For the thousands of people traveled through Harvey’s flood waters to Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center, safety was not yet at hand. Although delivered from the worst of the storm, the packed masses were one of the loci of another brewing problem, one that officials expect might last a year or more after landfall.
Every flood disaster is also a public-health disaster, and even as Harvey dissipates over the Gulf Coast, the beginnings of that secondary calamity were on display in the Houston area. During the worst of the flooding, hospitals faced critical shortages of food and medicine, people with serious chronic diseases had to make difficult decisions between evacuation and sheltering in place, and hundreds of victims faced prescription shortages and mental-health issues. And based on the health problems people in New Orleans and elsewhere in the region faced after Hurricane Katrina, experts expect major public-health emergencies, environmental illnesses, and outbreaks will only intensify in the aftermath of Harvey.
Those challenges are already taxing the city’s health infrastructure. According to Bill Gentry, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Public Health and a former emergency management official, one key public-health issue that attends the early stages of any disaster is the set of risks facing people who are disabled or elderly and face special health needs. “With our push towards home health-care and taking care of more Americans in the home,” Gentry said, “it quickly turns into 'can we get their home health-care needs taken care of,’ with everything from oxygen to prescription meds to getting them clinical access, especially for dialysis. Those types of clinical worries compound as many days as the water stays up.”