Houston Health Department - Hurricane Harvey (2017)

In August 2017, the City of Houston was hit by Hurricane Harvey causing unexpected, widespread flooding throughout the city and surrounding areas. HHD conducted on-site and remote disease surveillance at shelters within the city. Syndromic surveillance played a meaningful role in monitoring outbreaks of diarrhea, dermatitis, and constitutional syndromes (fevers) amongst other syndromes. The Houston Electronic Disease Surveillance System (HEDSS), NSSP, and Real-time Outbreak Detection System (RODS) all contributed to the HHD’s capacity to conduct surveillance. In collaboration with the Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT) and shelter staff, HHD staff obtained information on shelter population health and monitored for infectious diseases. 

A shelter report was run twice daily to monitor shelters and an Incident Command Structure (ICS) report was generated once daily with qualitative and quantitative data. Data from pharmacy, sanitarians, cot-by-cot surveillance, medical examiner’s office, and syndromic surveillance were incorporated in the ICS report. These reports provided a comprehensive, daily informational brief for decision makers. 

Syndromic surveillance provided flashpoints of syndromes within shelters, served as evidence for the data that was reported, and was a useful tool in planning and decision making. It will also help in the future to identify issues that require proactive action steps taken in the event of a similar disaster. The surveillance records are now stored as a resource for future emergency situations.

The response to Hurricane Harvey showed the importance and value of utilizing technology in a public health disaster response. Adapting existing technologies in the work environment allowed epidemiologists and informaticians to collaboratively access and disseminate information in real-time.