Harris Health System vs. Hurricane Harvey

This member-only article appears in the August issue of Patient Safety Monitor Journal.

“At one point, we didn’t know if we were going to be able to save the hospital,” says the facilities director.
It’s been one year since Hurricane Harvey struck Houston, flooding the city and displacing tens of thousands of people. In one week, the Category 4 storm dropped 61 inches of rain and caused $125 billion in damages. The National Hurricane Center called Harvey “the most significant tropical cyclone rainfall event in U.S. history.”

Ericka Brown, MD, is chief operating officer at Harris Health System in Houston, which was inundated by floodwaters for more than five days during Harvey. She says to consider prepositioning emergency food and medical items closer to your hospital, and to review the physical location of critical equipment and systems to ensure their continued operation in a natural disaster.

But, most importantly, she says, “make sure you take care of your staff after the storm.” More than 400 employees from Harris Health had homes significantly damaged or destroyed in the flood. With so many workers impacted by the floodwaters, response and recovery after the storm meant helping staff members as well.

Harris Health had many sites impacted by the storm, including Ben Taub Hospital, which sits in the heart of a collection of healthcare facilities known as the Texas Medical Center. With 440 beds, Ben Taub is the largest hospital in the Harris Health System, serves as a teaching hospital, and is one of only two Level I trauma centers in the area.

Houston, barely 50 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, is not unfamiliar with flooding. Each year, storms shut down one or more sections of the interstates that surround and intersect the city, periodically cutting off neighborhood access for hours or even days.
Over the last few years, the hospital’s Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) has been influenced and updated numerous times after storms, notes Brown, who in the two years prior to Harvey served as Ben Taub’s senior vice president and administrator. Some of those changes came in handy. And “some of those things went out the window, because this was different,” says Brown, noting that until Harvey she had never been through a tropical event.

And after Harvey? “I have a new appreciation for water,” she says.

The EOP includes identifying the number of staff members designated to ride out any storm, as well as those who are expected to arrive at the hospital as relief afterward. The staffers are oriented to the plan upon hire and at least once a year, says Brown.

As Harvey approached, everyone knew their jobs. Emergency systems were checked and supplies were bolstered.

Those supplies included sand bags. The hospital maintains a supply of sand bags day to day as standard procedure, says Bryan McLeod, a director with Harris Health’s communications department. But extra pallets were brought in ahead of the storm as a precaution.

And they were going to be needed.

Slow-moving storm brings epic rain
Harvey made landfall just east of Rockport, Texas, on the night of August 25, 2017, a Friday. The massive storm system took a full day to move 200 miles north and east until it all but stopped on top of Houston and the surrounding Harris County. In one 24-hour period, more than 26 inches of rain fell, overwhelming the county’s sewer and drainage system. More was to come.

For Ben Taub, the first problem with water was the rain that was hitting the facility sideways and finding its way inside through new and multiplying leaks. Facility maintenance and engineering staff scurried to plug holes and redirect water into buckets throughout the building, according to information released by Harris Health System after the storm.

But the real challenge presented itself when water began backing up though the overwhelmed drainage system into the basement of the hospital’s main building. As pressure built on a 6-inch plumbing pipe, it developed a leak that became a crack, then a gash—30 feet long. The rising water also began to threaten food supplies, linens, pharmaceuticals, and kitchen operations.

As the 16-member maintenance and engineering crew raced to place sandbags at entryways, Ben Taub’s engineering director, Benny Stansbury, put in a call to a very busy Houston city command center for help. He had to leave a message.

Fortunately, a city official called back within a few minutes, but stressed he could make no promises. An overwhelming number of calls for help were coming in, and conditions outside were still dangerous for any vehicles, floating or wheeled, to navigate. But, the official said, if he could get someone safely out to a pump station to reduce the backflow of water into the hospital, an attempt would be made.
Within 30 minutes, the backflow was halted. The maintenance and engineering team worked to deal with the water at hand, using plastic sheeting to funnel water into bins for disposal, lifting supplies and equipment out of harm’s way, and sweeping water out where possible.

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