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Houston’s Hospitals Treat Storm Victims and Become Victims Themselves 


By SHERI FINK and ALAN BLINDER
© 2017 New York Times News Service

Water poured into hospitals. Ambulances were caught up in roiling floodwaters. Medical transport helicopters were grounded by high winds. Houston’s world-renowned health care infrastructure found itself battered by Hurricane Harvey, struggling to treat storm victims while becoming a victim itself.

The coming days will inevitably bring more hazards for storm-damaged hospitals and nursing homes, and their patients and staff. The scenes of turmoil across Texas raised the specter of the extreme flooding following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when dozens of hospital and nursing home patients died, and doctors awaiting rescue at one stranded, powerless hospital became so desperate, they intentionally hastened the deaths of their patients.

The response to Harvey, now a tropical storm but still wreaking havoc over the state, promises answers to whether health officials learned lessons from the catastrophe of Katrina when it comes to the medically vulnerable — in particular whether they did enough to prepare for the disaster and to move patients out of its path.

“We’ve made significant investments,” Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County’s public health department, said in a telephone interview on Sunday. “The challenge is until it unfolds there’s so many moving pieces and it’s never the same as the situations you’ve previously encountered.”

Responders point to dozens of improvements, from better engineered structures to well-practiced cooperation, that are helping protect lives. Still, sometimes even the soundest plans have been foiled.

Water rose in the basement of Ben Taub Hospital, a major county trauma center in the vast Texas Medical Center campus that had spent billions of dollars on flood protections after being devastated in Tropical Storm Allison in 2001. Officials announced an evacuation Sunday, but hours later, a hospital spokesman said it had not yet begun because the hospital was surrounded by water and rescuers could not reach its 350 patients.

Six to 10 other hospitals and various nursing homes, some in rural communities, were also evacuated after the storm made landfall, said Darrell Pile, chief executive of the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council, which established a catastrophic medical operations center in Houston’s emergency command center.

click to enlarge Jami Leifeste, an emergency medical technician, is helped by a co-worker as they evacuate a patient from Citizens Medical Center to another hospital, in Victoria, Texas, Aug. 26, 2017. Houston’s world-renowned health care infrastructure found itself battered by Hurricane Harvey, testing whether officials had done enough to prepare. - ALYSSA SCHUKAR/THE NEW YORK TIMES
  • Alyssa Schukar/The New York Times
  • Jami Leifeste, an emergency medical technician, is helped by a co-worker as they evacuate a patient from Citizens Medical Center to another hospital, in Victoria, Texas, Aug. 26, 2017. Houston’s world-renowned health care infrastructure found itself battered by Hurricane Harvey, testing whether officials had done enough to prepare.

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