Written by Jon P. Spiers, MD JD
I was near the epicenter of both Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Katrina, and they share many characteristics. Storms are unique, and I want to be clear that a disaster is a disaster – no matter its name.
I was in a suburb of Biloxi, MS when Katrina made landfall. The winds and storm surge were immense. We had a surge inland for miles. At my own home on the shore we took about 20 feet of water. Most of my neighbors lost their homes, and those that did not were left with shells of homes.
Infrastructure also took major damage. Our hospital would only perform emergency procedures, and once the storm passed we tried to unload our hospital of patients, as their health would permit. One facility, a long-term acute care hospital, was completely destroyed. Many of my patients wound up in other states. My brother, who was practicing in North Carolina at the time, even took on cases of some of my patients as many were dispersed throughout the country.
One of our greatest dangers was after the storm. Power lines were down, causing some to actually be electrified. Water and sewer damage would change lives for weeks and even months. People would be forced to do without their medicines – many lost or left them as they evacuated. Common illnesses became more serious because of circumstance – there were many atypical infections due to the contamination of sewage that leaked into flooding waters, and everyone’s mental health suffered.
With Hurricane Harvey we face many similar challenges, though we were spared the direct blow of the storm. Because of our geographical relationship to the storm, there has been tremendous rainfall in our area. Our rivers are filled to capacity and more. Areas that normally flourish off a storm are flooding, and as it continues the flooding will only worsen. Because of the periodic nature of the storm, some mistake the brief minutes of calm as a sign it is over. Instead, it will continue for many more days. This is a marked difference from what we saw with Hurricane Katrina.
Unfortunately, as with all storms, folks compare it to the last bad one. In this case, many would look back at Hurricane Ike and say to themselves, “We did well with Ike, we will be fine with this one.” It is so unfortunate that this logic is flawed. Hurricane Katrina, like many hurricanes, played out over a few days, with the impact felt for weeks and months. And please do not mistake me – Hurricane Katrina was a DISASTER. With Hurricane Harvey, the actual storm will continue for over a week, and the resulting damage will be felt for months to come.
One item of particular concern with the storm in Houston is how it affects our medical center. The Texas Medical Center (TMC) is the largest medical center in the world, but that does not mean they do not feel the impact. Hospitals are diverting patients to other centers and some are evacuating patients completely. Many of the dedicated men and women working in our hospitals will not be able to leave, nor will additional personnel be able to travel to the TMC to give them respite. I salute these folks, as well as the many who are working as first responders, manning shelters, rescuing neighbors, and pitching in to help at churches and other local establishments that need it.
One thing is for sure – Houston is a can-do city, and Texans don’t back down from any challenge. We will recover, we will help our neighbors, and we will come back strong.
That willingness to help our neighbors is something we Texans, and all Americans, do so well.