Houston Floods Nearly Killed Me on My Way to Work.
On April 18, 2016 Houston had historic flooding that crippled the city. Two years later I am able to write my story of how I almost died in a flash flood trying to get to work that morning. Hopefully, for the thousands of medical professionals still working in Houston, something will change about how they staff potential disasters.
18 April 2016
I've just been woken up by a loud thunder crack as my poodle, Guero, nudges closer to me under the covers in my king size bed. I am immediately overwhelmed by the smell of cigarette smoke. Damnit! My ******* roommate has been smoking inside again! What makes him think lighting some candles is going to mask that nasty smell? While I smile at the fantasy of dumping his ashtray in his bed I hear another thunder crack and realize it is storming outside... hard. ****, I think to myself, it's probably going to flood in The Medical Center. I check my phone, no code Carla... shocking... God forbid they bother to plan ahead for anything short of a category four storm.
I don't know over 2.5 inches of rain have already fallen in Houston since midnight (around 72 billion gallons), and another 1.5 inches of rain will fall in the time it takes me to get ready for work and leave my home at 5 am. I don't know every bayou in the city is already full including White Oak Bayou and Buffalo Bayou; both of which I drive over on my six-mile commute to The Texas Medical Center. I haven't heard the flash flood warnings The National Weather Service began posting at 1:45 in the morning for Houston and all the surrounding counties. Even if I had, I wouldn't have paid them any attention. I've lived in Houston most of my life. Flooding is just part of the package. There can be as many as 70 severe weather advisories issued in a single month. For the same reason, so many people did not leave New Orleans before Katrina, most Houstonians have "Severe Weather Alerts" disabled on their phones. Usually, it's nothing but an annoying alarm.
What I do know is it is Monday morning and if I don't get to work before The Medical Center floods (and it always floods) then all the night shifters who have just finished a long weekend will be stranded with no relief. I also know I am likely going to be stuck sleeping on an army cot in a conference room at the end of my own shift. Living close by and having no kids, I try to take one for the team in these situations. I'm not completely selfless. Volunteering for ride out and relief gets me tons of overtime when I would have been at home without power. It doesn't hurt my yearly eval either. So, I pack a bag, grab my laptop and books, write my roommate a note to feed the dog and fight back the urge to smother him with cigarette butts in his sleep.
Pulling out onto Studemont in my VW Bug I'm feeling pretty satisfied with myself. I'm on the road an hour and a half early. Parking is going to be a breeze because the parking Nazis won't be at work yet, so I can park in the patient garage without being seen. **** it's raining hard! I'm only going 20 mph and I can hardly see the road. The power is already out so the streetlights are off and all the red lights are flashing, no one is on the road. This feels more like a South Texas border town than inside the Houston loop. I slow down before I cross I-10 just to make sure there isn't any water on the road. All clear. I've got an exam tomorrow, if they don't want me to clock in early I can just study in the break room till my shift starts. At least I'll be there, and I won't have had to rush in this storm with other cars on the road.
While I'm contemplating my rebellious parking plan, thinking of contingencies for budgeting my time, and giving myself a pat on the back the rainfall is surging. Nearly 2.5 inches of rain will fall in the hour following my departure from my home. That is 35 billion gallons of water being dumped on the city after the bayous have already been filled in record time.
I pass the Kroger on Studemont and notice they don't have any power either. Going down the hill under the railroad bridge I slow to a crawl to assure myself no water is on the road. It looks like I left at a good time, there is no way the streets are going to stay clear like this for much longer if this rain keeps up...
... WHAT THE **** WAS THAT! I can't see anything. My car is spinning around like I hit black ice. It feels like I hit a grassy hill or something soft, but I know I'm surrounded by concrete underneath this railroad bridge. When my car finally stops turning the engine is off and there is a waterfall pouring on top of my windshield. Looking out my window I can tell I'm facing sideways, water is pouring over the edge from above me, and the concrete walls are creating a pool that is quickly filling up with water. The door won't open, the water is too high. The engine won't start. ****! A childhood memory of my dad telling me to roll down my window if I drive off a bridge flashes in my head. I turn the key halfway, as the lights in the car light up I hit the window button and unlock the power locks. The door unlocks, and the window lowers about 4 inches before the car dies completely.
