Aug 20, 2018, 1:00 PM, Posted by Paul Kuehnert
When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in 2017, officials from Harris County Public Health had to get creative. Here’s how they kept Houstonians healthy in the wake of the storm and what they learned in the process.
One year ago, in August 2017, Hurricane Harvey made landfall and then refused to leave. Hovering over Harris County, Texas—home to Houston—it dumped 1 trillion gallons of water, the equivalent of 40 million swimming pools, on the county’s 1,778 square miles. One community saw 10 inches of rain in 90 minutes. Drainage systems—all systems for that matter—failed or were disrupted in unfathomable ways. Water was as high as streetlights in some places. Potentially poisonous chemicals and dangerous bacteria surged through residential areas. People were trapped by flooded roads. Homes and lives were destroyed.
Those 10 days—from August 25 when the storm made landfall until September 4 when the sun finally returned—were some of the most challenging of Umair A. Shah’s career. Umair A. Shah, MD, MPH, is a physician, an emergency responder, and most importantly the executive director of Harris County Public Health (HCPH). HCPH is the county health department for the 3rd largest county in the nation serving 4.7 million people. He and his staff were in rapid response mode leading up to the storm, during the storm itself, and for several weeks in the recovery phase of the storm, often operating 24/7.
During a visit to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), I had the pleasure of discussing Harris County’s response with Dr. Shah. “My staff came every day to do their jobs,” he told me, “while they too wondered about their own homes or how their family members were faring. I am so amazed by their absolute dedication to the needs of our community despite it all.” Dr. Shah himself drove 2,200 miles in 10 days visiting neighborhoods that were heavily impacted from the storm.