Flooded homes. People stranded on roofs. Rescue boats patrolling neighborhoods.
Ashley Aples saw the chaos and panic engulf Houston in just a few days, and he knew from experience it was time to flee. He did so 12 years ago when Hurricane Katrina ravaged his hometown of New Orleans and forced him to rebuild his life in Texas.
Now he and his family are rebuilding their lives again – this time in Dallas, with no plans to return to an area facing years of painful recovery from Hurricane Harvey’s historic wrath.
“We’ve seen it before; we know what this means,” Mr. Aples said from the Dallas Mega-Shelter at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, where UT Southwestern faculty are coordinating and providing medical care to Harvey evacuees.
By Friday, the medical unit there had treated nearly 200 people like the Aples family, while still awaiting a potential influx of evacuees struggling to escape the floods.
The 35-year-old forklift operator sat on a green cot next to his wife and 8-year-old son, who along with other relatives packed into two cars as floodwaters began to rise around their apartment. They headed north, not sure what they would find.
“My family got what they needed,” Mr. Aples said with a smile, looking across the multitude of volunteer groups spread across the sprawling shelter.
“Some of the worst times bring out the best in us and show us who we really are,” Mr. Aples said of the physicians and volunteers helping at the shelter. “We have individuals here of different faiths and races, all helping their fellow man.”
The Aples family was among the first of a few thousand evacuees expected to seek refuge at the shelter this week after torrential rains from Harvey left much of the Texas Gulf Coast submerged, destroying thousands of homes and killing more than three dozen people.
Inside the medical unit
UT Southwestern faculty, fellows, residents, and students from UT Southwestern Medical School who are spearheading the medical response at the shelter include a wide range of specialties from Emergency Medicine, Pediatrics, and Psychiatry. Caregivers are checking on blood-pressure levels, helping control potential issues such as diabetes, and ensuring evacuees are able to acquire the medications they may have left behind.
Dr. Raymond Fowler, who is directing the medical response at the convention center, said the team has plenty of experience dealing with such situations. He has overseen several similar medical responses to major disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, though he notes this operation is twice as large.
“We’ve gotten pretty good at this,” said Dr. Fowler, Division Chief for Emergency Medical Services at UT Southwestern, who holds the James M. Atkins, M.D. Professorship in Emergency Medical Services. “As soon as we can get them here, we’re ready for our friends in the South.”
The shelter has about 5,000 beds available if needed, and the initial evacuees seeking shelter in Dallas provided an opportunity to test the processes and ready the medical unit, said Dr. Raymond Swienton, Professor of Emergency Medicine, Chief of the Emergency and Disaster Global Health Program at UT Southwestern, and long-standing senior adviser to the state of Texas.
“We are now gaining access to large numbers of people who have been stranded for days in this unprecedented disaster impacting our entire Texas coastal area,” Dr. Swienton said. “We stand ready to provide shelter and medical care to our fellow Texans who arrive in Dallas.”
The medical wing has been bustling this week with volunteers and emergency response crews unpacking food and going over final plans. A pediatrics section decorated with walls of colorful birds and clouds was stocked with formula, diapers, and a box of stuffed animals. One mother sat on a cot in a corner, bouncing a laughing toddler on her knee.
UT Southwestern Pediatrics faculty physicians are staffing and providing support to the pediatric clinic daily to help treat the evacuated children.
“We will provide services as long as they are needed,” said Dr. Maeve Sheehan, Associate Professor of Pediatrics who is overseeing the shelter’s pediatric care with Dr. Halim Hennes, Professor of Pediatrics and Chief of Pediatric Emergency Medicine. “We will also be providing telehealth services throughout the night in conjunction with Children’s Health.”
UT Southwestern pediatric neonatologists aided with the evacuation of neonatal patients as the flooding began, and UT Southwestern pediatric nephrologists are providing dialysis to several displaced children.
Outside the medical wing, Mr. Aples sat with his wife and son, listing his next steps: getting a job, finding a home, enrolling his son in school.
“Kids don’t have the same coping mechanisms as adults,” he said, noting one reason why he won’t bring his son back to Houston for anything beyond gathering belongings from their apartment.
“Every time we went back to New Orleans, we saw places from our childhood destroyed. Your mind is fighting itself, looking at the devastation. You have to fight your way out of that box, because that box will put you in a depression.”
Mr. Aples said he has explained the situation to his son but is trying to keep the mood lighthearted.
Mental health experts at UT Southwestern’s Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute say that’s generally a good approach to take with children dealing with such traumatic events.
In addition, they recommend showing a calm demeanor around the children. Parents should offer but not force them to talk about the incident. They should also filter some of the news updates children may receive from television or social media.
“This can be overwhelming and scary for kids,” said Dr. James Norcross, Professor of Psychiatry. “But the good news is that kids are remarkably resilient. If you can reassure them, keep them in a routine as much as possible, they will be able to overcome and manage this.”
Mr. Aples is keeping his family’s thoughts positive. He is hoping to get a job as soon as he can and perhaps have the family out of the center in the next few days.
Until then, he wants to spread his message of hope to anyone who needs it.
“I want everyone to really, really just love on their families and be optimistic about the change,” he said, glancing over his shoulder at his son. “We’re going to figure out what we have to do, and the whole family will come together.”