South Texas VA works to get Victoria Clinic opened - South Texas Veterans Health Care System (STVHCS)
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South Texas VA works to get Victoria Clinic opened

A group of people looking at computers and mobile phones as part of the emergency operations center

The South Texas VA Incident Command System was activated once Hurricane Harvey's path was determined to make landfall in Texas. The main conference room was rapidly turned into the Emergency Operations Center. (VA photo by Lupe Hernandez)

By Steve Goetsch
Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The minute Tropical Storm Harvey loosened its grip on Victoria County, a team dispatched by the South Texas Veterans Health Care System (STVHCS) got to work assessing, and repairing any damage done to its Victoria Outpatient Clinic by the catastrophic storm.

The outpatient clinic located in Victoria, Texas, which has a population of 62,000, was hit hard by the storm forcing voluntary evacuations and a city-wide curfew.

The city is also home to a robust Veteran population of 3500.

The entire city lost power and water for several days. The storm proceeded east to Houston, which gave an opportunity for the team from San Antonio to make the 130-mile drive under sunny skies.

But they weren't completely out of the woods. The Guadalupe River continued to swell, and if they couldn't finish in a few hours, their path out of the city could be cut off.

With most members of the team being Veterans themselves, they viewed it as a mission, and themselves as the boots on the ground. They got to work instantly with priority one assessing what they were up against.

A clinic that normally runs at full capacity, was eerily quiet, with shadowy exam rooms and medical equipment cloaked under plastic. The electricians broke off and began the process of connecting two mobile generator sets they brought to the site. The first generator was up within a few minutes bringing power to half the building.

Like a relay team passing a baton, nurse Yolanda Ruiz and industrial hygienist Irene Herrera took that needed light and began the critical task of verifying pharmaceuticals.

Clinic pharmacy services are important because the civilian pharmacies in the area were still without power as of August 30.

Another mandatory function of a medical facility is computer access. Working by flashlight, IT specialist Adrian Ortega made the most of setting up a temporary computer network.

Communication is vital during crises. The Victoria Administrative Officer, Juanita Diaz, felt that frustration, sitting in her office, cupping her head in her hand and looking at the enormous task ahead. “The biggest challenges are keeping communication with staff,” Diaz said. “We had staff going to Austin, Louisiana, Midland and Houston.”

“It is just bad not knowing if your own families and extended VA family were OK,” she added.

A man sits in the dark working at a computer

IT Specialist Adrian Ortega works with the available sunlight creating a temporary internet infrastructure to bring the Victoria Outpatient Clinic back on line. Ortega even had to work by flashlight until other VA staff were able to install two generators and power the building. (VA photo by Steve Goetsch)

Several other carpenters, electricians and HVAC specialists worked diligently to get ventilation systems up in attempt to clear out any lingering moisture and mitigating additional damage.

The dedicated crew went through the building literally top to bottom, marking what damaged rooms would be useable for the return of services on August 31, and which ones would require additional cleaning and repairs.

At one point, South Texas VA construction team lead Bobby Martinez Jr. climbed onto the roof and found the source of the water. A large cooling unit was blown off its skids, creating a hole in the roof.

Once the building was deemed safe, it put the team on schedule to get the clinic reopened on August 31. Backfilled with staff from San Antonio, the Victoria Outpatient Clinic was successfully opened one week after Harvey rolled in, seeing about 20 patients those first few hours.

VA clerk, Gretchen Watson, whose husband went south to Refugio, Texas, to help family with their own property damage, stayed behind. “It’s good, it’s good to be back,” said Watson. “Although I’d like to be down there helping my family, I’d rather be helping Veterans here.”

That kind of dedication was not lost on the Victoria patients. Air Force Veteran and long-time Victoria patient Pat Mahurin, was appreciative to have the clinic reopened. “It saves me a lot because I have had 47 heart attacks in my lifetime,” Mahurin exclaimed.

Mahurin knows how difficult it can be getting back on track, earning his stripes through seven hurricanes while stationed in the Pacific.

Diaz, who also went through the Texas flood of 98, empathized with her fellow staff members and Veterans, and it brought a wave of emotions back to her. “Hurricane Harvey brought back some feelings of despair, with possible homelessness, and just not knowing if you’d have a home to go back to,” she said.

But Diaz found some solace through the balance of taking care of everyone. “I have my home and family to take care of and get it functional again,” Diaz explained. “I also had to ensure my VA family was OK, and that the patients would have somewhere to come to for medical assistance.”

A man looks intently at a cooling unit.

AC Maintenance Mechanic, Jerry Forey sets up several air conditioners throughout the building. After the hurricane passed through Victoria, high temperatures were just another hurdle the South Texas engineering team had to cope with to restore patient care to local area Veterans. (VA photo by Steve Goetsch)

One of those patients Diaz assisted was Marine Corps Veteran Pascual Salinas, who lauded the team’s efforts to reopen. “I am really glad they are back open,” Salinas said. “Especially seeing Joanne Martinez and the blue team.”

The clinic was again open on September 1 with limited hours, bolstered with staff from San Antonio while several Victoria employees repair the roof and structural damage to their homes.
If you are a Veteran, or know a Veteran who needs prescriptions, please call Heritage Health Solutions Veterans Help line at 1-866-265-0124, Monday-Friday from 7:00 a.m. - 9:00 p.m. and Saturday from 10:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.  to determine the closest participating retail pharmacy.
The representative will qualify the request by asking a few questions. No controlled medications will be processed under this program.

If a controlled medication is needed, or if Veterans have no refills they may contact their provider or Telecare Pharmacy at 1-866-265-0124, Monday – Friday from 7:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m.

To see photos of the South Texas VA team in action click the Hurricane Harvey VOPC album.

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