Dr. Max Heimlich is veterinarian at Stuebner Airline Veterinary Hospital in northwest Houston, which flooded during Hurricane Harvey. Heimlich says that growing up in Ohio, he was not prepared for a natural disaster on the scale of Harvey, but that he has lived through many storms while in Houston. Heimlich was at the hospital on the Friday before the floods began, and says he elevated all the computers in the office in case water got in the building.
He recalls that he expected it to rain, but while watching news coverage of the storm, he was in disbelief about how slow the storm was moving. All of the animals that were being treated or boarded at the hospital had been moved to the second floor of the hospital to protect them from the four feet of water that inundated the hospital. Heimlich explains that the first thing the hospital did was call the owners of the pets in their care to let them know that their pet was safe and being moved to a new location if they wanted to come pick up the pet.
He recalls feeling numb when he saw the damage to the hospital, which was built twelve inches above the 500-year flood plain. However, Heimlich was not present for the evacuation of the animals at the hospital because he was flooded in at his house. When it was time to repair the building, Heimlich says that all the employees helped as well as some clients. During the rebuilding process, other animal hospitals gave space for Heimlich and his staff to continue their practice. The hospital reopened ahead of schedule, on December 18, 2017. Heimlich notes that he does not believe there is anything they can do to prevent the hospital from flooding again, and that he was encouraged by the help he and his staff received from the community.
Interviewee: Dr. Max Heimlich
Interview Date: October 31, 2018
Interview Location: Stuebner Airline Veterinary Hospital
Interviewer: Zalma Cruz
INTERVIEWER: Today is October 31, 2018. This is Zalma Cruz with Debbie Harwell’s Voices of the Storm Class. We are at Stuebner Airline Veterinary Hospital recording for the Harvey Memories Project. We have Dr. Heimlich joining us today.
ZC: We will begin with a few general questions. And then we will discuss your experience during Hurricane Harvey.
ZC: What is your name?
MH: My name is Max Heimlich.
ZC: And where were you born?
MH: I was born in Ohio — in a small town.
ZC: And what was your childhood like?
MH: I was raised in a small town. Both my grandparents were dairy farmers, so we spent a lot of time on the farm.
ZC: What was your reason for becoming a veterinarian?
MH: I think because I grew up in a farming community that that’s what I always wanted to do. I don’t ever remember wanting to do anything but be a veterinarian [0:01:00].
ZC: So when you entered school, how was that like, especially going to Ohio State?
MH: I don’t know. I just — I enjoyed, you know, school, you know, especially once we got into vet — once I got into veterinary school, because I graduated. And then I actually went into the Peace Corps. And I worked with beef cattle in the Peace Corps for two years. And then after the Peace Corp, I went to veterinary school.
ZC: You said you went to veterinary school. How long did that take?
MH: Well, four years of undergraduate work, and then veterinary school is four years as well. So it’s eight years of college all together.
ZC: And you said you went to Peace Corps?
ZC: Did that ignite even more certainty for you to become a veterinarian?
MH: It just substantiated that’s what I wanted to do more than anything else.
ZC: Okay, and then outside of your job, are there any interests you like to do?
MH: Well, I love anything outdoors, so I love fishing, you know [0:02:00]. And I just love being outdoors in general — and kayaking. I used to a lot of that, so.
ZC: Prior to moving to Houston, you said you were from Ohio. Is there anything that prepared you for a natural disaster?
MH: Not really. I guess what prepared me more than anything, not for a natural disaster but for what life throws at you, was being in the Peace Corps. Because there, I worked with beef cattle farmers. And you know, I lived in a grass hut. We didn’t have running water. We didn’t have toilets. We didn’t have anything, so that kind of just prepared me in general that you can get through anything.
ZC: Now that Hurricane Harvey has passed, did that affect you when you had to deal [0:03:00] with all the tasks afterwards?
MH: Well, Hurricane Harvey definitely affected me, but at that moment, it was like you just go and you do what you have to do. All the tasks that we had to do — finding a place to at least practice veterinary medicine, you know, for every day for a few hours a day, being able to set things up so that we could continue keeping our employees employed until, you know, all the, you know, renovations were finished at the — you know, at the veterinary hospital.
