask tough questions anew about the region’s explosive and little regulated growth. Public health experts will look at Harvey, Katrina, and other massive storms to see what lessons can be learned. All of us also should take personal stock of our own household readiness for bad times.