President’s Perspective

President’s Perspective: How the TMC survived Harvey


William F. McKeon is the president and CEO of the Texas Medical Center. William F. McKeon is president and CEO of the Texas Medical Center (photo: Mark Mulligan/Houston Chronicle)
By William F. McKeon | October 3, 2017

As Tropical Storm Harvey stalled over Houston, I drove to my home—only one mile from the Texas Medical Center—to pack several days of clothing, in anticipation of a long stay working from our headquarters on Bertner Avenue.

In just the 20 minutes that it took me to drive home and back to the office, the roads were suddenly teeming with water and impassable. To make it to my office, I had to drive up onto the sidewalks in front of our buildings. It was surreal to watch vehicles floating slowly down roads that, just hours before, had been active with people, cars and trains.

And yet, despite all that water, the Texas Medical Center persevered through the storm. That wasn’t a mere coincidence; it was the result of years of careful planning and investment.

Tropical Storm Allison devastated the Texas Medical Center in 2001, delivering more than 40 inches of rain over 15 days. The water crippled the largest medical city in the world, shutting down 22 hospitals and causing more than $2 billion in damage.

Sixteen years later, Harvey delivered 51 inches of rain over five days, setting a record for the largest amount of rainfall from a single storm anywhere in the continental United States. But the Texas Medical Center remained fully operational throughout the entire storm.

This is due in large part to the investment of more than $50 million in our infrastructure, including elevating our electrical systems and implementing an advanced floodgate system designed to protect all of the buildings from water. The floodgates are three feet high, 10 inches thick and lock tight with rubber seals to keep water out. In addition, we installed submarine doors on the tunnels that run under our buildings.

We also utilize a sophisticated sonar-based system designed by Rice University researchers that tracks and measures rainfall in the sur-rounding area. This technology and information provides us the advance warning to initiate our emergency flood protocol that coordinates the activation of our floodgates around all of our hospitals, clinics and research buildings.

As Harvey’s rainfall continued, the Texas Medical Center became an island, cut off from the rest of the outlying areas. All of the streets became fast-moving streams of water. However, our storm gates held strong and protected our buildings from being inundated with water.

All of our hospitals remained open and employees continued to care for our patients throughout the storm.

Surprisingly, the challenges that unfolded during and after Harvey had less to do with water and more to do with the movement of people and supplies. We orchestrated the arrival of physicians to makeshift shelters established throughout the city, which was essential to supporting tens of thousands of people devastated by the storm. In addition, because all deliveries were cut off to the medical center for several days, we carefully monitored and shared resources to make it through.

I want to express my gratitude to the vast number of people who stayed in the medical center throughout the five days of the storm to keep it running and to provide care to our patients. These individuals sacrificed time away from families during this very difficult ordeal and many of them suffered devastating flooding in their own homes. That spirit and dedication make the Texas Medical Center a unique and special place.




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