Newswise — At the height of heavy rainfall and high winds from Hurricane Harvey, engineering staff at Harris Health System’s Ben Taub Hospital were dealing with multiple leaks in the building. Rain was hitting the hospital sideways and finding its way in.

The team sealed up windows and ceilings, using plastic sheeting to funnel rainwater into buckets. However, the enormity of the storm was just beginning. During the 24-hour span (Aug. 26-27), Houston got pummeled with more than 26 inches of rain. Nearby Brays Bayou, a long-time rescuer of flooding in the Texas Medical Center, was now well over its banks and quickly engulfing Ben Taub Hospital and other medical center buildings.

Benny Stansbury, director, Facilities Management, and his 16-member team of engineering and facility management felt good about their work to keep the storm at bay. Their mettle would continue to be tested like never before. Word broke that the basement in the main building was taking on water—a plumbing line had ruptured.

The 6-inch pipe had broken with a 30-foot long gash and now spilling floodwater. The break made it impossible to patch up. Floodwaters from the bayou had overwhelmed street drains and now forcing its way into the hospital through its drainage system. Stansbury and his team knew it was serious.

“There’s a lot that goes through your mind at a time like that,” he says. “But one thing we had in mind is our patients, we knew that if we didn’t get it stopped, we were going to have to evacuate the hospital and that just doesn’t happen.”

He reached out to Houston city officials for help who turned on pumping stations to stop or reduce the backflow of water into the hospital. It worked. Within 30 minutes, the leak stopped and the crew erected plastic sheeting around the walls of the room to funnel any spillage into bins for disposal. City officials later told staff that if the pumps had not worked, many hospitals and buildings in the medical center would’ve faced similar pipe breaks.

Almost immediately, an army of staff and the engineering team placed sandbags in doorways, lifted supplies and equipment to higher ground and swept water. However, significant loss did occur—some food supplies, linens, pharmaceuticals and kitchen operations.   

Nearly five hours into the basement flooding, the team found out about another pipe break—this time in the basement of adjacent Ben Taub Tower, site of the main hospital’s laboratory services, telecommunications and medical records.

A cap had blown off a main drain because of the same intense floodwater pressure. A gushing geyser soon filled the sunken mechanical room and other parts of the basement—up to six feet in spots. Water levels got dangerously close—mere inches—to electrical panels and telecom consoles, which if damaged could’ve cut off all electricity to the tower and all telephone and computer services for the entire hospital. In essence, it would’ve forced the immediate shut down of Ben Taub Hospital.

“At one point, we didn’t know if we were going to be able to save the hospital,” Stansbury recalls. “Guys were all tired and wet. They were lined up against the wall and looked like they had gotten beat up. One guy said, ‘We can’t stop it. What are we going to do?’ I said, ‘You know, there’s a lot of experience in this room. You stop and think for a minute. Someone has to have some ideas.’”

They did. Soon they began rigging pumps and clamping the broken pipe. An engineer waded in the water on hands and knees to find the blown-off cap. Once found, they secured it and began clearing the water. The crew punched out walls and drilled holes—some through concrete blocks—to let the water escape into the building’s water retention pits. A scary part was avoiding electrocution—staff had to line up assembly-style to lift the electric hammer drill’s cord above the water.

“The initial thought from administration was we need to evacuate,” Stansbury remembers. “That’s when I came in and told them we got everything stopped, we contained everything and we’re managing it. We didn’t know we were going to be super engineers. It was a combined effort of everybody. You have a lot of people that have the same sense of urgency, and we did.”

Only a few patients were evacuated during the storm, and food supplies were brought in a couple of days later as flooding subsided. The hospital has resumed regular operations as it undergoes repairs.