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After Texas Chemical Plant Explosion, Mobile Unit Responds

A mobile health unit, donated to Jefferson County's Public Health Department after Hurricane Harvey, enabled health officials to respond to a different kind of disaster.

Jefferson County's mobile unit, donated by Direct Relief after Hurricane Harvey, is able to deploy to areas of the East Texas community with limited access to health services, and was recently used after a chemical explosion rocked the Port Neches area. (Photo courtesy of the Jefferson County Public Health Department)
Jefferson County's mobile unit, donated by Direct Relief after Hurricane Harvey, is able to deploy to areas of the East Texas community with limited access to health services, and was recently used after a chemical explosion rocked the Port Neches area. (Photo courtesy of the Jefferson County Public Health Department)

East Texas has had its share of disasters in recent years, including Hurricane Harvey and Tropical Storm Imelda, but the Texas Petroleum Chemical plant explosion in Port Neches on November 27 presented a new kind of challenge to area.

“We are used to hurricanes and water, but we never had to deal with anything like that. I’ve lived in the area for 25 years and that’s never happened,” said Rachel Dragulski, nursing supervisor for the health department of Jefferson County, Texas.

The explosion revealed a common thread between all disasters — the challenge of treating survivors, who are often stranded geographically, focused on injured family members, or repairing their own damaged homes and property.

“A lot of times in these disasters, people don’t come out [for medical attention] because they are focused on getting their lives in order,” Dragulski said.

Since adding a mobile unit last summer, Jefferson County’s public health team has been able to surmount some of these challenges by going where their patients are located — and fast.

“We could use it, basically, as a health clinic on wheels. Red Cross called us and said ‘Can you come?’ And within an hour, we were there,” she said.

Because they did not encounter any traumatic injuries, her team focused on administering tetanus shots. Many people — some miles away from the blast site — were surrounded by debris as they worked on repairing collapsed or otherwise ruined roofs, shattered windows, and blown-in doors.

County health proivders give a tetanus shot in their mobile unit.(Photo Courtesy of Jefferson County, Texas Public Health Department)
County health providers administer tetanus shots to the public inside the mobile unit. Tetanus is often a concern after disasters, as people clean up debris and may be exposed to the bacteria. (Photo courtesy of Jefferson County Public Health Department)

“This one taught us about quick response. It’s amazing to be able to do that. And to know that I can get to my community and help them right now, without taking away from their time to get their lives back in order,” Dragulski said.

Their response during Harvey was markedly different. In that case, county health workers had to gather and pack equipment, coordinate with a nearby establishment to host them, and then hope that people came for treatment, according to Dragulski.

However, during September’s Tropical Storm Imelda, they were able to deploy quickly using the mobile unit, and treated 260 people, including those in isolated communities, people who were stranded after their cars had washed away, and first responders.

The most common ailments after that disaster were rashes, cuts and respiratory issues.

Beyond disaster situations, county officials also hope that the mobile unit can reduce barriers for their residents to seek medical care on a regular basis, aiming to have regular visits to local rural communities by early next year.

According to figures reported by the Beaumont Enterprise, 22% of people surveyed in the Jefferson County area said they “avoided seeing a doctor because of money issues.” The report said that the number jumped to 28% within African-American and Hispanic communities.

No matter the disaster, Dragulski said the mobile unit, which she called a “blessing,” will make a difference in peoples’ lives.

“I can pull up where you are and help you,” she said.

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