Feature Article

When Hurricane Harvey Hit, the Texas Medical Center Stood Ready

At the biggest medical complex in the world, hard-won lessons learned from Tropical Storm Allison kept Hurricane Harvey’s floodwaters at bay.

The Texas Medical Center in Houston, at night.

A night skyline at the Texas Medical Center in Houston.

Photo: Katie Haugland Bowen. License: CC BY 2.0.
Just after midnight, the skies opened.

Hour after hour, for three hours, a relentless deluge hammered Houston’s Texas Medical Center (TMC), causing nearly $2 billion in damage. Hundreds of patients had to be evacuated.

No, we’re not talking about Hurricane Harvey.

It was nearly 16 years earlier, in June 2001, when Tropical Storm Allison struck the city. “It was, at that time, one of the largest, most damaging urban floods in U.S. history,” said Philip Bedient, a civil engineering professor at Rice University.

Drama at a trauma center

In the wee hours of June 9, 2001, Tropical Storm Allison dropped about 12 inches of hard rain in just a few hours on the TMC—a lot of rain in a short period of time. “It was the intensity of the rainfall in Allison that was so devastating,” Bedient said.

That night Kenneth Mattox, M.D., FACS, was in charge at Ben Taub Hospital. He climbed the stairs to get a better view of Brays Bayou, which meanders like a ribbon just south of the medical center, carrying water east to Galveston Bay. But tonight, Brays had taken as much of the storm as it could handle. “The water was out of its banks,” said Mattox, “and heading towards the Texas Medical Center.”

Ben Taub Hospital at the Texas Medical Center in Houston.

Ben Taub Hospital sits on some of the highest ground at the Texas Medical Center in Houston.

Photo: Harris Health System

The center is not just one hospital, but the largest medical complex in the world. It sits in a low-lying, flood-prone area. In 2001, it was home to 42 medical and educational institutions, including twelve hospitals and two Level I trauma centers. (Today the TMC has grown to 60 institutions on 1,345 acres.)

This is the story of how two hospitals at the medical center fared during Tropical Storm Allison and, years later, during Hurricane Harvey. Ben Taub and Memorial Hermann hospitals are both Level I trauma centers, critical facilities which treat severe injuries such as gunshot wounds, motor vehicle crashes, or emergencies like heart attacks.

Ben Taub Hospital sits on the highest ground at the medical center and its emergency generators are elevated outside on four-foot concrete pedestals. These two factors meant Ben Taub never lost power during Tropical Storm Allison. Other hospitals, such as Memorial Hermann weren’t as lucky.

Published June 5, 2018 Permalink