NEWS

Healthcare access complicated by Hurricane Harvey, as floodwaters threaten facilities, forcing some evacuations

As Texans continue to battle Hurricane Harvey, Houston-area hospitals have been grappling with the decision of whether to evacuate patients. Residents of Houston were not ordered to evacuate, leaving some area hospitals struggling to accommodate incoming patients. As of Wednesday evening, over twenty healthcare facilities had evacuated patients by ambulance and helicopter. Another twenty-five hospitals continued to operate under “internal disaster” status, treating patients but struggling to function normally.

In nearby Pasadena, Bayshore Medical Center evacuated almost 200 patients to other nearby hospitals on Sunday, suspending all hospital services as floodwaters threatened the facility. While many area hospitals were forced to evacuate and suspend outpatient services, the majority of Houston hospitals managed to stay open through the worst of the flooding.

In Houston, Ben Taub General Hospital planned to begin evacuating critical patients after its food and supply stocks were disrupted by flooding in the hospital’s basement. By Monday morning, flood waters surrounding the hospital prevented emergency responders from accessing area hospitals. One of just two Level I trauma centers in Houston, the facility decided against evacuation and remained open as basement flooding decreased and staff began to report to work. Hospital officials now say their priority is offloading current patients in anticipation of an influx of people seeking help as roads clear.

Emergency workers walk through floodwaters in Texas.
Emergency workers struggle through floodwaters in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Source: U.S. Department of Defense

Damage to facilities and disrupted supply chains will likely continue to affect regional hospitals for weeks to come, but recovery of hospital operations is expected to be relatively fast. Darrell Pile, the chief executive officer of the SouthEast Texas Regional Advisory Council responsible for coordinating emergency medical response through Hurricane Harvey, told CNBC he believes that more than ninety percent of area hospitals will be restored to full service within a month’s time. 

Past storms, including Hurricane Allison in 2001, also wreaked havoc on the healthcare system. In that particular storm, Houston’s Texas Medical Center lost power after its foundations flooded, forcing the evacuation of patients. Hospital officials hope that lessons learned and investment in infrastructure will improve hospital functionality as the Gulf Coast continues to weather the storm, but continue to worry about patient accessibility. Even if hospitals continue to function, the challenges of transportation, both of supplies and people, threaten current and incoming patients.

“We’ve made significant investments,” Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County’s public health department, said in a telephone interview with the New York Times 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.”

Further Reading:

Hurricane Harvey: Houston-area hospitals preparing to evacuate patients – ABC News

Ben Taub Hospital poised to evacuate some patients – Chron

Houston’s Hospitals Treat Storm Victims and Become Victims Themselves – The New York Times

Houston-area hospitals will need time to recover from Harvey – CNBC

Houston hospitals may not be back to normal for a month – STAT