In Houston, Ben Taub Hospital is surrounded by murky water. On Sunday, the hospital prepared to evacuate some of its 350 patients, most of whom are low-income, but it had to abandon those plans because water levels rose too high. No transfers had been made as of Monday morning. Now, the hospital is running out of food, and ambulances are still unable to make their way through the flooded streets.
I spoke just after noon on Monday with Bryan McLeod, a spokesperson for Harris Health System, of which Ben Taub Hospital is a part, about life at a hospital in the middle of a flood.
Khazan: What’s happened in the past few days, and what’s your status right now?
McLeod: We had water penetrate into our basement areas. There are three buildings on campus, and all three have their own basement space, and all three of them took on water during the course of this storm. Obviously in the hospital proper, it displaced some critical support services like pharmacy, food and nutrition services, etc. Those have been displaced from the basement, and given that we can’t do hot meal service, because the kitchen’s obviously been closed down, we are relying on dry-food supplies. We have enough to get us through evening meal service Tuesday evening. Beyond that, it will require a food drop of some type.
But access to the facility is still limited by high water. Everywhere. While we had requested evacuation assistance, the hospital continues to operate and see patients.
Khazan: How deep is the water?
McLeod: I’m not on-site, so I don’t know at this time. But I’ve heard it described as anywhere from knee- to waist-deep in the streets adjacent to the facility. Unless they have some super truck or high four-wheel truck, I can’t imagine anybody in a sedan getting through.
Khazan: Have any patients transferred to other hospitals?
McLeod: We haven’t had a single transport yet. There was an attempt to transfer a patient last evening, and then the rains kicked up and the water started to rise, so the transporting ambulance turned back around. I can’t really say [about] other hospitals, because the entire region’s been impacted. So I’m sure it’s difficult to find resources for another hospital that is in a position to take some of our patients. We don’t intend to close the entire facility, we are just simply trying to limit the number of patients who are in our care so that we can better manage the resources that are available to us.
Khazan: So the biggest risk for you right now is running out of supplies?
McLeod: For now, it’s really the supplies and the ability to relieve our staff who have been on-site since Friday afternoon. Obviously this has got to be wearing on them. They have a rotational schedule. We brought in enough staff to be able to do that, but still, you’re talking about 12-hour shifts, a little off time, and then another 12-hour shift, etc. It just gets to be a bit much over many days.
Khazan: How should people get medications if they run out?
McLeod: I mentioned that we have a network of community health centers and clinics—all of those remain closed through Wednesday for certain, and they may be closed longer than that. For now all our ambulatory clinics and pharmacies are shut down as well. They may have to rely on a retail pharmacy at a different location or get a short supply through an emergency center if they can reach one.
Khazan: If they’re having an emergency, what should people do?
McLeod: I would think the best approach would be to call 911. I would hate to see somebody trying to make it, who is in a crisis already, in their own transport. I think that not all hospitals in the region have experienced the same challenge around their facility, but certainly the residents of the community, it’s difficult to get anywhere.
Khazan: Are ambulances going in and out?
McLeod: Not really. Our other facility, Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital, indicated overnight that essentially there was an army transport truck that brought in a number of patients to that facility. It was able to get through high water and they just offloaded out of the back of this army vehicle. [Ambulances], I don’t know that they’re able to transport to either of our hospitals right now
Khazan: Has anything like this ever happened before?
McLeod: Not for Ben Taub to request evacuation support. The last major rain flood we had in the community was Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, and Ben Taub was the last hospital standing in the Texas Medical Center, and we were taking patients from other neighboring facilities. LBJ tends to have more challenges related to groundwater around the facility and being cut off—they are doing better at the moment than Ben Taub is. We live in Houston, Texas, and it rains a lot, so we see this very frequently, just nothing like this particular storm.
Khazan: What do you need right now?
McLeod: I think we’ll take every prayer to end the rain as soon as possible.