ZC: So when Hurricane Harvey was making its way to Houston, were you present here at the hospital?
MH: Yes, I was here Friday all day long, and I was the last doctor to leave Friday evening. So knowing that hurricane was there and actually affecting us with rain, I actually [0:04:00] — we put all the computers up. We elevated all the computers. We elevated all of the things that we could physically pick up. And we put them on desks or countertops so that just in case we flooded that we would be prepared for it.
ZC: News outlets were also broadcasting the storm. It was mostly accurate.
ZC: What was your reaction of the impact of the hurricane? Did you expect it to be as strong or less strong?
MH: No, I did not expect — I expected it to rain. I expected that the wind would not affect us all that much, because you know, we’ve been through other hurricanes. I’ve been in the same area right across the street. I started in 1978, so this is a new building built in 2014. So we’ve always been here, and you know, we’ve been through different hurricanes, different tropical storms. So [0:05:00] it was just a matter of always kind of being prepared but never believing anything like that would really happen. So with the news media saying that the storm was moving at 2 miles an hour and then 1 mile an hour, I kept thinking, “This can’t really happen.” So I didn’t want to believe the news.
ZC: You said you put all the computers up on desktops, on countertops. What about the animals?
MH: Oh, the animals came to our second story. So all the animals were housed on the second story.
ZC: And was that a difficult task? You know, these are patients, so how did you communicate with families?
MH: We always have the phone numbers, so we started calling the people and telling them that we were moving their pets to the second floor. So in case there was flooding — because at that point, we didn’t believe that we would ever flood. So it was just a matter of preparing. And it [0:06:00] was just — it was actually a routine. It wasn’t really a thought that, “Oh, we’re really going to flood.” We just want to be safe. We want the pets to be safe.
ZC: Is there a total number? Or do you have a record of how many pets you evacuated that day?
MH: Yes, you know, we do have a record. I think there were 44 total pets that we had that we had to evacuate. And that, of course, was after it flooded. So in order to evacuate, there were 15 boats that came in to the back area. And we have a back stairs that goes down, so all the animals were in cages. So we carried all the animals out onto boats. And then the boats went at a point on Stuebner Airline where they could then leave the animals. And they would come back and pick up more animals.
ZC: I know you said there were 44. By any chance, was there a stray animal [0:07:00] that was just brought in that you keep in here?
MH: No, nuh-uh. All the ones that we had here were accounted for. They were all patients, or they were all boarding, you know, pets. So we knew everybody that was here.
ZC: And you said you were working Friday morning.
MH: No. Yeah, Friday all day, right.
ZC: Friday all day. And were you the only doctor? I know there are probably other workers here.
MH: Right, there were — there were three other — well, there were two other doctors all day Friday. I just had the later shift, so I’m the doctor that left last. And then Saturday morning, Doctor Whitmore came in even though we weren’t open because of the storm. So he came in to kind of make sure everything was organized in case it was flooding. So then he was the doctor that actually was here when it came up into the — started coming up into the building.
ZC: How many inches of rain did you receive [0:08:00]?
MH: Of rain or floodwater?
MH: We had just right at 48 inches of flood water in our downstairs.
ZC: Four feet?
MH: Four feet. That meant all the computers that I put up all got flooded. So all the equipment — everything that we put up on counters — all of it got flooded. So we lost all the equipment. We lost all the computers.
ZC: So you said Saturday was closed. The only doctor to come in was Dr. Whitmore.
ZC: What was the hospital’s first step?
MH: The hospital’s first step at that point was to contact the owners again to — when it was actually starting to flood to tell them that they animals were all safe. The animals were all fed. We had the employees that had done all of that. And I believe they left in the afternoon — the employees, after contacting all of the [0:09:00], you know, clients — all the owners. And then they came back, it would have been, on Sunday with the boats. And that’s how we got them all out. And at that point, then they contacted the owners again to tell them where their pet was and if, you know, they could come get it, they wanted them to. But if they were out of town – many people couldn’t get into the area – then the animals were safe. We were able to transport them to another boarding facility. So that was good.
ZC: You said that a lot of animals had parents and families that were out of town.
ZC: Did you have a schedule of how many times you should inform them about their animals and if they were okay by any chance?
