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  • Writer's pictureKara Stephens

Harris County, TX: Public Health Brings Hope after Hurricane Harvey

Updated: Sep 13, 2018

Harris County flooding
Photo: Dan M. via Nextdoor

It is difficult for the average person to imagine what the volume of over 1 trillion gallons of water looks like. But for Houston, this was their reality when they endured the record-setting rainfall during Hurricane Harvey in August 2017. The 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season was one of the most destructive seasons in U.S. history. Hurricanes devastated areas across the United States from the U.S Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico to Houston, Texas. The city suffered from unprecedented flooding resulting in over 200,000 damaged homes, 300,000 displaced residents, 300,000 residents without power and 36 lives lost. The employees of Harris County Public Health Department (HCPH) sprung to action as first responders in coordination with partner local agencies to protect the health and safety of Houston residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

HCPH activated their response plans and conducted these critical activities:

  • Oversaw health and medical operations at shelters for displaced residents and coordinated with hospital and healthcare systems as they evacuated and managed the surge of patients

  • Conducted surveillance and medical response in communities, shelters, and the healthcare systems to track and address increases in diseases and injuries caused by Hurricane Harvey

  • Led inspections to certify the safety of the city’s food establishments and water systems

  • Managed the large-scale coordination of evacuating and tracking shelter animals and displaced pets

  • Ensured that tuberculosis patients continued their treatment regimen through cutting edge video conferencing technology

Umair A. Shah, MD, MPH  - Executive Director of Harris County Public Health aids in Hurricane Harvey response efforts.
Umair A. Shah, MD, MPH - Executive Director of Harris County Public Health aids in Hurricane Harvey response efforts.

In addition to these critical services, the county continuously worked to keep residents educated with timely risk communication messaging and community engagement efforts. HCPH conducted two community assessments in September 2017 to assess the physical, mental and financial health of residents in neighborhoods impacted by the hurricane. Their findings revealed that of those surveyed who reported health issues, 60% found it difficult to get care. 33% of affected residents also reported worse mental health, and 50% of affected residents did not have any savings to help rebuild their lives. This information guided priorities for recovery efforts and made certain that community member voices were heard.

Houston flooding
Hundreds of thousands of Houston residents were affected by Hurricane Harvey.

For Harris County Public Health, the recovery work remains a priority long after the Federal Disaster Recovery Centers close. With support from the Public Health Emergency Preparedness (PHEP) program and Hospital Preparedness Program (HPP), HCPH’s Office of Public Health Preparedness & Response is looking ahead and formulating a Harvey-informed Community Resilience Plan, increasing mental health programmatic and surveillance efforts, and working with partners to increase resilience to future emergencies; while at the same time readying themselves in the midst of another 2018-2019 hurricane season. The tireless efforts of HCPH before, during, and after Hurricane Harvey ensured the health and safety of hundreds of thousands of Houston residents in a critical time of need.

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