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Centers respond as Harvey hits Texas

August 28, 2017
by Julie Miller, Editor in Chief
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The decision whether to remain open throughout the deluge of Hurricane Harvey no doubt weighed heavily on the minds of treatment center leaders in the Houston area. Elements Behavioral Health ultimately closed its residential facility late last week, moving patients to its Dallas location before the storm, while the Memorial Hermann Prevention & Recovery Center (PaRC ) has remained open and operational.

“The biggest challenge for us is that the staff has had difficulty getting into work because many of the streets and thoroughfares are flooded, and the water is not receding as quickly as it normally does,” says Matt Feehery, senior vice president and CEO of PaRC.

About a dozen nurses, counselors and support staff are sleeping overnight at the property on the northwest side of the city, working in shifts to ensure patients are cared for. Even the cooks are staying on to prepare meals.

Feehery says one reason why PaRC is able to maintain operations is because it’s located on higher ground where the threat of rising water is comparatively less than other areas around town. Additionally, the center has a generator that was fueled and ready to engage should the power go out, but so far, PaRC has not needed it. In advance of Harvey making landfall, the center also stocked up on supplies, including food and medicine.

In 2008, when Hurricane Ike hit southern Texas and did $37 billion in damage, PaRC was also able to maintain operations even after the power went out and the water supply stopped working in the area, Feehery says. The experience helped the facility know how to prepare for Harvey.

As for Elements, David Sack, MD, chief medical officer, tells Behavioral Healthcare Executive that all the clients who were ready were discharged home by last Thursday, while the rest were transported from Elements’ 48-bed Houston residential center to the 110-bed Dallas center.

“We did not want to take the risk that clients would be questioning [what was happening] or that they would be unable to be discharged because the roads were too hazardous,” Sack says.

Throughout the week, Elements will assess the weather situation and determine the appropriate time for a safe return.

“We’re not sure how much damage has been done,” Sack says. “It’s one thing to get there but another to actually operate at the location.”

In the meantime, five Elements outpatient centers are open and operating in the Houston area, although some might have temporarily reduced hours, he says.

Nearby providers

Feehery says Memorial Hermann’s seven outpatient centers and three mental health crisis clinics have also remained open, although fewer patients are arriving for appointments because of far-reaching street closures. At least two unaffiliated psychiatric hospitals did close down and move patients elsewhere because of their proximity to water sources that were predicted to swell during Harvey’s downpours, Feehery says.

“We were approached last Thursday by an organization about taking their patients in the event water encroach on them, and we agreed,” Feehery says.  “But they were able to finish up detox services for that group of patients and discharge them before they were closed. We haven’t had to accept any patients from other drug treatment facilities.”

As the week goes on, maintaining supplies could become a secondary problem for the centers in town that remain open.

“We’re very resourceful as a city and as providers, and I feel confident that service providers will get their supply deliveries in,” Feehery says. “There are many routes to get around, and the water is receding in some areas. Nonetheless, [supplies are] a significant issue.”

Advanced preparation

Sack says Elements has a strategic disaster plan and conducts drills, both practical exercises as well as thought-leadership meetings. The organization operates treatment centers in Florida—which is also vulnerable to hurricanes—and California—which is vulnerable to earthquakes and wildfires—so the plans are imperative across the enterprise.

PaRC staff have been gathering twice a day for emergency updates, and Feehery also has been joining the larger Memorial Hermann system calls to discuss Harvey response. He says the organization’s strategic disaster plan and emergency drills—conducted a few times per year—have been good tools in the crisis.

Regulations require that most medical centers have emergency plans prepared.

Feehery figures the treatment community will be managing the immediate challenges for most of the week as the rain continues. Hurricane Harvey is slow moving and dumping massive amounts of rain on the Houston area, reaching a radius of about 100 miles.

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