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Hurricane Harvey

Past Storms Made Houston’s Medical Infrastructure Prepared For Harvey

Watch the Texas Tribune’s three-part conversation series on where Texas is headed on health care below



The Texas Tribune hosted a discussion on the healthcare landscape in Houston following Hurricane Harvey.

State Rep. Sarah Davis (R-West University Place), Elena Marks, president and CEO of the Episcopal Health Foundation, and Harris County Public Health executive director Doctor Umair Shah [Shaw] served as panelist for the discussion hosted by the Tribune's Brandon Formby.

In discussing the impact Harvey had on healthcare in Houston, Dr. Shah was quick to point out that past investments made because of previous storms, like Allison, Rita, and Ike, made the medical infrastructure much more prepared than other industries.

"When we go back to tropical storm Allison when I was an emergency department physician at the VA hospital, there was an incredible amount of discussion at that time of how we improve our healthcare system," Dr. Shah says. "And what we have now is a system that really did invest that healthcare equation and that means we did things like not putting the generators in the basements. That we had pumps and drainage systems that allowed for healthcare institutions to be able to perform well."

During the hurricane there were over 120 healthcare institutions in the area, less than ten percent lost power or required evacuation during the storm.

Public Health in Greater Houston also reacted well in preventing future health concerns immediately following Harvey. For example, aerial spraying for mosquitos in the days following the storm should help Houston avoid cases of West Nile virus that were so prevalent in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina.

With over a million acres in Harris County, a coverage area larger than the state of Rhode Island according to Dr. Shah, ground trucks can spray about 15,000 to 20,000 acres a day. With the assistance of the state and the federal government to use aerial spraying to cover 200,000 acres a night. As a result, the county was covered in a matter of days.

While certainly the panel was able to highlight areas in which Public Health shined following Hurricane Harvey, there was also time to be critical of healthcare not only following the storm, but overall in Texas.

Ms. Marks thinks Harvey highlighted the lack of investment in mental health and helping people deal with the aftereffects of the hurricane.

"We get a really poor grade in this community on building the kinds of human capital infrastructure that help people before, during and after, in building resilient communities," says Marks.

She thinks the city is also lacking social investment.

"If you look at what builds a healthy community. What makes an individual a family a neighborhood, a city, a county healthy, the investments you make in healthcare actually have a much smaller impact on overall health outcomes than the investments you make in social and community infrastructure," Marks says.

Marks believes the focus and attention to certain, perhaps more profitable, areas of healthcare are to blame.

"The lack of mental health infrastructure I would say, is a symptom of lack of attention to anything that isn't part of high tech, hospital oriented care. That we have focused all of our health brain around that. And we have neglected the kinds of things that make human beings resilient," she says.

Representative Davis says the state is making a commitment to children affected by Harvey. By starting a program where kids suffering could be identified in the schools, Davis thinks the financial investment is there.

"I was very pleased with Commissioner [Mike] Morath, creating the task force. They're working in connection with the Texas higher education coordinating board, as well as with Health and Human Services Commission and with the Meadows Foundation. And so, I believe that on a state level from the House side, that mental health has been a priority for a long time," says Davis.