MH: No, not a specific — like when they’re — not anything specific on a routine basis. But when — you know, there’s an actual potential disaster, then it was just a response that we always do.
ZC: What emotion did you feel when you saw that there were [0:10:00] four feet of flood water in this hospital?
MH: I actually just felt numbness. I couldn’t believe it, because since 1978 being in this area, we’ve experienced high waters. We’ve never experienced flooding in our hospital. We know that Cypresswood flooded. We know that homes had flooded before, but you know, we were never near flooding ever. So — and actually, we made sure — when we built this building, we built 12 inches above the 500-year floodplain. So it wasn’t — it was just something I never dreamed — I just never dreamed it would happen ever.
ZC: What is something you clearly remember? This can be while volunteering or just getting the animals to a safer facility. What are some examples that you [0:11:00] remember?
MH: For me, since I was actually flooded in my home — my home didn’t flood. I just couldn’t leave. It was like an island. I just remember Dr. Whitmore sending me text pictures of the clinic and of the water. And it was like — I thought, “This really — this just can’t be.” So — and then they showed pictures of the people carrying the animals in crates down the stairs to boats. It’s just like something you see in a movie. It’s not your — it’s not really your place. You’re thinking, “This can’t be my business.”
ZC: You said Dr. Whitmore was here. You were at your home.
ZC: There were people trying to get the pets from one place to another. Who was here helping you?
MH: Well, Nan, who is head of boarding and daycare [0:12:00] was the main person, because she lives on Stuebner Airline. Her house was not flooded. And they live in an area that has a lot of acreage, and they have a barn. So she coordinated everything — getting the trucks that — you know, once the animals got out of the building and — you know, on the street on Stuebner Airline, then she coordinated all those trucks to get the animals to the — to her barn the first night. And then the next day, she coordinated it to get all the animals to different boarding facilities, so they would have the regular care they’re used to. So she did a big job, and there were probably — I think there were four or five other employees that were able to get in and help out.
ZC: On a scale of 1 through 10, how bad did you think the hurricane affected your hospital?
MH: I guess [0:13:00] — I guess I would say that I’d be at an 8, because we did have the roof. We did have — you know, one part of our hospital has two floors. And the second floor was fine, but the majority of the hospital — 80% of the hospital was on the first floor. And of course, all of that was destroyed, so the first time I got to see the hospital was when the company that came in — and they tore out all the sheetrock, all the cabinets, everything that was in here. So when I came, everything from six feet down was just stud walls. You could look from one end of the clinic to the other end of the clinic. And that was like — it was just like, “Oh, gosh. We’re rebuilding it.” It’s just like three years prior to when we moved in.
ZC: You said that a lot of — you know [0:14:00], there were only five workers here with Ms. Nan.
ZC: How did you communicate with the other workers?
MH: It was really all through text messaging, because you know, with cell phones, a lot of times the phone lines you can’t get through on, but the texting you could. So that’s how all of it transpired.
ZC: Was there any difficulty at a time where you just couldn’t reach anyone?
MH: Not really. We could always contact it seemed like. We’d get ahold of somebody, you know, who had first-hand knowledge.
ZC: What were your first initial thoughts of the damage that was made within the first floor?
MH: I just thought, “This is just devastation. This is all the equipment. Everything that we just moved in three years earlier is gone.”
ZC: Who were the first ones to volunteer at the hospital when it was being rebuilt?
MH: I [0:15:00] tell you. Every single employee that we had was here to help get — when the company that comes in to tear everything out, you still have to take out anything that’s up — that’s high that’s salvageable and all of our stainless-steel cages. So every single employee came in that we have to help out. And then we had clients that were driving by that would see that we were working. And we had several clients – multiple clients, actually – stop and pitch in and help us.
ZC: You said most of your workers were here. Clients were here helping on deck. Were there pets still in here? Or were they in another facility?
MH: No, they were completely gone at that point. You know, we were doing that, because we got them transported out before any — you know, anything as far as tearing anything out, you know [0:16:00]. All the pets were gone.
