With the Atlantic hurricane season well underway and the earliest fifth named storm already on the books, the U.S. Southeast is bracing for another active season. On the Texas Gulf Coast, the anxiety is palpable.
“Anytime there’s talk of any severe thunder or rain, of course, people get nervous,” said Cory McCray, the Chief Operating Officer at Matagorda Episcopal Health Outreach Program (MEHOP). The health center serves under and uninsured individuals in Bay City, Texas—a rural town two hours south of Galveston.
“We’re having a couple of storms come through now and you can definitely see how that is affecting our patient volume in terms of people not coming to their appointments,” he said. People are scared of being stranded without their belongings because of flooding, or worse, a mandatory evacuation. That’s especially true for those who rely on public transportation or don’t have a vehicle of their own.
During Hurricane Harvey in 2017, a lack of transportation was a major issue for those trying to evacuate. “I would say close to 20% of the population stayed here during Harvey because they couldn’t get out,” said McCray. While emergency officials arranged for buses to pick up evacuees, “that’s if you can get to the Civic Center,” McCray explained.
For those with limited resources, evacuating is not the only difficulty of hurricane season. Recovering can be costly. Many “don’t have this disposable income to where they can just pick up where they left off and start rebuilding their lives,” said Dr. Adlia Ebeid, the Director of Pharmacy Services at San Jose Clinic in Houston. The financial stress of repairing damaged homes and property “causes a mini mental health crisis,” she said.
In general, providers note heightened levels of anxiety, stress, and PTSD during hurricane season. “Mental health is something that we don’t talk about enough, but I definitely think there’s a huge impact, especially for our patients,” said Ebeid. While some patients experience stress, others relive memories of loss and trauma. The clinic provides behavioral health services, including counseling and psychiatry, at no cost to patients. Before and after a storm hits, these services are especially important, according to Ebeid.
Unmanaged Chronic Disease
After addressing patients’ mental health concerns, “we start to look at other diseases…like diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol,” said Ebeid. During the upheaval of a storm, people are more likely to skip their medication, potentially causing more serious health issues. If left “unmanaged for a certain period of time,” conditions, like hypertension and diabetes, can lead to heart attacks, strokes, and other health emergencies.
But keeping those conditions stable in the midst of a disaster is difficult. For many, managing their chronic condition is the last thing on their mind when evacuating. “When you’re in disaster response and you’re grabbing your kids and clothes and pets and essentials, medications don’t always come” to mind, said Ebeid. To ensure patients have their medications in the aftermath of a storm, providers at San Jose Clinic help patients make go-bags with their prescriptions and instructions on use. In addition, staff do remote check-ins with patients that have been evacuated. In past seasons, staff would take home a list of patients and “grassroots start calling.” But now, the clinic plans to use telehealth to reach patients, which they’ve ramped up during the pandemic. The check-ins allow providers to “accommodate [patients] in a variety of different ways,” by, for example, shifting a patient’s prescription to a pharmacy closer to where they’re sheltering.
More Intense Storm Seasons
As storms become more frequent and more intense, providers are bolstering the resources they make available to patients. “Climate change definitely affects what we do,” said McCray, who cites an increase in behavioral health services. “I think for a lot of people it’s the whole process” of preparing and “the anxiety that takes over,” he said. “If you have to do it more than once, it really becomes a problem.”
This year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency predicts an above average number of storms, even after redefining “average.” Now, “normal” refers to 14, rather than 12, named storms per season.
“Looking at this year…it could be worse than Harvey,” said McCray. “I’m not gonna stamp that, but at the same time the Earth is changing.”
In preparation for hurricane season, Direct Relief has pre-positioned caches of emergency medical supplies at health centers and clinics across the United States Southeast, including Matagorda Episcopal Health Outreach Program and San Jose Clinic on the Texas Gulf Coast.