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Houston Hospitals Deal With Storm's Effects

Kate Traynor

Houston-area hospitals are still trying to recover from the effects of Tropical Storm Allison, which deposited more than two feet of rain on and near the city during a 24-hour period ending noon this past Saturday.

"I don’t think people realize how bad it was," said Dana Fitzsimmons, president of the Texas Society of Health-System Pharmacists and a Houston resident. Friends living elsewhere in Texas have called him to say, "Hey—you OK? We heard you got some rain down there."

That rain caused severe flooding in parts of the Texas Medical Center, a group of 42 hospitals, research centers, and other health care institutions.

About half a foot of water flooded the pharmacy at The Institution for Rehabilitation and Research (TIRR). "My entire storeroom in the basement was completely destroyed," said Lourdes Cuellar, pharmacy director at TIRR. The flooding ruined the pharmacy’s drugs and records.

Alhough TIRR is open, Cuellar is having trouble keeping the pharmacy staffed. "We already have staffing shortages," she said yesterday. "You have employees whose homes have been hit and so people are not coming to work."

William Puckett, pharmacy director at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital, said Tuesday that the flooding completely knocked out electrical power—including emergency power—in his 25-story building.

This meant "no elevators, no lighting, no computers, no ventilation," he said. "Toilets did not even flush because they’re pump-powered in tall buildings."

Patients who could be transferred to other facilities had to be led down dark stairwells by staff carrying flashlights, he said. "Food had to be brought up and taken to patients...through the same stairwells."

A full week after Allison first came to Houston, Puckett summarized the situation at his hospital: "We’re still operating under extremely poor circumstances."

The storm hit Texas June 5, weakened, but then stalled over southeastern parts of the state for several days. Houston faced severe flooding this past weekend.

"Until about noon Saturday," Puckett said, "the medical center was completely inaccessible from any direction without a boat or a military vehicle....

"Nobody living can remember a rain like this....Places flooded that never flooded before, and it’s been quite a mess. They’re still pumping out basements in the medical center and downtown. Downtown was particularly heavily hit because of the amount of underground parking and underground tunnels."

Three hospitals at the medical center—St. Luke’s, Hermann Hospital, and Methodist Hospital—took the brunt of the flooding, according to reports in the Houston Chronicle. All patients at Hermann were evacuated Saturday, and the hospital was completely shut down.

Methodist is partly operational, although Fitzsimmons, Cuellar, and Puckett have heard that flooding completely destroyed the central pharmacy. Lois Nash, director of pharmacy at Methodist, was unreachable for comment at press time.

Puckett said that despite everything, St. Luke’s has been lucky. "Our pharmacy did not lose any drugs in the flood," he said. "The sub-basement below us took all the water. And the incoming water—which came in very, very quickly—was stopped before it could flood any higher."

Critically ill patients at St. Luke’s were transferred to other area hospitals without incident, Puckett said. "Everybody rallied very quickly, and the patients on ventilators were moved to places that had power right away."

St. Luke’s likely lost no computer data during the flooding. This, Puckett said, is because his hospital finally got to deploy its Y2K plan. "They brought the system down...gracefully, and they’re going to bring it up gracefully," he said, "so there shouldn’t be any computer damage at all except in those areas that were flooded."

Although Cuellar described the local situation as a "disaster," she added that "the health care community really came together" to support hospitals affected by the flood. "It’s been absolutely phenomenal," she said.

Puckett had the same sentiment. "It is amazing how health care people rally together during difficult times," he said. "The amount of collegial support is just phenomenal."

15 June 2001 — Lois Nash, pharmacy director at Methodist Hospital in Houston, said today that her basement-level central pharmacy had been under several feet of water. "My office was destroyed, along with everything else."

The flooded basement was home to Methodist’s main drug storage area, pharmacy computer system, and drug information center. Nash said her pharmacy staff is now operating out of satellite pharmacies located on the upper floors.

The basement flooding happened very quickly. At about 2:00 p.m. Saturday, after getting a call about "some water on the floor," Nash told her staff to start moving drugs to pharmacies located above the basement. About half an hour later, the pharmacy called to tell Nash that "the water…was just rushing in."

About 700 patients were in Methodist when the flooding and resultant power outages started. "We just transferred patients…to get them in buildings where we had power," Nash said. Some patients were sent to other facilities, she said, but most were transferred within Methodist.

Nash had good news mixed with the bad. She said her Shreveport, La., drug wholesaler really came through.

"We called them up and told them to look at our [drug] usage over the past 30 days and give us a certain percentage of that," she said. "They brought it over, and we unloaded it all.…And that’s what we’re working out of."

Like William Puckett at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital, Nash said there was no loss of pharmacy and patient data. Methodist’s backup data tapes, which were not stored in the basement, went to a Chicago-based disaster-recovery-service contractor.

"We’re operating remotely from Chicago," Nash said.