Published 11/1/2017
Terry Stanton

Tales from the Hurricane Front

When Hurricane Harvey tried to drown Houston, the orthopaedic community responded
It's not that the healthcare system in Houston wasn't prepared for Hurricane Harvey. Having seen the devastation in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and, before that, tropical storm Allison, which inundated Houston in 2001, the city's hospitals and medical network were ready as Harvey bore down on the Texas coast.

As ready as anyone can be for a once-in-five-lifetimes storm.

Harvey trained its initial fury and fiercest winds on communities to the southwest of Houston, demolishing structures in places such as Victoria and Port Aransas, rendering portions of coastal Rockport into "a pile of sticks," according to its mayor, C.J. Wax.

For Houston, Harvey was mostly a slow-motion disaster. Five days of rain began on Friday, Aug. 25, unloading some 4 feet of water on the region, flooding 100,000 homes, and destroying 1 million cars.

By the time the first drops started falling, hospitals had triggered their contingency plans.

UTHealth Houston and other facility operators had activated "ride-out teams" of clinicians, building staff, and safety workers designated to stay in hospitals during the storm, and had arranged for contractors and trucks of equipment to be at the ready to address facilities' issues. A number of buildings had been fitted with flood doors in Allison's wake; most proved up to the task of preventing flooding onto hospital floors. Generators, which were situated atop structures rather than beneath them, mostly functioned throughout the event.

Even with the best of plans to protect and secure buildings and the patients within them, the magnitude of the sprawling disaster would test the healthcare system beyond its imagined limits. The task of enduring the duration of the Saturday-to-Wednesday hurricane fell on the thousands of individuals in the healthcare delivery chain who kept doing their jobs under the most trying circumstances to ensure that patients received care.

Because Harvey delivered the bulk of its colossal damage through the agonizing but mostly nonviolent means of unrelenting rain and resultant flooding, it would not be described as an "orthopaedic event," requiring the immediate response of orthopaedic surgeons en masse to manage injuries.

Nonetheless, orthopaedic surgeons in Houston found themselves very much involved in the medical mobilization that unfolded. And as many of them grappled with waters filling their own streets and homes, those who ventured out to fulfill their duties as physicians were not immune from the challenges and obstacles that befell and bedeviled the region.

More than a few found themselves improvising, whether serving as doctors caring for the sick and injured or as neighbors helping neighbors.

The following coverage highlights five of their stories, along with another narrative spawned from the wake of Hurricane Irma, all of which demonstrate the resolve and commitment of some of the many dedicated surgeons and other care providers in the orthopaedic community.

Terry Stanton is the senior science writer for AAOS Now. He can be reached at tstanton@aaos.org.