When Disaster Strikes: How Houston Hospitals Used Lessons Learned and Smarter Planning to Prepare for Hurricane Harvey

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

“The care that was provided by hospitals was extraordinary even if they were having hardships of their own. Care was continuously delivered safely.” - Darrell Pile, CEO of Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council, Houston

Image: aerial view of the Houston, Texas area with flood waters following hurricane Harvey

Learning from Unfortunate Situations
Sixteen years ago, Texas was hit with Tropical Storm Allison, leaving Houston with over three feet of water in some areas and billions of dollars of damage. Many hospitals and health care facilities experienced substantial flooding and devastating losses of medical equipment and research materials. Numerous facilities were forced to close their doors.

Just a couple of months ago, Houston was hit again with another record-breaking storm, Hurricane Harvey. This time, however, as the streets surrounding them turned to rivers, those same hospitals and health care facilities that experienced extreme loss in 2001 came out nearly unscathed this time around due to a number of infrastructure improvements and procedure adaptations based on lessons learned.

The improvements made over the past 16 years that kept hospitals and health care facilities safe and dry included:

  • Specially designed flood walls and flood gates that prevent water intrusion
  • Comprehensive emergency preparedness plans, including procedures for moving patients to safer conditions if needed
  • Structural changes including the relocation of medical equipment and research materials to higher floors
  • Increased communication and coordination between law enforcement and health care facilities

As a result of these investments, no patients died while being transferred or hospitalized during Hurricane Harvey.

Rapid Recovery Times
Of the 250 Houston area health care facilities, 27 were forced to temporarily close due to severe damage. Their recovery time, however, was rapid. Due to the disaster preparedness exercises completed over the past several years, within two weeks of the hurricane, 95% of health care facilities in the area were open and caring for patients.

An Example: Texas Medical Center
After devastating floods in 2001, Texas Medical Center hospitals improved the tunnel system that connects each of their hospitals by investing in submarine-type doors. These doors can be closed when there is a risk of flooding in order to compartmentalize each facility. As a result of this investment, Texas Medical Center hospitals were not flooded during Hurricane Harvey.

Moving Forward when Disaster Strikes
The reality is that disasters do happen. However, by learning from past events in order to effectively prepare for future catastrophes, health care facilities are not only able to stay open in the face of natural disasters, they are able to continuously provide medical care for those injured as a result of them.

You can learn from Houston’s story
Hear firsthand from Houston area facility representatives at the 2018 PDC Summit during the Wednesday morning general session, Avoiding Disaster: The Texas Medical Center Story.

This blog was adapted from an article that originally appeared in Health Facilities Management.