‘When a hurricane comes, we don’t leave town, we go to work’

Irishman Paul O’Sullivan is CEO of a 450-bed hospital in the hurricane-hit city

Paul O’Sullivan with his daughter Rachel and wife Mary: ‘However big Harvey may have been, the hearts of Houstonians are bigger.’

Paul O’Sullivan with his daughter Rachel and wife Mary: ‘However big Harvey may have been, the hearts of Houstonians are bigger.’

 

My wife and I are both from Cork and nearly 17 years ago we set out for what we planned to be a three-year stay in Houston. Today we’re proud to call Houston and Texas home. Over that time we’ve experienced Tropical Storm Alison, Hurricane Ike and now Harvey. We stayed here for many reasons, not least for the incredible community spirit that we’ve seen again and again over the past five days.

We’re healthcare people. Unlike some, when a hurricane comes calling we don’t leave town, we go to work. I’m the CEO of a 450-bed hospital in Houston. Our our family’s Hurricane Harvey experience began in the middle of last week, when like so many times before, word spread of a tropical depression in the Gulf of Mexico.

This happens a lot. We know the drill. Houstonians are no strangers to tropical weather and essential services providers like hospitals have well-oiled plans that we implement at the prospect of a hurricane strike.

We stocked up on food, drugs and supplies, called in our ride-out team and secured our building, ready to take care of our neighbours in their time of need.

Unlike during Alison and Ike, my wife, who is a pediatrician, wasn’t scheduled to work this weekend, so after I hugged her and headed out to work, she took charge of preparing our house for the storm in much the same manner as we do at the hospital, albeit on a smaller scale. Like I said, Houstonians know how to do hurricanes.

The first hint that this wasn’t the average hurricane came on Saturday night with rain that came down in sheets for 12 solid hours. At home, we saw water in our street rise more than a foot in little more than an hour, and still continue to rise, creeping inside our garage and peaking at a depth of 16 inches. Mercifully, our house sits over ground level so we stayed dry. Most of our neighbours were not so lucky, and suffered significant damage with up to three feet of water inside their houses.

Then it continued to rain, for three more days.

The view outside Paul O’Sullivan’s house, before and after Hurricane Harvey.
The view outside Paul O’Sullivan’s house, before and after Hurricane Harvey.

The challenges in a hospital are different. We had to provide 24/7 care using just the resources at hand. Our team worked rotating 12-hour shifts caring for patients, sleeping on floors when they were not working. Sleep, work, sleep work. For four solid days, they cared for others while wondering about the safety of their own loved ones and homes.

Even now, while Harvey is leaving the Houston region, reservoirs are overflowing, flooding the homes of many of those who had spent their time putting the needs of others ahead of their own.

Yet the spirit of my fellow Houstonians shines through. As the weather finally allowed new nurses and doctors to replace our ride-out team, those leaving the hospital hugged each other and said goodbye with a smile. I spent a long time on Wednesday evening thanking them for their sacrifice and saying goodbye. One nurse said to me, “this is my passion - I’m meant to be here”. Then she headed home to see how her house and family had fared.

When I eventually made it home to see how Harvey had impacted my own home, I found us to be among the lucky ones with only minor damage. Almost as soon as I arrived, there was a knock at the door and an invitation from my next-door neighbour to come for dinner. After 48 hours at work with only six hours sleep, we weren’t going to refuse the invitation.

Our family spent our first post-Harvey night at home gathered around the table with three other families from our street, some of whom had lost their homes. For all the loss and damage, we celebrated friendship, helped find places to stay for those who needed them, organised the washing of clothes for those who no longer had washing machines, and sorted out countless other details that need to be addressed when recovering from a catastrophic weather event.

Whether in the tired smiles of nurses going home after days of caring for patients, or the kindness of neighbours helping each other recover with anything from a roof for the homeless to a home-cooked meal for the exhausted, the people here show that however big Harvey may have been, the hearts of Houstonians are bigger. Houston will be back. Bigger, better, stronger. #Houstonstrong.

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