‘It Really Was All Hands on Deck.’ How Federal Health Officials Responded to Hurricane Harvey

As the floodwaters recede in Houston, the focus has turned from emergency response to cleanup and recovery.

Among the federal agencies looking to help the city bounce back is the Department of Health and Human Services, which is doing everything from to helping run pop-up hospital units to moving patients from the storm’s path.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price visited Texas with President Trump on Aug. 29, and he plans to go again in the coming weeks. He’s also looking ahead to the federal response to Hurricane Irma, which is headed toward Puerto Rico and Southern Florida.

Price spoke with TIME in the Secretary’s Operations Center, aka, “The SOC,” at HHS headquarters on Tuesday evening. The SOC serves as the HHS hurricane nerve center, where Price is briefed twice a day on the emergency and recovery efforts. Screens cover the walls and track everything from current electrical outages in Texas and Louisiana to which pharmacies and hospitals are open or closed.

This interview has been lightly edited for length.

What is the plan for Houston and the surrounding area in terms of the contaminants in the water?

We go through a methodical process in these activities. Obviously the first phase is the redeployment to get ready for the storm, and then it’s the rescue and life-saving activities, and then it is the recovery activities, and part of the recovery activity especially with a storm of this degree is what to do with the standing water that remains, and then what to do with everything that was affected by the flooding which is a massive area. The challenges from a health standpoint are the bacteria and viruses that thrive in marine environments, contaminants, chemical contaminants from wherever the floodwater was, those chemicals can leach into the water. The biggest thing is the mold that exists afterward once the water recedes. In homes and businesses, everything that was covered with the water is subject to mold. Along with FEMA, who directs the recovery phase, our job is to make sure that those issues are addressed. From a bacteria and a viral standpoint, those folks that were exposed to it and were seen in the evacuation center, in the shelter, we’ve seen over 3,000 patients in the health centers with our folks since Harvey started. The majority of those are not related to the flooding itself, but there are some, there are rashes, diarrhea, you get bacterial components from the place where the water has been, so you get E. coli infections and the like that give diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, and then we will be working with FEMA on the mold to make sure people are as protected as possible as they clean out their homes.

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So is it just FEMA taking the lead on handling the contaminants in the water and the aftermath of that?

EPA tests the water to determine what is in the water. We test the water as well for bacteria and for other contaminants. It is EPA’s lead on the chemical contaminants, our lead is on the medical contaminants, on the bacterial contaminants, and the virus and the mold. We take care of the preparation for and the treatment of the medical challenges that occur. It is a team effort. FEMA is the lead in all of this, but our role is to make certain that people are as protected as possible whether it is through vaccination, if we get an outbreak of something that can be protected by vaccination, whether it is through just the normal educational process of letting…

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