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Alumni brave fires and floods in catastrophic season

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2017 - Autumn


When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in August, Karen M. Lu, M.D. ’91, walked 8 blocks through waist-deep floodwaters to reach a truck that would take her to the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, where, as chief medical officer ad interim, she would serve as incident commander.

Silvia F. Garcia, M.D. ’94, left her home in Naples, Fla., with her husband and parents five days before Hurricane Irma struck in early September. She returned almost two weeks later to find widespread damage, but her home and office had been spared.

As wildfires spread through Southern California, Ruth Lasell, M.D. ’73, and her husband woke up on a Tuesday morning in December at their home in Ojai unaware that fires were approaching. She was reading the news online over coffee when she saw a headline in the Washington Post: “Ventura County fire raging out of control.” They grabbed a few essentials and were gone within an hour.

Garcia, Lasell, and Lu are among School of Medicine alumni affected by the recent rash of natural disasters—hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean and wildfires in California. Yale Medicine spoke with them and others who withstood the natural disasters in California, Florida, and Texas. We reached out to alumni in Puerto Rico, who did not respond to requests for interviews.

The hurricane season was unprecedented not only for the number of storms, but for their ferocity. From late August to early September, three major hurricanes struck the United States. Hurricane Harvey broke the record set by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 as the costliest tropical cyclone. Irma also broke Katrina’s record as the most intense hurricane to hit the United States, only to be surpassed by Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico days later. California’s wildfires come amidst a prolonged drought that has dried vegetation up and down the coast. In its early stages, officials declared the Thomas Fire (which has ravaged 270,000 acres in Ventura) the third worst in the state’s history. Since then they upgraded it to the second worst, before declaring it the worst in California’s history.

“There is so much fuel for the fires,” said Lauren D. Hyman, M.D. ’94, who lives in Agoura Hills in Ventura County, where four fires, including the Thomas Fire, raged around her. “It’s like a tinderbox looking for a match.” As the fire approached, Hyman, an obstetrician/gynecologist in private practice, had her two children pack sleeping bags and overnight bags and packed prized possessions like family photos in boxes in preparation for an evacuation that never came. Her neighborhood was spared, but the fires were a constant presence.

“The wind was so strong that you could hardly sleep at night it was so loud,” Hyman said. “Because of the winds, where the fire would go next was very unpredictable.”

She and neighbors kept tabs on the fires through a Facebook page they had set up previously to keep in touch on other community issues.

In northern California, Jack Levin, M.D. ’57, HS ’65, and his wife mapped out an evacuation route from their weekend home in Sebastopol, in Sonoma County. Their home, on a 2-acre plot adjacent to dairy farms, was not touched, but smoke and ash arrived from 20 miles away.

“We got up in the morning and the sky was extremely dark,” said Levin, a professor of medicine and laboratory medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “We were very concerned, but we didn’t feel the need to evacuate.”

Halfway across the country in Houston, after her walk through the floodwaters, Lu knew that patients would not be able to leave or return to the hospital for several days. Although buildings at the Texas Medical Center, home to hospitals and medical centers including M.D. Anderson, were protected by flood gates installed after a previous hurricane, Harvey dropped 50 inches of rain on Houston.

“We had 4 feet of water on the main road that leads into M.D. Anderson,” Lu said.

As the hurricane approached, the center implemented a protocol crafted from years of experience. About 1,000 of the center’s staff of 20,000 agreed to stay. The hospital stockpiled several days’ worth of food, brought in 1,000 cots for staff, and activated the incident command structure. More than 500 patients and 300 of their family members stayed in the hospital. The hospital contacted the 13,000 patients who arrive every week for surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy to reschedule their appointments.

”We started tracking as soon as the hurricane came into the gulf,” Lu said. “Twice a day we had incident command meetings. You have to make sure all critical personnel caring for cancer patients are ready—not just the doctors and nurses but also the clinical laboratories and surgery techs, pharmacists, food service workers, and security staff. I really understand now how interconnected all the critical units have to be.”

The experience, Lu said, heightened her appreciation for the staff and their efforts to keep the hospital running.