Nothing is going through my mind as I watch the water rise to the top of the window and begin to fill my car. My life isn't flashing before my eyes, I don't think to pray, I'm not thinking about what to do next, for possibly the first time in my life, my mind is completely silent. I'm just sitting in the driver's seat and trying the door handle every now and then as the water rises. It's halfway up my chest and now I'm finally able to get that damn door open! ****! I stepped out of the car and immediately couldn't touch the ground. A feeling of terror sweeps over me when I see an SUV parked at the top of the hill and a man standing between myself and the street. It is still pitch-black outside. That man might as well be the only other person in the city right now... what is he doing here anyway? I have to turn around. I can't swim that way. My panic is quickly replaced by relief when a police spotlight shines on my face. It's an SUV cop! Christ, I have never been happier in my life to see a cop! I would like to take this opportunity to thank my father for getting drunk on Lake Cherokee and making me swim laps around the boat for his entertainment when I was a child.
No amount of Adrenaline and Cortisol can replace those swimming skills, I very easily could have drowned.
As I get closer to the officer the water becomes shallower as I am coming to the top of the hill. I can finally touch the ground and am able to walk out of the pool that was formed when the bayou overflowed under the railroad bridge. The officer is a tall muscular black man and he is in the middle of lacing up his shoes. He looks up at me and tells me he was going to come in after me but then he saw me swimming and could tell I was OK. Laughing, I joked I wouldn't have wanted to get into that water if I hadn't had to either. I still haven't processed what has just happened or the magnitude of what could have happened. I show the officer my badge and tell him I'm essential staff at Texas Children's Hospital, "Can you get me to The Medical Center?"
I don't know over six inches of rain has fallen by now, or that the same amount of rainfall Tropical Storm Alison flooded the city with over three days will be dumped on Houston in less than 24 hours. I don't know nearly the whole city has sunk in the last 30 minutes and that what just happened wasn't just because I went down a hill. I am genuinely thinking I can catch a ride to the med center with this officer after nearly drowning, take a shower at work, throw on some OR , and work a 12-hour shift like my car isn't under 16 feet of water.... So much for critical thinking skills.
Officer Jones is just staring at me like he is trying to find the least offensive way to put this, "I can take you home, I can't leave this area, and everything is under water between here and The Medical Center anyways" I feel his hands on my shoulders as he turns me around to look behind me.... Holy ****.... This Just Got Real. He turns me around to see the water is still rising and my Beetle has already disappeared beneath the murky brown water. The sun is coming up. It is still pouring down raining just not as bad as it had been while I was driving from my house. I can see around me now. I can see how deep the water is and how the water rushing in from above is creating a whirlpool. The streets around us are flooded as well; I can't see the curbs and can only tell where the streets are by landmarks like fire hydrants and parking meters. Completely overwhelmed I crawl into Officer Jones's back seat and give him my address. There is at least a foot or more of water in the street the whole way back to my house. Again, for the second time this morning, my mind is silent. I look over to Officer Jones "I swear I didn't try to drive through this in a freaking beetle"
"I know," he says without turning his head, "This just happened, none of this water was here thirty minutes ago." He asks me if he can call anyone for me and confirms I live on the second floor as he opens the back door to let me out. I don't live in a floodplain, but I stepped out into about 6 inches of water, once again soaking my socks and shoes.
"No thanks" I murmur, still in a trance. He hands me his card anyways and tells me to call the department if I need anything.
