Debriefing Harvey: a conversation with Robert “Safety Bob” Emery

Safety Bob headed to work during Harvey
Robert "Safety Bob" Emery, Dr.P.H., preparing for his trek to campus during Harvey.

HOUSTON – The floodwaters have receded, and Houstonians are busy getting back to normal after Hurricane Harvey. While the event is still fresh in our minds, we debriefed Robert “Safety Bob” Emery, Dr.P.H, professor of Occupational Health and vice president for Safety, Health, Environment and Risk Management (SHERM), for his take on the critical role emergency preparedness and safety plays in public health.

Emery, who is an alumnus of UTHealth School of Public Health, led UTHealth’s safety team to prepare for Harvey, and managed emergencies and threats to the campus during and after the storm. The team also worked closely with staff in the Office of Public Affairs and University Web Services to communicate to the campus about UTHealth’s operational status, safety issues and resources.

It was a monumental effort with team members going above and beyond the call of duty to keep UTHealth safe and informed. At one point Emery hiked seven miles, sometimes through chest-deep floodwaters, to reach campus because roads were impassable. Emery shares how UTHealth prepared and responded to Harvey, and important lessons learned.

When you realized that Harvey was going to hit Houston, did you have an idea of the kind of impact it was going to have? 

We’d been following the weather announcements, but it was certainly mind boggling the amount of rain that came down. The notion of the storm circling around and then dumping more rain was somewhat reminiscent of Tropical Storm Allison in 2011, so when these reports came in we knew we were in for something big

How did you prepare?

When we started getting notices that the storm was coming our way, we were probably four or five days out. That’s when we started going down our emergency plan. We have a list of basic preparatory tasks that need to be done. For example, making sure fuel tanks are full for all of our generators, and securing items that might get blown around. If we have construction activities going on, we’ll bring them to an orderly halt and secure anything that’s in a high-wind situation.

Then we’ll arrange for the ride-out teams. These are the people who stay on campus during the storm. They need to be afforded time to go home and secure their homes, and return to campus.

We’ll also begin to close some of our flood doors preemptively. We have 23 flood doors within McGovern Medical School. We’ve learned that we can close some of them without impeding the ability of the building to function. As the storm approaches we’ll close the remainder of the doors. This technique has helped make our storm preparations easier, especially for the ride out teams.

Tell us about when the storm hit. 

We started sending out communications about the impending storm on the Wednesday before it hit. On Friday (Aug. 25) the UTHealth campus went on controlled access at noon, essentially restricting the campus to essential personnel. We also canceled classes through the following Monday. It started to rain on Saturday, but it wasn’t that big of a deal. Then, it really started coming down, and on Sunday, the flooding really started. The roads to the Texas Medical Center from my house were impassable. That’s when I hoofed it to campus to check on the integrity of the operations center building (where SHERM is headquartered).

You managed to hike seven miles from your home? 

Yeah. It was an interesting experience. You meet a lot of interesting people when you’re walking through water. I met a couple in a canoe and a guy with a kayak on the way. On the way back, I got to ride on the back of an MRAP (Mine-resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle operated by the City of Houston) to cross a street that had turned into a river.

It’s funny, because after walking through water up to my bellybutton, I thought I would finally be dry when I got to my office. When I got there, I changed into dry clothes. But I had to be on a conference call with the UTHealth executive team, so I didn’t get the chance to put any shoes on. When I walked into my office, the carpet was wet. At first, I thought it was my still-wet feet, but it wasn’t. The whole office was flooded. What was happening was that the ground was so saturated outside, that water was actually pooling up through the floor drains. But, that was relatively minor damage compared to what was going on throughout the city. 

How was damage from Harvey compared to Tropical Storm Allison, which had a devastating effect on the Texas Medical Center?

I think the interesting comparison is if you look back to Allison in 2001, we had extensive building flooding, we had loss of power and also interruptions to the IT infrastructure. 

Now, fast-forwarding to 2017, none of those things occurred. In other words, the flood protection, the things we’ve done organizationally, and in facility upgrades, they work. Because we always had power, IT was always up. There were some small incidences of flooding, but the flood doors we installed after Allison held, and other things worked by and large. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that many roads were flooded, so staff and patients couldn’t get here. That’s one of our greatest challenges. We draw people in from a large geographic area, but the climatic conditions can vary significantly from one end to the other. It could be sunny in Galveston, but pouring in Conroe (north of Houston).

What lessons have you learned from Harvey? 

As the dust is slowly settling, I’ve made a list of the thrills and spills here at UTHealth since 2001, to provide some institutional context and knowledge of emergency situations the institutions has faced (Tropical Storm Allison, Tropical Storm Rita, Memorial Day Floods, Tax Day Floods). What I tried to capture are the lessons we learn from each of these events, because each one is different. Not only have the events been destructive, but the technology has changed as well. So, we have to be nimble enough and responsive enough to respond to these situations as we go along.

In storms of magnitudes like Harvey, it’s probably best to double the size of the ride-out team, so they can work in shifts. They usually work for one to three days. We did not expect them to be there from Friday until Tuesday. 

Secondly, we have to improve our educational outreach for people to be prepared at home. When you have a regional disaster like this and people can’t get around, it’s great to protect the institution, but that only goes so far if no one can come to the institution to bring it alive. That’s not something unique to us, that’s something the entire region needs to be grappling with. We’ll need to look at a variety solutions — maybe high water vehicles to get key people in and out of the Texas Medical Center.

Also, I’ve learned that for more and more people, texting is their preferred method of communication. We use email, post on our website, and text using the UTHealth Alert system to communicate our operational status and emergency information. But the feedback we’re getting is that most prefer text. It’s the most active way of communicating. 

After the storm, we also deployed an online tool to gauge Harvey’s impact on our students, faculty and staff, and hosted FEMA representatives on campus to address flood-related needs. These efforts worked well to support our community, and ease some return to normalcy. 

One of your favorite quotes is, “Fortune favors the prepared mind.” How prepared were we for Harvey?

I think that we were prepared and we were fortunate. Our protection systems worked. But, you can never really let your guard down. You can’t just let your guard down and say, “Hooray, we’re all squared away.” You have to constantly learn from past emergencies so that you are better prepared for the next one. 

What’s the next public health safety priority, post-Harvey?

The research clearly shows the types of injuries both near-term and long-term that might be encountered during clean-up of homes and businesses, such as puncture wounds from stepping on nails, or carbon monoxide poisoning from running generators, or injuries from improperly mixing cleaning chemicals. There’s also a risk for mold exposure. We need to emphasize caution. When people’s homes have been destroyed, their lives have been turned upside down, and they’re obviously quite enthusiastic about wanting to get back to normal. But we have to be careful, because you don’t want to do that so hastily, or you wind up getting hurt. We’re not out of the woods quite yet. 

— Written by Anissa Anderson Orr