El Niño: Mapping Health Risks for California’s Most Vulnerable



geospatial analysis by Direct Relief has identified communities in California’s Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo, Yolo, Lake, and Trinity counties as facing especially high risk from the expected effects of the 2015 El Niño season.

The World Meteorological Foundation predicts this year’s El Niño could be among the strongest on record. The last El Niño of comparable strength, which occurred between 1997 and 1998, brought more than 20 inches of rain to parts of California, caused widespread flooding and landslides, and inflicted billions of dollars in damages. Thirty-five counties were declared federal disaster areas, and 17 people lost their lives.

Direct Relief’s analysis is intended to help guide emergency health preparedness efforts ahead of expected storms. In particular, the research focuses on California’s nonprofit community health centers and clinics. These facilities exist in medically underserved areas and largely comprise the health care safety net for low-income individuals who may lack health insurance and access to other health services.

Community health centers and clinics serve as the medical home for more than 5.6 million Californians. Patients at these safety-net facilities are among the most vulnerable generally, and particularly so in emergencies.  In turn, safety-net facilities often play a central role in disasters, averting medical emergencies by ensuring primary health care remains available.

Through the use of Esri mapping tools, Direct Relief charted which community health centers and clinics are within 10 miles of an active or recent fire perimeter and in areas prone to flooding and landslides. The resulting map reveals nine health centers and clinics that bear heightened risks due to El Niño-related weather events. These facilities serve patients throughout five counties, including Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo, Yolo, Lake, and Trinity.

“Effective emergency preparedness takes into account the complex relationships between the natural environment, the built environment, and demographics,” said Damon Taugher, Direct Relief’s Director of U.S. Programs. “Geospatial analysis helps inform our understanding of these relationships, allows us to prepare for and mitigate the effects of known risks, and improves our ability to respond to emergencies.”

As a member of California’s Business Utility & Operations Center (BUOC), Direct Relief works with the California Primary Care Association and regional primary care coalitions to ensure that community health centers and clinics have the medical resources they need to care for vulnerable populations during emergencies and on an ongoing basis. Since 2009, Direct Relief has provided more than $89 million in medications and other essential supplies to 486 community clinics and health centers in California.

Direct Relief has alerted each of the nine facilities of potential risks posed by El Niño.  The organization also is boosting its stockpile of disaster modules, which were developed specifically for rapid deployment in emergencies to clinics and health centers.  The modules contain basic supplies and medications, including those to manage chronic conditions, such as asthma, diabetes, and hypertension that can become acute crises when unavailable to persons who are evacuated during an emergency.

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