The Gulf Coast is anxiously awaiting the arrival of Tropical Storm Barry. And in the meantime, New Orleans was inundated by flooding on Wednesday as severe thunderstorms hit the area.
If Barry becomes a Category 1 hurricane, as anticipated, hundreds of people will need the help of health centers and clinics. Medical professionals will have to meet a wide range of needs, from providing wound care to replacing lifesaving medications that were damaged or left behind.
The fact that health centers rise up to do this kind of work in the midst and aftermath of a severe storm is remarkable. After all, they’re not exempt from the storm’s effects. Clinics are often flooded or lose power; staff members are stranded or unable to navigate the streets; and vital medical supplies can be damaged.
“We feel that as community health officials, we are a first responder team, and we’re held to a higher standard to take care of patients during a time of crisis,” said Chenier Reynolds-Montz, director of outreach and development at Access Health Louisiana.
One of Access Health Louisiana’s 16 locations had already experienced flooding during Wednesday’s deluge. The roof of a parking lot next door to another had caved in. “Those people [in New Orleans] are just coming out from underneath that today or tomorrow, and then Tropical Storm Barry is supposed to hit,” said Peggy Barrios, a nurse care manager at Access Health Louisiana.
Shawn Powers, CEO of Baptist Community Health Services, said that, while they had experienced only water on the floor at one location, several staff members had been stranded or their cars damaged by the flooding. “This storm wasn’t forecasted,” he explained. “It caught everyone off guard.”
Preparing for the storm
Nonetheless, Baptist Community Health Services’ staff members were sorting medications for the storm and preparing “provider go bags” that doctors will keep with them during the next several days, so they can respond during emergencies.
Access Health Louisiana’s staff have been checking in with patients who manage chronic conditions with medication or who have mental health needs. For patients without reliable transportation, the health center will even deliver medications. “Sometimes they’ll stop by the food bank on the way,” said Reynolds-Montz.
Although lives seem most dramatically at risk during the storm itself, a lack of access to medication, reliable transportation, or necessary supplies after the fact can be even more dangerous. Experts attribute thousands of deaths to the impacts of Hurricane Maria, including the disruption of medical services.
Powers said that, as a primary care provider serving at-risk populations, Baptist Community Health Services is most concerned about patients with chronic conditions who may not have access to a steady supply of medication.
During an emergency – at precisely the moment when health centers and clinics are most likely to be overwhelmed by patients – it’s often impossible to get medical supplies where they’re most needed. Without the right tools on hand, doctors and nurses can’t effectively treat patients when they’re most vulnerable. Manageable injuries and chronic conditions can become life-threatening conditions.
For that reason, it’s essential to have supplies and medications safely stored long before a storm ever hits.
Tools in place
Because the Gulf Coast is prone to tropical storms, hurricanes, and flooding, Direct Relief has stationed Hurricane Prep Packs – specially designed modules containing over 200 medications and supplies most frequently needed during emergencies – throughout the region.
Eight packs are currently strategically placed at health centers and clinics throughout Louisiana, including at Access Health Louisiana and Baptist Community Health Services.
“The Direct Relief products will help with the fallout. They will service our patients with many medications they can’t get from the pharmacies,” said Barrios.
“The Direct Relief gifts that arrived last week…are being utilized to get us through the next few days,” Powers said. “Today, we actually have a team of three people who are working in this office next to me, taking those hurricane relief supplies and dividing them into their intended uses.”
The “go bags” that doctors will keep with them are likewise filled with Direct Relief supplies. “They could be used in an emergent encounter, with somebody in crisis,” Powers said.
For Barrios, events like these bring a sense of tremendous responsibility. “We’re community care, and we have to be there on the ground to take care of these people,” she said. “We’ve been there, done that, and we hope someone would be there for us.”