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When Disaster Strikes, Local Health Centers Step Up

With region pummeled by deadly tornadoes and violent flooding, local health providers go above and beyond, literally providing shelter from high winds and raising money for those who lost everything.

A deadly tornado barreled through the Oklahoma City suburb of El Reno on March 26, 2019, killing two people. It was one in a series of severe weather events across the U.S. that prompted health centers to assume the role of “first responder” and meet the needs of their communities (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)
A deadly tornado barreled through the Oklahoma City suburb of El Reno on March 26, 2019, killing two people. It was one in a series of severe weather events across the U.S. that prompted health centers to assume the role of “first responder” and meet the needs of their communities (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

When devastating tornadoes swept through Oklahoma last week, first responders sprang into action, with local health center staff among that group.

The state’s community health centers serve patients that are vulnerable on a normal day, with a high number being low-income, living in rural areas or with limited English proficiency. A disaster situation exacerbates those vulnerabilities exponentially, and health centers stepped up, even providing shelter for patients last week as winds raged through the community.

For example, the Pushmataha Family Medical Center housed patients and staff in their safe room as they waited out an approaching tornado, said Cassidy Heit of the Oklahoma Primary Care Association, which represents 20 health centers across the state.

Further north, the Arkansas Valley Verdigris Health Centers began taking up collections for those affected, including staff members who lost everything in the storms, Heit said.

Other health centers have been doing major outreach to make sure evacuated patients had access to medications needed to manage chronic diseases like diabetes.

In Stigler, the state’s largest rural community health center, the Stigler Health and Wellness Center, has been working to make sure patients with diabetes get the insulin they need, Heit said.

In addition to shipments of insulin, Direct Relief has also supplied the center with over-the-counter medications, hygiene products for evacuees and 10 Emergency Medical Backpacks, filled with essential first aid items, to equip those conducting medical outreach outside health center walls.

“Because they’re situated in high need areas and are accustomed to addressing all the social determinants of health that get in the way of patients getting healthy, health centers are uniquely positioned to respond to events like these,” Heit said.

By design, community health centers collaborate with other types of providers in their area — hospitals, social service organizations, food banks, and more — in order to ensure that their patients are connected to resources they need.

Even though several health centers in eastern Oklahoma were damaged by flooding, staff there are still coordinating with patients and providers in the area to make sure patient care isn’t interrupted, Heit said.

First Responders Since the Very Beginning

Since their inception 50 years ago, community health centers have always responded as “problem solvers and innovators” during crises, said Amy Simmons of the National Association of Community Health Centers.

Crisis could mean many things locally, including malnutrition, lead in drinking water, unsafe housing, and, in more recent years, man-made or natural disasters, she said.

“When health centers do respond – and they will respond if called to the task – their efforts are borne from a mission to share in the struggle of those who suffer in their community,” she said.

Increasingly, health center staff are often responders while also experiencing the impacts of a local disaster personally.

“There are countless stories of dedicated staff responding to community needs in the aftermath of a disaster, even if they lost their homes, their belongings, yet still dedicating themselves to treating victims and supporting recovery, even as they are themselves recovering,” Simmons said.

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