Dr. David Persse

Dr. David Persse is the EMS Medical Director for the Houston Fire Department and the Public Health Authority in Houston. In these capacities he helped to coordinate the response to Hurricane Harvey. At the start of the conversation, Persse details his job responsibilities and how he coordinates with other local, state, and federal authorities during a disaster. He explains that it is sometimes frustrating that the local elected officials, who are the emergency managers in the community, have no medical experience and how it can lead to misunderstandings. Persse says that planning for disasters is the most important part of an emergency response, because best practices can be established from past experiences. The plan to respond to major flood events, as of 2017, did not involve the use of George R. Brown Convention Center (GRB) as a shelter because it had not worked well in the past. However, smaller shelters filled quickly, and organizers were forced to use GRB as a shelter even though there were no supplies pre-positioned at the convention center. Persse says that the federal government worked quickly to provide supplies for the shelter at GRB, but that they got stuck in Conroe due to flooded roads, and that the delay caused the shelter to operate on its own for a couple extra days. The shelter at GRB had more than 10,000 people staying there, which can easily lead to outbreaks of highly contagious diseases like norovirus. Persse points out that one of the major challenges of operating a shelter is closing the shelter, as some people cannot or do not want to leave. The housing department works with residents to find them a place to live in these cases. Persse stresses the importance of staying out of flood waters whenever possible because of the high levels of contamination from raw sewage and chemical waste. Injuries and infections are also common after a disaster ends, as people work to clean up and rebuild. Persse touches on the importance of communicating correct information with the public during a disaster, and details how misinformation can spread quickly. He says that he did not make any recommendations for future disasters because the city has a good idea of how to respond and no matter how much planning, there will still be changes for each new event. Persse talks about the pushback they received from volunteers who wanted to keep helping, even after official resources arrived. After years of consecutive flooding events, Houston EMS has developed a robust swift-water rescue team and purchases several high-water vehicles. Persse adds that the lesson learned from Harvey is that the local officials are going to have to work on their own in the first days of the disaster because federal response teams will take time to arrive. To end the conversation, Persse explains that it is important to understand the limits of the disaster response team.