“When they came to work on Saturday, they knew to bring extra clothes,” she said. “They prepared to stay several days because they had been through this before. One of the lessons that was very important was that we needed to care for our employees because about 30% of them had their own homes impacted by Harvey.”

During the recovery phase, the center brought in on-site childcare, contracted with Lyft to provide transportation, and arranged for FEMA representatives to come to the hospital so that employees could file claims on their homes.

Not far away from the medical center, Buford L. Nichols, M.D. ’60, HS ’64, who retired as a pediatrician at Baylor College of Medicine in 2009, hunkered down in Brazos Towers at the Bayou Manor Retirement Center. Waters rose 2 feet above the flood plain, flooding his building’s basement and cutting off power. The 7 story building’s 200 residents evacuated, but Nichols went to the assisted living center to stay with his wife. For two weeks, he slept in a recliner in her room, doing his editorial work for the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology, working three to four hours a day.

The retirement center’s employees stayed on to care for the residents.

“They continued their responsibilities,” Nichols said. “When the power went out for three days in East Tower the employees would climb 14 floors to take meals to people. The employees here are incredibly kind and considerate.”

It took three weeks to pump water out of the basement of his building, Nichols said, and another two weeks to remove the mold that had grown.

Nichols believes that increased development in Houston, which has no zoning regulations, played a role in the flooding. With no controls over development, soils that would have absorbed rainfall were replaced by asphalt surfaces that channeled rainwater into streams, leading to flooding. “There are more parking lots, more pavement, and more developers putting in developments upstream from the bayous, increasing drain into the bayous,” he said.

From her refuge from Hurricane Irma, a hotel room in the suburbs of Atlanta, Garcia kept track of what was happening in Naples through regular contacts with friends and neighbors who stayed through the storm. A dermatologist in a solo private practice in nearby Marco Island, Garcia has lived in Florida since 2000. Irma was not her first storm.

“Every summer we go through the hurricane preparedness checklist,” she said. “This time it was for real that something was going to hit us. We got the hurricane shutters up, shut the office down, got rid of perishables.”

They’d been tracking the storm for days and, five days before it hit, decided to make the 12-hour drive to Georgia. If they waited, they knew that the roads north would be clogged.

“After the hurricane, there was no electricity in the state of Florida. You couldn’t pump gas. You couldn’t get food,” Garcia said.

They returned a week after the storm, once they had word from friends that it was safe, and services had returned. The gleaned information from a Facebook page started by residents.

“People were very kind and very generous, giving out food or water, whatever they had,” Garcia said. “A patient who spends summers in Maine filled his pickup with generators and gasoline and drove to Florida to help out.”

They found roof damage, debris from fallen vegetation, and trees knocked down. “Every big old tree got ripped up and knocked down. In the surrounding neighborhoods by creeks and canals or low-lying areas, they had flooding, or sewers backed up.”

It took a week to clean up and get wi-fi and cable restored. It took two weeks to remove mold from the air conditioning units. She couldn’t get her office up and running until early October.

Barbara Kinder, M.D. ’71, HS ’77, professor emeritus of surgery, has had a home on Big Pine Key, about 30 miles north of Key West, since 1999. She and her husband have made a point of staying at their home in Maine during the hurricane season. From there, they saw aerial photographs that suggested damage to their Florida home wasn’t so bad. But once they traveled to Florida, it was clear that their home was beyond repair. A 6-foot storm surge washed away their deck, doors, and windows and damaged the foundation. “The house is sort of falling in on itself,” Kinder said. “It needs to be torn down and rebuilt.”

Several of her neighbors braved the storm and, as in other disaster areas, have kept each other informed with a Facebook page.

“People in the Keys tend to be self-sufficient and resilient, and able to take care of themselves and look out for one another,” Kinder said. “There is lots of heroic helping from one person to another. Crises like these bring out the best in people.”

After the initial crisis, she said, media attention moves on. “There is a great deal of publicity in the beginning, and everybody gets excited about it, then in a quite short period of time, everybody forgets about it.” Kinder added that while electricity and water had been restored, many of the Keys north of Key West still had extensive debris on land and in the canals.

She and her husband, an architect, plan to rebuild on their 2-acre parcel.

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