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After a Massive Tornado, A New Orleans Health Center Prepares to Respond

Baptist Community Health Services is gathering medical supplies and preparing to offer mental health and other essential services.



Damage to St. Barnard's Parish in New Orleans in the wake of the March 22 tornado. (Photo courtesy of New Orleans's Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness)

A staff member’s mother’s house was heavily damaged. One patient’s windows were blown out and her roof mostly gone. Another patient’s house was spared, but her backyard and garden were completely wiped out.

At Baptist Community Health Services (BCHS), a federally qualified health center in New Orleans, staff members are preparing to respond over the coming days and weeks to a deadly tornado that blew a path through the city on the night of March 22.

One death has been reported, and multiple people are said to have been injured in the storm. Widespread damage has been reported in multiple parishes. BCHS was lucky – the storm cut a path between two of its locations – but many patients were affected.

“It’s very rare in New Orleans for tornadoes to happen,” said Jeremy Simmons, the health center’s CEO. He’s lived in the city for eight years, and only seen two tornadoes thus far. However, he said, BCHS is well accustomed to responding to hurricanes and other tropical storms, and they have some sense of what to expect.

Staff are stocking up on bandages and tetanus vaccines. They’re directing patients whose houses have sustained damage to get assessments, have roofs tarped, and whatever else is needed to the appropriate resources. And they’re gearing up for what Simmons anticipates will be an increased need for chronic disease medications, Covid-19 testing, and mental health services.

They’re also preparing to distribute hygiene kits provided by Direct Relief. The organization is providing an initial shipment of 100 individual hygiene kits and 100 family hygiene kits, intended for those displaced or otherwise affected by the tornado.

In addition, Direct Relief is in contact with local partners to assess needs and offer assistance, and is preparing to provide additional support.

Simmons explained that many people will receive a hygiene kit distributed through a local church or other community organization. That’s also how he anticipates people will find the health center in the coming weeks, when they’re seeking a refill of a lost diabetes or hypertension medication, help from a mental health provider, or other health care services.

“In the wake of a disaster, counseling and psychiatry are so important – not today, but in the next few weeks,” Simmons said.

In addition, he’s concerned about displacement and crowding leading to an increase in Covid-19 cases. “We’re still in the middle of a pandemic on top of all of that.”

But he has reason to feel optimistic. Simmons said that, where a tropical storm can cause widespread damage and displacement, the tornado’s effects were relatively contained. “Because it’s a smaller area, the city can better absorb the impact,” he explained.

Still, the storm is enough of an unknown commodity, according to Simmons, that “I don’t know exactly what the impact’s going to look like. We’re just kind of getting started.”

Direct Relief will continue to monitor the crisis and will respond as needed. As always, the organization is concerned both with meeting short-term, immediate health care needs and with providing the resources needed for long-term recovery.

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