ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A disaster as big as Harvey poses a wide range of health hazards. And joining us now is Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of Public Health in Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston. Welcome, and thank you for joining us.
UMAIR SHAH: Thanks for having me.
SHAPIRO: What's your top health concern in Houston right now?
SHAH: Well, right now I think, as you can imagine, the first and foremost thing that everybody is concerned about is just getting folks out of harm's way with the flooded waters. Whether it's in their homes or if they're stranded somewhere, we are just very concerned about getting people out through search and rescue operations and all the fantastic, incredible work that our partners have been doing - emergency management and law enforcement and the like. We're really, really wanting to get people out of harm's way.
SHAPIRO: And tell us about the health conditions in shelters. With tens of thousands of people in close quarters, are you concerned about communicable diseases or other health issues that might spring up there?
SHAH: That's absolutely one of the - you know, the bigger issues that all of us think about. So we have a lot of experience. You have to remember Tropical Storm Allison, obviously Hurricane Katrina when we had the 27,000 at the Astrodome in 2005 - and then certainly Hurricane Rita and then Hurricane Ike and then multiple storms over the last couple of years. And so during many of those shelter operations, we - very early on, we learned that there was that potential for communicable diseases.
And what our biggest challenge is - that you have a lot of folks that need to get out of harm's way, as I said earlier. And when they get to the shelter and they do have close proximity, you are starting to think about things that are either related to what conditions they were in, whether the waters or what have you, or respiratory illnesses.
GI and respiratory are probably the two most that you're concerned about. That doesn't even take into account the numerous injuries and the mental health issues that all come into play. So it's a very complicated response system, and we are certainly doing our best to navigate that as these shelters throughout the community start to open.
SHAPIRO: Apart from the risk of drowning, do the flood waters themselves present a health problem with potential chemicals or sewage or other things that might be in the water?
SHAH: Absolutely. Pre-storm, we at the health department and through emergency management at the county sent out a number of messages and got information up on our website and even information that can be downloaded so that our community members could get to those resources in advance of the flood. So we really wanted it...
SHAPIRO: So what is the message for them?
SHAH: So the message was, avoid floodwaters. You don't know what's in the floodwaters - could be downed power lines. You can have critters, everything from snakes to some spiders to actually even gators. I mean there are some potential for getting bitten. Certainly you also think about contamination with sewage and things of that nature, especially when kids jump into waters that they don't know what's going on or they put their toys in them - and then finally, as you can imagine, rusted nails or other kinds of things that can cause injuries and certainly the concern for tetanus.
SHAPIRO: I also want to ask you about the condition of the city's hospitals. We saw during Katrina how unprepared so many hospitals were for a disaster of that size. Were there lessons that you learned from that that you are applying today, and do hospitals have the supplies and power that they need?
SHAH: Our health care system has actually been for the most part, especially in Texas Medical Center - all major hospitals are operational. Now, we do have smaller facilities that have had to move patients or have had to say, hey, we're not able to do things. But we're learning that it's better to say that early or earlier than to wait till it's too late in the process. And so we're actually very fortunate to have an incredible amount of investment that's happened in our community.
SHAPIRO: Before we let you go, how are you and your family doing?
SHAH: Well, it took about an hour and 10 minutes for me to traverse with eight people in an SUV across sidewalks in front yards to be able to actually get out of our actual street this morning. And so we have just evacuated today. And so while we're also mindful of all the things that we personally are dealing with in our own lives, we're also wanting to make sure that we can respond appropriately to the community's needs. And so it's a really challenging situation for not just me but a lot of us out there - county, city, all the folks that are impacted because we are also part of the impacted group while we're also responding.
SHAPIRO: Dr. Shah, thank you very much for your time.
SHAH: Thank you, and thank you for asking about my family as well. I appreciate it, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Dr. Umair Shah is executive director of public health in Harris County, Texas.
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