I decide my scrubs aren't worth cleaning after my swimming excursion, strip down to my panties in the yard, rinse off with the garden hose, throw my wet sewage-soaked cloths on my roommate who has already passed back out and never did figure out how he woke up with damp scrubs in his bed, shower... twice, and call in to work. Clearly, I am the 700th person to call in this morning and am asked if I can make it in later when the water goes down. After explaining my full situation, I was told to take a week off; I came back to work the next day. I just didn't know what else to do with myself.
Two years later, I am still being treated with a mood stabilizer, an anti-depressant, benzodiazepine, and weekly therapy for PTSD related to my experience. I am unable to drive in the rain and still have panic attacks and nightmares. I relocated to San Antonio and took a very large pay cut because the continued flooding in Houston paired with the familiar areas were triggering too much anxiety and interfering with my life. I have never gotten back inside a VW Bug, even as a passenger.
What would eventually be called the "Tax Day Floods" claimed the lives of 9 people. I was very close to being among them. Approximately 240 billion gallons of water was dumped on the city (or enough to fill the Astrodome 750 times), over 40,000 vehicles had to be abandoned on Houston roadways, nearly 500 emergency water rescues were executed by emergency crews in less than 36 hours, more than 10,000 homes were flooded, an estimated $1.9 billion was lost in property damage in addition to $65 million in flood management infrastructure.
The Texas Medical Center has the misfortune of being in the center of uncontrolled urban sprawl spanning dozens of municipalities. This is a large factor contributing to the lack of action in solving Houston's flood control issues. Few people know Houston actually has a very sophisticated system of dams built by The Army Corps of Engineers which collects water and can essentially pump it anywhere out of the city. The city spends $50 million a year just maintaining the current system. It was built over 50 years ago and since then the Houston-Metro Area has tripled in size. Updating the system has been proposed over the years but never accomplished as the funds would either have to come from the state, federal funds, or somehow distributed among the municipalities in the 600 square mile region.
It is the policy and goal of area hospitals to call a code "Carla" prior to disasters such as flooding and hurricanes, so essential staff may safely arrive at the hospital before the event occurs. Knowing the storm was coming, we should have been asked to come in the night before. I should have already been at work before the storm ever even got to Houston. This way the morning relief staff is already safely in the building before flooding begins. Night shift hands off report at 7, but then they too stay and sleep at work to relieve day shift in 12 hours if conditions haven't improved.
In this way, staff is not put in danger by being asked to "try and make it in" when the city is flooding. Patient care goes on uninterrupted as we have enough staff in-house to prevent unsafe assignments or extended hours (as if 12 hours isn't extended). Nurses agree which team (ride out or relief) to be on at the beginning of the year. Anyone with extenuating circumstances (single parents, one parent of a married couple working in the facility, sole caregivers of the elderly, people who don't drive) may get waivers. No one is being forced into this system and we are all aware of and agree to our role months before a storm occurs.
This didn't happen for the same reason I wouldn't have blinked an eye at a flash flood warning. Most warnings don't turn into anything special. It costs a lot of money to bring in that much staff "just in case" and pay them to sleep over. It pisses off team members and hurts moral when people with families are forced to stay at the hospital for "false alarms". Many times, I have watched the hospital send out hourly updates via email as storm systems rolled in, and still not call a Carla. Too often large portions of the city are already having street flooding and they still haven't called it "because the water will go down soon" or "because it's only part of the city".
In most regions, this really isn't something that needs to be overthought. Until major infrastructure and civil engineering changes are made, Houston isn't among those regions. In addition to the growing flooding problem, Houston is a commuter city. Staff live as far as 60 or more miles from work. An hour-long drive without traffic is not unusual. This only increases the risk for employees if they are told to come in after unsafe conditions begin. Houston is home to the largest medical center in the world and some of he top hospitals in the world. Patients are shipped in from all over the world to receive treatments and procedures they can only find in Houston. Some of the sickest patients you will ever encounter are cared for on a regular basis. Mass evacuation is nearly impossible, safe care cannot be delivered with a skeleton crew running on fumes after 20 hours of work and no resources. Staff cannot be expected to put themselves in danger or feel the burden of having put their patients in danger instead. A solution needs to be reached so the next nurse like me doesn't have her family writing her story instead of her. We figured out how to do surgery on an infant before they are born... surely, we can figure out a cost-effective employee driven way to have standby staff available prior to unsafe conditions.
