REFUGIO – While Hurricane Harvey battered Refugio County, Peggy Maley worked to protect the building where she was born and where she’s spent most of her career.
Along with her colleagues at the Refugio County Memorial Hospital, Maley worked to stuff towels, blankets and sheets in the cracks under doors, doing anything to keep the water that was gushing through several holes in the hospital’s roof from damaging medical equipment.
Maley, 63, has worked at the hospital for more than 20 years. Along with about 30 of her colleagues, Maley worked through the 2017 storm that devastated much of Refugio and tore several holes in the hospital’s roof.
More than 18 months later, the county’s 20-bed hospital is still working to get back to full operation. The hospital has almost finished installing 121 new windows in the building, with help from a $608,000 grant from the Rebuild Texas Fund.
The hospital, originally built in 1939, had some windows dating back to its original construction. Now, the grant from Rebuild Texas has upgraded the hospital with windows built to withstand a Category 4 storm like Harvey.
The storm tore one large hole in the roof and ripped off two air conditioning units on the top of the building, creating three holes where water came into the hospital during the storm.
“The water was coming down the stairway like a waterfall,” said Hoss Whitt, the hospital’s CEO. “We had water running from the third floor all the way down the first floor, all the way down to the basement.”
On the hospital’s third floor, Whitt said, “you could look up and you could see sky.”
The building’s roof has been fully repaired, but the hospital still lacks an operating room, and doctors haven’t been able to perform a single surgery since the storm. In total, Whitt said the hospital suffered about $6 million in damage from Harvey, not including the lost revenue that continues to accumulate because no surgeries can be performed in Refugio.
After the storm, Maley, a medical laboratory technician, returned to the home where she grew up as a child to find it badly damaged, along with much of her hometown. Maley said she ended up selling her home and relocating to Mission Valley.
“We lost a lot of memories, but we have each other, and that’s all that counts,” Maley said. “We were very fortunate. We had guardian angels as far as I’m concerned.”
About 105 people work at the county hospital, Whitt said, and most of them found their homes and their communities as badly damaged as their workplace, if not worse.
Bobbie Jean Ramirez, a physical therapy technician, decided to wait out Harvey in a hotel with her parents and her boyfriend because they were worried their home wouldn’t be able to withstand the winds. Instead, they awoke in the middle of the night when the hotel’s ceiling fell in. Desperate, Ramirez and her family drove through the storm to get to the hospital to try and find a safe place to stay the night and wait out the storm.
“It was horrible,” Ramirez said about that night and seeing the damage to her home and workplace the morning after. “It was something that we knew then had changed us for the rest of our lives.”
Whitt said the hospital’s staff were in emergency mode after the storm, working to assess the damage and then evacuate or discharge the four patients who had safely weathered the storm inside the building. While staff tried to squeegee gallons of water out of the building, the hospital also set up an emergency clinic so residents could seek critical information along with medication they badly needed. Harvey had wiped out Refugio’s pharmacy, and residents without the power couldn’t keep drugs like insulin in their refrigerators.
“We had a lot of people trying to figure out what to do,” Whitt said. “They were just stopping by (asking), ‘How do I get my medication? Where do I go?’ We became a source of information if nothing else.”
The hospital’s role after Harvey, and its place as one of the county’s biggest employers as well as the major healthcare provider, highlights the difficult balance rural hospitals in Texas increasingly face. Rural hospitals take in declining revenues as their communities get smaller, making a Category 4 storm like Harvey a catastrophic financial event during an already difficult economic period.
Immediately after the storm, Whitt said his biggest concern was whether rural Refugio County would be able to recover enough as a whole to continue supporting the hospital. The county is home to just over 7,000 people.
“I was worried (whether) we would have enough population to support the facility,” Whitt said. “At the time, we didn’t know how many people had left, how many people were going to come back. I knew that the hospital itself would recover, that we could we could get through this. But I was worried whether the volume was going to come back (to what) we needed to support the hospital.”
Officials don’t have an exact count for how many residents permanently relocated because of the storm, but the latest Census Bureau estimates indicate the county lost about 170 people between July 2017 and July 2018. The population has been slowly but steadily decreasing for years, according to projections from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Whitt said the hospital isn’t back at full capacity, and the number of patients admitted isn’t as high as before the storm, but the institution continues along the way to recovery.
Repairs to the operating room will likely cost between $250,000 and $300,000. The hospital currently has just one physician on staff, but Whitt said he expects to sign a contract with a second soon.
“I never thought we’d still be struggling as much as we are, that we’d still be in a battle with the insurance company, that we’d still be fighting funding issues almost two years later,” he said.
Despite the fact that the hospital still has work and expenses ahead, Maley said she is committed to continue her work.
“Our hospital is coming around,” Maley said. “We’re a small facility, we’re between two big cities and they depend on us. Our county depends on this hospital.”