Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful storms ever recorded in the Atlantic, ripped through the Caribbean with Category 5 strength.
Sustained winds as high as 185 mph caused catastrophic damage to numerous island nations as the storm continued toward the U.S. mainland.
The winds lasted 37 hours, making Irma the longest-lived storm of such intensity anywhere around the globe for at least the past 50 years.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that over 90 percent of structures on hard-hit islands were damaged or destroyed.
Hurricane Irma’s death toll reached 129 across the Caribbean and the southeastern U.S., according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center, with 44 fatalities directly caused strong winds and heavy rains and 85 fatalities linked indirectly to the storm.
The most severely affected islands included Anguilla, Barbuda, British Virgin Islands, Saint Martin, Saint Barthelemy, and Turks and Caicos.
Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida on Cudjoe Key on September 10, 2017. Damage was extensive throughout the region and completely cut the Florida Keys off from the mainland. Electrical services were down and took days or weeks to be restored in many areas.
Once the storm moved north, it hammered some of Florida’s urban centers, causing record setting flooding that resulted from the combination of torrential rains, overflowing rivers, and storm surge.
Damage to homes, buildings, and infrastructure were extensive, millions of people throughout the region were without power, and shortages of essential supplies including food, clean water, and medical goods, created major challenges.
Mapping Social Vulnerability
While the storm’s path was still uncertain, Direct Relief produced several social vulnerability maps to help identify the most at-risk populations and communities.
Looking at a range of vulnerability measures, including socioeconomic status, language skills, household composition, transportation options, and environmental factors, the maps helped identify geographic areas and populations that were more susceptible to the storm’s potential effects.
The data that drives Direct Relief’s social vulnerability application is based on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social vulnerability index model and uses census data to examine the challenges facing disaster-affected communities.
Direct Relief employs this information in its efforts to target the resources that align with and are tailored to the needs of impacted communities.
Direct Relief’s Response
Direct Relief has been active in emergency storm and flood-related responses in the U.S. and around the world for decades.
The populations that Direct Relief supports on an ongoing basis are especially vulnerable in natural disasters, as low-income and under-served communities often lack the financial means to escape an approaching hurricane or other emergency. And when people do flee their homes, they often are not able to bring their medications with them, which is particularly dangerous if they suffer from chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, asthma, or heart disease.
Following the destruction in the Caribbean, Direct Relief worked closely with health officials and local partners to navigate persistent power outages and transportation challenges and ship specifically requested medical aid and supplies to affected areas.
Within days of Hurricane Irma’s landfall, Direct Relief had dispatched needed medical aid to healthcare providers in Florida, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Caribbean nations of Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, the British Virgin Islands, Dominica, the Dutch Antilles, Haiti, and Turks and Caicos.
A Direct Relief team was on the ground in Florida before Irma made landfall, directing the movement and use of pre-positioned Hurricane Preparedness Packs in the areas where they were needed most in the immediate aftermath of the storm.
In the year since, Direct Relief has delivered 449,028 pounds of medical aid, totaling $39.6 million (wholesale), via 289 shipments to 63 partner healthcare facilities located throughout the Caribbean and southeastern U.S. to support the health needs of communities directly affected by Hurricane Irma.
Other efforts include:
- Direct Relief’s prepositioning of Hurricane Preparedness Modules in a number of countries in the Caribbean as well as Hurricane Preparedness Packs at medical clinics and health centers in vulnerable areas throughout Florida – many of which were used by local health providers to care for people affected by the storm and its aftermath – enabled its donations to be put to immediate use.
- Direct Relief emergency team members were able to quickly assess needs and deliver emergency health kits to partner clinics and hospitals caring for families and communities affected by the storm.
- Ongoing discussions were conducted with the Florida Association of Community Health Centers, the National Association of Free & Charitable Clinics, the National Association of Community Health Centers and Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster to help determine priority needs.
- On September 11, 2017, nearly 8,000 pounds of medications and supplies including IV solutions, antibiotics, water purification systems, hygiene kits, and durable medical tents, arrived in the Dutch Antilles on a free charter flight and was safely transported to the St. Maarten Medical Center.
- Direct Relief coordinated with the Pan American Health Organization on shipments to Anguilla and Tortola.
- In addition to the prepositioned Hurricane Preparedness Packs, 15 pallets of emergency medical products were shipped to partner facilities in the affected regions of the Dominican Republic.
- A Hurricane Preparedness Pack was relocated to the northern part of Haiti before Hurricane Irma hit the island, an emergency shipment already en route for ongoing assistance to a Haitian partner was repurposed to use for hurricane relief, and additional shipments were sent.
- Direct Relief worked with University of Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital to deploy three mobile units with 40 pre-vetted doctors and nurses. Medical products included in Direct Relief’s Preparedness Pack initially stocked the units while additional shipments were prepared and sent.
- More than $11 million worth of critical aid was airlifted to Miami, in partnership with FedEx, the Miami HEAT, the Golden State Warriors, and Heart to Heart International.
Long-Term Rehabilitation Support for Affected Communities
In addition to providing critical medical material aid and supplies, as well as emergency operating grants to partners in Florida, Direct Relief extended its collaboration with the National Association of Community Health Centers, National Association of Free & Charitable Clinics, the Florida Association of Community Health Centers, and other associations to provide cash funding through the establishment of the Hurricane Community Health Fund. The fund was set up in the aftermath of the Hurricanes Irma and Harvey to be used solely for the benefit of hurricane-affected communities and people – particularly those who have low incomes, lack insurance, and are among the region’s most vulnerable residents.
To date, Direct Relief has awarded $5.2 million in cash grants aimed at helping close to 30 partners in Florida and the Caribbean with near, intermediate, and long term expenses to help rebuild and stabilize operations to ensure the sustainability of critically important, community-based sources of care. Projects include support for emergency operations, generators, mobile units, refrigerators, communication and technology equipment, assorted medical equipment, and funding for staff and emergency training.
On September 15, 2017, a FedEx MD-10 plane was loaded in Memphis, Tennessee, with more than $11 million’s worth of medicines and supplies to assist people and communities affected by Hurricane Irma in Florida, Anguilla, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the British Virgin Islands. The cargo jet also carried more than 4,000 hygiene kits for Heart to Heart International, employee relief supplies, and generators. After the relief supplies were unloaded in Miami, more than 150 dogs and cats from Miami-area shelters were loaded onto the jet. The animals were flown to Oakland, California, under the auspices of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, where they were brought to no-kill shelters at the Marin Humane Society in California and the Humane Society for Southwest Washington (Washington State) for eventual adoption.
The extensive and widespread effects of Hurricane Irma will be felt for a long time to come, and communities that may not fully recover for years. In response to the historic devastation caused by the storm, over the past year, Direct Relief has worked alongside healthcare providers rooted in affected communities to bring proven approaches to emergency response to an unprecedented scale, adapt to the evolving needs on the ground, and enhance the effectiveness of preparedness efforts in the Caribbean and along the U.S. Gulf Coast to ensure even more effective responses to future storms.
It is thanks to the generous support of individuals, corporations, foundations, and healthcare companies that Direct Relief has been able to deliver critically needed medical products and financial support to medical providers caring for thousands of people affected by Hurricane Irma.