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This family’s hurricane tragedy highlights 911-system problems

You can read Dr. Sheri Fink's full story here.

When Hurricane Harvey hit with a fury not seen along the Gulf Coast in more than a decade, flooded roads stranded tens of thousands of people, including Wayne and Casey Dailey and their two sons. Their tragic ordeal is detailed in a New York Times Magazine story by journalist Sheri Fink, who talks with John Yang about why the emergency response system was overwhelmed.

Read the Full Transcript

  • John Yang:

    Tropical Storm Gordon heads toward the Gulf Coast just as Texas marks the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey.

    Many of the poorest residents in the Houston area are still trying to get the assistance they need. And there are other questions as well.

    Tonight, we look at how the emergency response system was overwhelmed, as told through one family's tragic ordeal.

    The storm hit with a fury not seen along the Gulf Coast in more than a decade; 27 trillion gallons of rain poured on to Texas and Louisiana in just six days. At the storm's peak, more than a third of Houston was underwater. Flooded roads stranded tens of thousands of people, among them, Wayne Dailey, his wife, Casey, and their two sons.

    Casey had just returned home to their trailer park outside of Houston after surgery to remove a benign tumor. Local officials initially decided against mass evacuations. Harvey presented an enormous this test for the region's 911 system and how it dealt with urgent medical crises like the Daileys.

    Their tragic story is detailed in a New York Times magazine report, "Lost in the Storm."

    I spoke with the author, Sheri Fink. She's both a journalist and a physician.

  • Sheri Fink:

    The storm bears down and their street is — starts to fill with water. And they — but they have a lot of preparations. They're used to this kind of thing.

    There was a fear that, if there were mass evacuations, people would just get trapped on the roads, like they did after Tropical Storm Allison in 2001. So Wayne had done, like, as much as any of us can do.

  • John Yang:

    Wayne recorded the rising floodwaters. As the rain worsened, so did Casey's pain and complications. Wayne decided she needed to go back to the hospital by helicopter.

    On Monday afternoon, he called 911 and got the sheriff's office.

  • 911 Operator:

    OK, do you need medical, or is this for a water rescue?

  • Wayne Dailey:

    This is for a water rescue.

    My wife recently had surgery last Wednesday. She had a tumor removed from her left kidney. And she has been very sick. She's been vomiting for the past day-and-a-half constantly. And she is in severe pain. And I don't want her to get into this water in her sutures. She needs to get airlifted to a hospital.

    OK? I do know that Coast Guard is out doing air rescues right here in my neighborhood.

  • John Yang:

    Since it was not a police emergency, the call was transferred to fire and ambulance. But the second operator cut Wayne off before he could give key information about Casey's worsening condition.

    As a result, Casey was not listed as a medical emergency.

  • 911 Operator:

    OK, we do have over 1,000 calls for service in this area for assistance with evacuation. And as soon as the fire department is able to make it to this area, then you will be evacuated, OK?

  • Wayne Dailey:

    OK, thank you very much.

  • Sheri Fink:

    So when he called back and called back again, he kept getting classified as a water rescue call.

    Now, that did have an effect. It was pushed down to the local fire department. They — there were so many calls that it just went into their computer system. Once it moves into that response phase, the local fire department was in charge of rescues.

    However, that fire department did not have any boats. It didn't have any high-water vehicles. So it had to just try to coordinate as best as it could with volunteers who had boats, untrained volunteers. And they just couldn't be everywhere.

    And because Wayne's call didn't get prioritized, it didn't end up being one that they went out to.

  • John Yang:

    It wasn't until Wayne's fourth call to 911, nearly a day after the first, that Casey situation was recognized as a medical emergency.

    But emergency responders still couldn't get to her.

  • Sheri Fink:

    They never got up the steps to what Wayne asked for in his very first phone call, which was a rescue helicopter. And it just — all those various points in the chain were not set up to really work together. The communications broke down.

    And, as a result, they waited and waited for help as she got sicker.

  • John Yang:

    A paramedic called Wayne and told him to flag down any boat he could. Volunteers eventually loaded Casey onto their boat and, with great difficulty, managed to reach a state high-water dump truck that could reach an ambulance. But it was too late.

    Casey died on the way to the hospital. She was 38 years old.

    Sheri Fink says the Daileys' tragedy illustrates the problems of a 911 system that has not yet entered the digital age. An Internet-based system could automatically redistribute calls to less overwhelmed call centers, allow people to send pictures and videos to 911, and prioritize needs like Casey's.

  • Sheri Fink:

    We think of it as 911, but it's a very, like, localized system. And, shockingly, it's primarily analogue-based. It doesn't have a lot of flexibility. There's a recognition that we need to move to sort of Internet protocol-based systems, but because it's public safety and it tends to be underfunded, that hasn't happened a lot.

    As a result, the call centers became the backup point. There were just so many call-takers who could take these calls as the call volumes went up four times, five times, up to 10 times normal. And when those calls started backing up, the call-takers just gave up those protocols that help them do that crucial thing, which is to prioritize who needs help the most.

  • John Yang:

    In your reporting, did you get any sense that there are lessons learned from Harvey?

  • Sheri Fink:

    Well, hopefully, there will be.

    What we haven't sort of talked publicly about too much is, will our systems be able to prioritize any of us who might have a medical emergency at home in the midst of a disaster?

    And that is just critical from the first step of 911, all the way through to the response and all the levels of the response, to figure that out, to have a solid plan in place, and invest in the kinds of resources that would allow the systems to do that, because I was told from the county — one of the high officials that was their goal.

    Their goal was to prioritize people who had a life-threatening situation in the midst of a massive disaster. It should — there should be a way to do that. There were so many resources, so many people who wanted to help.

    It was that communication piece, getting that information through that really failed here.

  • John Yang:

    The full story can be found on The New York Times website.

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