Editor’s note: This article is part of a joint editorial initiative between the National Association of Community Health Centers and Direct Relief.
The Tampa Bay area, home to more than 3.2 million people, is under a hurricane warning as Hurricane Idalia continues its path toward Florida, and is expected to be a Category 3 storm when it makes landfall. “Catastrophic” storm surges along coastal areas are predicted to reach up to 15 feet above ground level, according to the National Weather Service, which characterized the storm as being “unprecedented for this part of the state.” Twelve counties have mandatory evacuation orders, and Tampa International Airport has been closed. Several Tampa Bay hospitals have been evacuated as well.
Already Florida’s Gulf Coast, from Naples to Tampa, is experiencing a water level of up to two feet above normal during today’s high tide. Images taken midday in Indian Rocks Beach, a community on a barrier island west of Tampa, showed flooding.
As the storm approaches, safety-net health centers in the expected impact area are making preparations to ensure that operations continue as soon as possible in the wake of the hurricane.
Serving Patients, Before and After the Storm
“Federally qualified health centers are committed to being accessible, and we’re making sure we do all we can to accommodate that,” said Dr. Ashley McPhie, chief medical officer at Tampa Family Health Centers.
McPhie said her FQHC has taken action on several fronts to ensure operations continue with as little disruption as possible after the storm. This includes ensuring patients have the medicines they need in case of power outages, structural damage, or transportation-related issues prevent them from obtaining refills.
Tampa Family Health Centers has a centralized prescription fulfillment system, which enables them to track which patients may be running low on their medicines. Incorporating these data points, the team has been moving medicines out of areas most likely to bear the worst of the storm to ensure they don’t get damaged and can be picked up by patients at another location while also delivering medicines to patients who are unable or face challenges to pick up refills in person. Florida regulations during emergencies allow for patients to get automatic refills.
TFHC has had to close its clinics in mandatory evacuation areas but has been making sure critical appointments are still kept at their open locations. McPhie said that keeping appointments is important since it helps build trust among patients that the clinic is always there for them.
“During this time, technology can be up and down, but we’re going to be available. They (patients) know exactly where to go,” she said.
McPhie said her clinic was able to implement these emergency response measures due to planning that has been refined over the almost 40 years TFHC has been operating in the Tampa area. A key component of this is their hurricane preparation meeting consisting of representatives across all clinic departments, including IT, nursing, pharmacy, and more, where responsibilities are delegated and coordinated.
Additionally, following all hurricanes that threaten their region, whether or not they directly hit Tampa, TFHC has a debriefing where leaders from each department can review how they performed and what could have been done better. TFHC provided care to 113,418 patients last year and saw 312,058 visits across its 18 locations. They reported a 202% return on investment for each dollar invested in TFHC.
For McPhie, the stakes of disaster response are personal: she received such care following Hurricane Katrina.
“I know what it’s like to be a patient needing something after a hurricane,” she said. “I evacuated and came back to nothing.” McPhie was in New Orleans for college after Katrina hit and spent time living in a FEMA trailer. The experience both informs and drives her motivation to ensure there is as little interruption to care as possible for those in the community she serves.
Storm May Impact Vulnerable People More Intensely
Andrew Schroeder, Direct Relief’s VP of Research and Analysis, said that the current trajectory of the storm has it going over an area that TFHC serves and which is home to a demographic that “has relatively high rates of users of power-dependent medical devices” as well as an area that has a “reasonably high elderly population (20-23%). The storm is also expected to hit an area with a “very low density of health infrastructure, usually no more than 2-3 facilities total per county with large travel distances likely subject to flooding disruptions.”
“Each of these counties along the coast has 15,000-30,000 residents, but could see significant problems just given the infrastructural geography,” Schroeder wrote based on his analysis of demographic data compiled by CrisisReady today.
Most deaths related to hurricanes occur after the storm and disproportionately impact vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, people with chronic conditions, and people with lower incomes.
McPhie said she remains confident as Hurricane Idalia approaches and plans to reopen all clinics by noon local time tomorrow.
We feel prepared. The team is really laser-focused… I have that apprehension the night before something happens, but we’re ready… we’re here, we’re standing up, we’re ready for the community,” she said.
Direct Relief has shipped more than $158 million to health centers, free clinics and community organizations in Florida, including Tampa Family Health Center, since 2009, and has responded to multiple hurricanes in Florida, including Hurricane Ian in Sept. 2022. The organization is ready to respond to medical needs from Hurricane Idalia as they become known.