Hurricane Harvey has become one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, flooding large parts of Houston, America’s fourth-largest city, killing 37 people, forcing thousands to be evacuated from flooded homes in Houston, Port Arthur, Beaumont and other cities across southeast Texas. UMHS professor Dr. Julie Graves is currently in Houston, where she was Regional Medical Director for the Texas Department of State Health Services until this past May.
The UMHS Endeavour spoke to Julie Graves, M.D., MPH, PhD, FAAFP via email about the catastrophe and the dire public health needs of people in southeast Texas. Dr. Graves, Associate Professor of Epidemiology, Ethics, Behavioral Science and ICM at UMHS, is delaying her arrival in St. Kitts to stay and help with relief efforts in Houston.
UMHS Endeavour: What is the biggest challenge right now with Hurricane Harvey?
Dr. Julie Graves: Now that the rain has stopped and most of the people in danger have been rescued, there are two parallel challenges: First, sheltering the thousands who have lost so much while they process their grief and deal with the financial impacts; and second, searching for those who may have been stranded for days, likely to be starving and dehydrated and, sadly, for remains of those who died in the storm. As the water recedes and people can get back to assess the damage to homes, cars, and businesses, there will follow the monumental clean-up and rebuilding.
You were Regional Medical Director for the Texas Department of State Health Services in the Houston area until this past May. What are some things the state is doing to help Houston?
The state’s health department has a regional office in Houston that coordinates public health emergency preparedness and response with local officials and aid groups. The state provides leadership, funding, surge capacity for personnel, and the education and training for first responders and preparedness and response program managers. So the state played a big role in getting everyone together so that the coordinated and collaborative response worked smoothly, and everyone in the different governments involved were giving the same message to the public—this improves public safety and reduces confusion and stress on the public. The state also funds and organizes regional trauma care advisory councils that work an air-traffic-control type center that ensures patients rescued in the flood response get to a hospital that is open, has beds, and has the appropriate trauma and medical emergency capabilities. The state sponsors training for local public health authorities and nurses, provides vaccines such as tetanus for first responders, and deploys staff from around the state to assist and relieve the public health and medical staff from Houston.
What are some the urgent public health needs of everyone affected?
Access to medications and medical supplies is a huge problem—those whose homes flooded and had to wade through chest-deep water to escape couldn’t bring everything them. Right now the shelters in Houston need wheelchairs, walkers, C-pap machines, oxygen—equipment that is still in flooded houses, and pharmacies got flooded, so medications are coming in now that the roads are clear, but people have missed doses, so chronic illnesses are likely to be uncontrolled and those with psychiatric illness could have exacerbations. Those who wade through flood waters often have cuts and scrapes that can become infected or contaminated, and some of the cuts can be tetanus-prone. Those in shelters are at increased risk for colds, flu, and other contagious diseases. Houston is fortunate that childhood vaccine rates are pretty good, but there are still unvaccinated people of all ages who could expose those with immune compromise. Survivors also can have grief, stress, insomnia, anxiety, and depression, and first responders suffer from their own losses, stress, and sometimes horrific scenes they witness during their heroic work.
How have you been affected personally this?
I’m fortunate and have experienced no direct losses, and for that I am so grateful. I’m sad for my friends and colleagues in Houston who have lost homes, possessions, and medical practices, and I’m awed by the bravery, kindness, and tenacity of everyday Houstonians, the first responders, the public health professionals, the shelter volunteers, and the elected officials who did remarkable work. I’m especially grateful to Mayor Sylvester Turner and County Judge Ed Emmett who worked tirelessly and with great wisdom to minimize the losses of life and property in this historic – actually unprecedented – storm.
Is there anything UMHS students, faculty or staff can do to help the victims of Hurricane Harvey?
Yes. If possible, donate to the organizations we’ve talked about: the Greater Houston Community Foundation, the Houston Area Women’s Center, the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hurricane Harvey Fund, and the Houston Coalition for the Homeless. Another great organization that is ramping up its efforts now and will be needed for a while is the Houston Food Bank. Next, prepare for opportunities to respond to disasters. The US Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has online courses on the Incident Command System that introduce the ways that we can effectively work in a disaster response. There are also advanced in-person trainings that teach leadership skills for those who want to respond to disasters. Last, continue to strive for excellence in our medical education programs, so that our next generation of doctors can bring strong clinical skills if called to care for patients during or after a disaster.
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