Friday, September 16, 2005

Update on Reliant Park

We can no longer call it Update on the Dome, because the Dome has been cleared out and residents moved to the smaller Reliant Arena to shield them from public view in anticipation of the Houston Texans season opener at Reliant Stadium. Clearing the Dome, of course, is great. You may recall from earlier posts that there were three shelter facilities in the Astrodome/Reliant Complex: The Astrodome, Reliant Center, and Reliant Arena. Of the three, Reliant Center was definitely the cleanest, safest, and best run. It had a reasonably nice play area and library for children and plenty of room for clothing and food distribution, as well as a press room and offices for other services that needed to be provided for evacuees and administrators/organizers. However, the shelter chosen for consolidating all evacuees in Reliant Park was the smaller Reliant Arena. As the first evacuees were moved in Wednesday night to a part of the building that could best be described as looking like an indoor parking structure, evacuee tensions were running high.

As of this afternoon, Reliant Arena is already filled to capacity. It does not have enough room for the remaining evacuees and the service providers that need to be with them in the building (medical, informational, food service, etc.). Again, officials are to be commended for moving evacuees out of the Astrodome. However, it's a shame that Reliant Arena was chosen as the place to consolidate all remaining evacuees instead of the far more welcoming Reliant Center, especially in light of the Arena's obvious space limitations. If one were to inquire as to the reason for choosing a facility too small to hold all evacuees and service providers, we suspect the reason might be -- as it has in the past -- something along the lines of "insufficient time to plan."

The cut in medical services has caused some predictable problems at the Arena that we've witnessed firsthand. At this point, though, recounting individual tragedies is just traumatic and -- in this particular case -- unnecessary in light of the news story below. More medical problems are predicted at Reliant Arena in addition to the predictable strain on the already-strained Houston emergency care system. Following is a story from the local ABC affiiate describing the problems.

The main clinic at the Reliant shelter closed its doors on Thursday and for the first time Houston's emergency rooms will be put to the test, to see how they can handle the additional people. Already there are concerns about increased wait times for patients.

First of all, Houston emergency physicians say if you have a medical emergency, go to the emergency room. That's where you need to be. But if your medical problem isn't an emergency, be prepared to wait.

Doctors from the Texas Medical Center built the Astrodome clinic from the ground up in just 8-12 hours. Baylor doctors were proud of what they did, but it was also a calculated way to prevent Houston's overloaded emergency rooms from drowning.

"We all expect we will be getting lots of patients," said Dr. Joan Shook, Director of Texas Children's Hospital Emergency Center.

With the Astrodome clinic closing, emergency rooms like Texas Children's are bracing themselves.

Dr. Shook said, "We're gearing up for larger volumes. In effect, Houston has a whole new little city transplanted onto it without a whole new healthcare infrastructure, so these families will be seeking care in emergency departments."

Already, the Texas Children's ER has seen a spike in the number of patients. Typically 210 patients a day are treated in the ER. Now it's 260 a day. That can mean long, long waits.

"I think for relatively minor illness, it could be as long as 8-10 hours and not just here -- at other hospitals as well," Dr. Shook explained.

There is advice for Houstonians.

"I would recommend to families they access their primary care provider or community clinic before they try the emergency system," Dr. Shook advised.

And to new residents from Louisiana and Mississippi she suggests finding a clinic before they get sick.

She said, "They might be able to find a clinic or primary care provider close to where they're living rather than having to go to the emergency department."

Also with so many living in shelters, doctors are worried about infections -- especially hepatitis A.

"We are looking for an outbreak of hepatitis A," said Dr. Shook. "We don't know that it's going to happen but it's reasonable to assume it might. So we're preparing for that possibility. We also expect more diarrhea."

Doctors are also watching to find any increase in tuberculosis, meningococcal disease, even the super staph infections -- any illness that can be transmitted in close quarters.

I (Tracy) have to say that my "favorite" part about this story is that it wasn't news when medical services began shutting down Monday night and having an immediate effect on evacuees. It was only news when the warning had to go out to Houstonians explaining how it would effect them directly. Priceless.


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