HAYDEN HOLLINGSWORTH: The Great Flood of 1985

Hayden Hollingsworth

The disaster in Texas, particularly in Houston, is almost beyond imagining.  As flat as the landscape is the reach of an airborne lake is almost without limits.  Even given a week’s warning, there is no escaping.  Six million people could not be safely evacuated in a month, let alone a few days.  The impact will not be fully appreciated for weeks but in the meantime everyone should hope the loss of life will be kept to a minimum.

Flooding is not a common occurrence here but even the 100-year event pales in comparison to the truly flood-prone cities of which Houston is certainly the largest.  Our last major event was in 1985 and having been trapped in the middle of it, the memory does not seem 32 years old.

The ground had been saturated before the major rains came but the possibility of flooding had not caught the attention of the general populous.  The first clue was driving to Roanoke Memorial to make rounds and watching the manholes shooting geysers up from the sewers.  Concerned about traversing the surrounding streets which were already covered with an unknown depth, parking several blocks away seemed the only option.  A hike up the mountainside allowed entry to the sixth floor; water was already several feet deep in the lobby.

The crest was predicted for early evening which was a blessing.  Had it arrived in the middle of the night, the results could have been worse.  It soon became obvious that no one would be leaving the hospital that night, so we divided up into teams to make rounds on all floors using flashlights and whistles to direct care to areas of special need

In those days, the generators for the hospital were located in the basement and we had an hour’s warning that the front tower would lose power.  All surgery would have to be terminated before the power went off.  Operations barely begun had to be closed and the unfortunate patient awakening to find his chest had been split open and relieved to have survived the surgery soon found that the operation had not been done and would be recommenced when electricity was restored.

Standing in the elevator bank on the 12th floor the water rushing through the shafts far below was unsettling.  All the patients in the intensive care units had to be evacuated to other floors which required transporting them in chairs through several stairwells.  One such patient from Nashville had been removed from a tour bus that morning because of a heart attack.  Understandably upset, he had a cardiac arrest during the move and before he could be relocated to a suitable area for resuscitation, he died.

What little sleep that was had that night was on a gurney without brakes.  Every time one changed position the stretcher would roll giving the illusion that the hospital was falling into the flooding river.  By dawn the flood wave had passed and the lone car remaining in the front parking lot sat forlornly draining water from the passenger compartment.

The sun rose on schedule and some power was restored.  The hospital served a hot breakfast to the patients (a big number) and staff (just a few)).  There was a general sense of obvious relief and a bond of camaraderie that everyone had worked through the night to make the best of a bad situation. Less than a dozen people died in the Roanoke valley and only one in the hospital.

I had not thought of that night for years until the tragedy of Katrina and the horrors that took place at Charity Hospital. Yesterday, Ben Taub Hospital had to be evacuated; the details of that massive emergency as yet unknown.

The 1985 flood here led to a revamping of emergency procedures and we are better prepared for any future watery problems in the hospital.  The memory of that night should deepen our sense of empathy for the Texans who face days and months ahead that will change their lives forever.  Prayers will help; so will donations.

Hayden Hollingsworth