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Deadliest Phase of Hurricanes Begins in Areas Hit By Idalia

Power outages threaten people who are dependent on electricity powered medical devices, those who are elderly and other socially vulnerable populations.


Hurricane Idalia

Flooding caused by Hurricane Idalia caused streets, residences and businesses to flood in Steinhatchee, Florida, August 30, 2023.

Clean-up and recovery efforts are underway in the wake of Hurricane Idalia, which is now dissipating over the Atlantic Ocean. At least one fatality in the United States has been attributed to the storm so far, which took a relatively quick path through parts of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.

Initial damage assessments are underway across all three states, even as about 200,000 homes and businesses were without power Thursday, down from over 300,000 locations earlier in the day, according to power outage tracking site Poweroutage.us.

Studies have shown that the most deadly phase of a hurricane are the days, weeks, and months after the storm hits, when survivors succumb to chronic conditions that have gone unmanaged, other interruptions to regular pre-storm care, and heat-related deaths.

In areas of northern Florida that took the brunt of the storm, including Taylor, Dixie, and Lafayette Counties, Lane Lunn, CEO of North Florida Medical Centers, described the situation today and yesterday as “chaos.”

“The feeling now is that ‘thank goodness our people are safe.’ It’s just the fact that the resources are kind of slim because there’s no power. If we had more generators to at least plug in fridges and freezers, it would be so much better,” Lunn said, adding that solar-powered solutions would also be ideal.

North Florida Medical Centers are federally qualified health centers, part of a network of safety-net health centers in the U.S. that provide care to everyone who requests it. Their locations in Perry, Mayo, Cross City, and Madison are without power.

Utility companies told Lunn to expect outages lasting for up to two weeks. Still, Lunn said she expects the Perry location to be open tomorrow, powered by a generator, so that community members can seek care for injuries sustained during the storm and clean-up, and maintain care for chronic conditions.

“For the facilities’ power, I’m going to take care of that. I got the propane companies to come and fill out the tanks. I’m worried about my staff,” she said.

Unable to communicate with patients due to the power outages and general storm debris on the roads, Lunn said she is currently focused on looking out for the welfare of her staff members, many of whom evacuated before the storm.

Reflecting similar needs as the communities they care for, providers and other clinic staff members are requesting camping stoves and the small propane gas tanks to heat them, coolers, ice, and any kind of air conditioners. Today’s temperature in Perry reached almost 90 degrees, with humidity hovering around 90%.

Additional requests have included military-style camping meals (MREs), canned food, and batteries. She noted that children are in need of, “anything to distract them,” such as coloring books, since their phones are bricked due to lack of power.

Lunn said she has been querying providers to see who can work, even as she acknowledges the difficult circumstances just about all of them face.

“No showers, no warm meals… still serving your people when you’re not as comfortable as you’d like, it’s tough,” Lunn said.

The clinics were able to avoid medicine losses due to pre-storm planning, which occurred at many FQHCs threatened by Idalia.

Temperature-sensitive vaccines, stored in a battery-power refrigerator, and other medicines were moved out of clinics and into safer locations.

Across all areas impacted by the storm, Direct Relief has received more than 50 requests for medical aid, with the most common requests including insulin, tetanus vaccines, inhalers, high blood pressure medications, PPE, and Direct Relief’s emergency medical backpacks. Direct Relief is also offering a host of backup power solutions for clinics and health facilities without power. The organization will continue responding to requests for aid.

Data helps predict future medical needs

Assessing potential future care needs, Direct Relief’s Research and Analysis team, as part of its role in the CrisisReady program, identified that Suwanne County saw a 43% decrease in population on the day of the storm while Taylor County saw a 41% decrease along with a 10% increase in daily trips over 100 kilometers, suggesting the trips were evacuations.

Surrounding counties saw less drastic though significant population decreases. Mobility data was sourced via a partnership with Meta and included anonymized data from users who have opted into the program.

Data relevant to other social determinants of health for those within 50 miles of the storm’s path include over 421,000 people who are uninsured, more than 547,0000 people who have incomes below the federal poverty line, and over 777,000 people who are under 18 years old, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey. Obesity and hypertension are the greatest health issues experienced by patients who receive care at FQHCs in the affected regions, according to CDC data.

A CrisisReady report from today showed many communities along the storm’s path have elderly populations well above the national average, which could result in more acute healthcare responses as the power outages continue due to, inter alia, the correlation between age and use of power-dependent medical devices as well as barriers to accessing care due to transportation-related issues.

More than three-fourths of people using electricity-dependent medical devices were older than 65, according to a 2017 Journal of Public Health Management and Practice study. Almost 670,000 people over 65 live within 50 miles of the storm’s track, more than 39,000 of whom have electricity-dependent medical devices.

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