ZC: So was rebuilding taking place like a week or so after Hurricane Harvey? Or was there —
MH: There was only a period of about a week that the building sat here — then the company that came in that tore all the sheetrock out, and then they have the big dryers up. So it had to sit empty with all the sheetrock gone and everything for about three weeks to completely dry it. And then, you know, it started to be rebuilt. And we were very fortunate, because one of the contractors who we’ve used over the years was actually on site. So he was able to coordinate things and get rebuilding started right away. It was really a — it was almost a miracle, because he was just here. And he just called his subcontractors. He got all of them lined up, and I mean, they started right away — as soon as the building was dry.
ZC: [0:17:00] What was the hardest resource to receive? You had clients on deck. You had all these hands. What was the hardest resource?
MH: You know, I can’t say anything was — we were just really fortunate to get every subcontractor at that point in doing what they needed to do. As far as the resource goes, the hardest thing was — because we did not have any flood insurance. Because, you know, we didn’t — you know, it was required by the mortgage company. And we just assumed we would never flood. You know, FEMA and the SBA are very good in that they come in, they have the money, they try to help. The problem runs into time management.
We — you know, we went [0:18:00] out and took out individual bank loans just to get the building started, so — you know, in our name, which was fine. But we still don’t have all the money from the loan through FEMA and SBA yet. We still don’t have all the money, and it’s been, you know, 14 months. So we’re still trying to pay on things that — you know, rather than one lump sum loan. So it just gets — I’m sure they get overwhelmed with the number of natural disasters, but it just becomes very frustrating. Because you know, you have all these outstanding debts, and you’re trying to pay them. And you know, the federal government is telling you, you know, “We’ve approved you. You have the money. We just — we can’t send it yet. We need this. We need that.” And I understand all of that, but every time we send it, they say, “Oh, we need this, this.” And we thought, “Well, why don’t you tell us all at once what you need [0:19:00]?” But that’s not the way it’s done. So that’s the most difficult part of it — is just, you know, coordinating of all the monies.
ZC: Although some of your hospital was not completely open, how did you manage to still work?
MH: There, again, we have wonderful people in Houston. We had two veterinary hospitals that volunteered to — that we could work out of an exam room in each of those. So that gave us two exam rooms that we could see our daily patients out of. It was very difficult to do much surgery, but we were able to see daily patients. We were able to keep our employees working. And we were able to pay our employees, you know, 40 hours a week even though, you know, they couldn’t work that, because we didn’t have the space. But we just had to retain our employees, because you know, people — you have a natural disaster. I mean, they have their livelihood. They can’t just stop working and not have an income.
ZC: And what were [0:20:00] those two hospitals names, the one that helped you?
MH: Enchanted Oaks, which is on Louetta, and Northwest, which is on FM 1960, which is Cypresswood Parkway. Is that what they call it now?
ZC: I just call it FM 1960.
MH: FM 1960, yes. Those were the two places that just were wonderful. I mean, they — and you know what? It was a real inconvenience for them. It had to have been an inconvenience for them, but they were just so wonderful to allow us to do that. They really were. They were wonderful.
ZC: So while they were taking your clients for the moment, what were you doing here during the time after with the rebuilding?
MH: We were — we had a — we rented a trailer and did vaccines out in our parking lot. But as far as what goes on in the building, there was nothing that we could do as doctors or employees [0:21:00].
ZC: And did you have a schedule for the vaccine shots outside?
MH: Yes, uh-huh.
ZC: What was the schedule?
MH: Yeah, we had a schedule. Well, what we did was every doctor — there were four of us, so we rotated. One doctor worked the vaccine clinic all week. One doctor worked at Northwest. One doctor worked at Enchanted Oaks. The other doctor then was responsible for coming to the hospital at the rebuilding, finding if they needed anything, making sure everything was going alright. So we rotated on that.
ZC: So you said there’s a lot of you involved in the opening. Was there a certain date you wanted to reopen the hospital to the community?
MH: Well, yeah, we really wanted to open by January 1st or right around there. And we actually opened the 18th of December. And it wasn’t really fully operational, but that’s when we moved in and started seeing clients.
ZC: [0:22:00] Earlier, you said you did not expect this hospital to flood, because you built it on a 500-year floodplain. Can you say you’re proud where your hospital stands right now?
MH: Well, yes, I mean, very much so. You know, it’s a great area, and life goes on.
ZC: If you could give any advice to pet owners when a hurricane comes in the future, what would you say to them?