About GaryRay, BSN, RN
Since 2016 Gary has left Houston and changed specialties. Though the effects of this day will never fully disappear from her life, she has began to heal. She volunteers as a Red Cross Disaster Action Team member and for the Disaster Health Services.
Joined: Jan '16; Posts: 150; Likes: 285
Radiology; from US
Specialty: 10 year(s) of experience in Pediatric ICUMay 4Holy! Kudos for your calm actions that day.
Always keep a glass breaker and seatbelt cutter in your vehicle too, is something I have learned.
Wow! Your experience truly has left me speechless.
And thank you for your dedication to the job! It really does take a special kind of person to go through that, to save the lives of others.
I wish you a smooth transition to management of your PTSD
It truly sucks to have a disorder like this happen.
Been there done that. Take life one day at a time. Thank God for every moment you are hereMay 4Very informative article. Congrats on making it out alive. I've gone through blizzards to get to work...so I know the drill.
May I suggest working from home? Worked for me!May 4A very good friend of mine visits MD Anderson on a regular basis. Indeed,
great hospitals in the Houston area.
What a story... glad you made it out alive. I'm sorry that the
aftermath has been so difficult for you.May 4I hope someday soon that you see yourself as the badass that you really are and will no longer be haunted by this harrowing experience.May 5Issue with Houston flooding is that it can flood on any small road or on the feeder (next to freeway), and it can be life threatening or your car can be totalled even when just getting a cup of coffee.May 6While I appreciate everyone's encouragement, I wanted to tell my story for two reasons. One, I am finally to the point in my life where I can tell it. And two, as a call to action that a better system needs to be in place for securing essential staff for disaster codes. Hospitals rarely take into consideration the full spectrum of what their employees are sacrificing to make it to work in these times. They are hesitant to call for mandatory attendance until most staff cannot safely arrive to the facility.
Only a year before my experience, Houston had (then historical) memorial day flooding. Same thing, no hurricane, no tropical depression, just lots of rain. Most of the city was under water. The medical center never did call a Carla. They only set up cots, told staff they would be responsible for making it to their shifts and weather was not an acceptable reason to call in. Staff to voluntarily sleep at the hospital if they weren't sure they would be able to get to work in the rain. I wasn't scheduled, but I came and spent the night in case people couldn't make it because i was pissed the hospital was dodging hazard pay.
Mudpinesredneck you are not the first person to recommend the glass breaker. My response is typically "I would hope having to escape from a flooding vehicle in a natural disaster would be a once in a lifetime experience" plus little known fact... the headreast in your vehicle will double as a glass breaker if you take it off the seat.
In reguards to the PTSD: Writing this article was a big part of me overcoming that. Sharing the details and going back to relive what was going on that day is something I haven't been able to do until now. So thank you for listening, this means a lot. I've been in therapy steadily since this happened and have just now begun to decrease medications and start the road toward being less dependent on my mental health team.
It is interesting to note, however, that I have been repeatedly told (by several professionals) that the lion's share of my PTSD is related to my experiences working in the ICU rather than my brush with death.
Been there,Done that I took a travel assignment in new england shortly after this... not sure which is worse. Either way, I am working in a hospital in a difference city now (closer to my family) and doing well. Thank you for the concern.
NurseCard thank you very much, it's not the aftermath, its that lack of concern or action on the part of the facilities. So much is said about how the nursing culture needs to change and how we shouldn't be expected to make physical and mental sacrifices for our profession. but they still put us in danger, with each close call nothing is done to secure the safety of healthcare staff. Hit a policeman = felony hit a nurse = your sick part of the job
Fibroblast Preach thats why I don't live there anymore even though I could be making 30% more doing the same work
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