MH: Well, first, always prepare. And that would mean for your pet to make sure that you have some sort of ID on the pet or a microchip under the skin on the pet, so the pet can be identified if for some reason you have to be evacuated and they cannot take the pet or if the pet escapes when you’re trying to evacuate in a hurry. That’s the single most important thing. Other things to prepare for is to make sure they have bottled water and they have a small amount of food for their pet — and a crate or a [0:23:00] cage, imperative.
ZC: So those are for people just to prepare?
ZC: Would you also recommend maybe picking up the pets before a hurricane comes or just leaving them?
MH: Not necessarily, because you know, what I’ve learned from this is you don’t know what area is going to flood and what area is not going to flood.
ZC: And so you do recommend at the hospital?
ZC: After the hurricane did pass, did you feel like hospital should make any changes? And if so, what were they?
MH: Not really. There wasn’t really any change that I’d make, because you know, we did the — we prepared in every way that we could prepare other than building it another six foot higher.
ZC: You said there weren’t any changes. And you know, this is a group, teamwork effort.
ZC: Do other people [0:24:00] have any ideas that they want to make changes in the future?
MH: As far as the building?
ZC: Yeah, as far as the building goes just to prevent it from flooding next time in the future.
MH: I don’t know of anything that we can do to prevent flooding, because we looked at — we talked about getting barriers that you can actually store. And you know, they blow up. Anyway, but the problem is that when it floods four feet, it’s like way beyond anything you could — that I know that you could do.
ZC: And how did you feel when you finally opened for the community? And what was that day like? What do you remember?
MH: Well, all I remember was there was a big relief, because it was very stressful working out of another office. It was very stressful not being able to put your hands on everything that you need. So when we moved back in [0:25:00], it was just like, “Oh, my gosh. I’m home again.” And it was really a relief.
ZC: My question was did you celebrate.
MH: Well, we did. We celebrated although we didn’t celebrate until September. And what we did was we invited the Northwest Hospital employees and doctors and the Enchanted Oak Hospital and doctors — staff to come. And we had a big party downstairs for food and stuff. And it was really fun. It was actually fun.
ZC: Although this was a setback for the Stuebner Airline Veterinary Hospital, was there anything positive that came out of it?
MH: I think there’s always positives. I think the positive reaffirms that people care about each other. You know, the other veterinarians in the area that shared their facility, the clients that stopped by [0:26:00] to work, the clients that donated, you know. I mean, we had clients donate money. We had clients that they just cared. They cared that something happened to us. So the positive is it just reinforces that — you know, we have lots. I’m sure certain number of people are not very good people, but we have a whole ton of people that are wonderful. We really do.
ZC: You said that you celebrated and that you were happy. The first year of Hurricane Harvey has just passed. How did that feel?
MH: It’s like you don’t really want to think about it. You really don’t.
ZC: And my final question would be — by any chance, did you receive more people to come in with the acknowledgement that Hurricane Harvey had destroyed it? Did you receive more patients [0:27:00]?
MH: That’s kind of hard to trace, but I think — I don’t think so. I think we just basically — our clients all came back to us. And you know, we just kind of picked up from there. I mean, we were very blessed and very fortunate that, you know, we just — once we moved back in, it just seemed like it all started up where it left off. And that was amazing.
ZC: And you said you’ve been living here since the 1970s.
ZC: And this storm was something new. Did you gain something for the future? Is there something you learned through this storm?
MH: Yeah, I’ve learned that you never say never — ever. That — because you just don’t know. And no matter how much you prepare, you have to realize things can still go wrong. But that doesn’t mean that, you know, it’s the end of your life. Things will go wrong. You just hang in there.
ZC: When Hurricane Harvey passed, this big notion [0:28:00] — the big quote, Houston Strong, was created. What does Houston Strong mean to you?
MH: Well, it means to me that the people of Houston come together and they help each other out. And they really do. And they care. They really care about each other.
ZC: Before we wrap up, is there anything you’d like to add?
MH: Gosh, it was just kind of a whirlwind in that it flooded. And all of the sudden, it’s like a year later. It just — time passed really quickly.
ZC: Dr. Heimlich, that is all for today.
ZC: Thank you so much.
MH: You bet. Thank you. [0:28:41]