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Disaster Response: Public Health Efforts During Hurricane Sandy

By Bryan M. Scyphers, M.Ed., CEM
Adjunct Faculty, Public Health Program at American Public University

Public health is all around us, but is mostly “out of sight; out of mind” until a disaster, such as Hurricane Sandy, brings the profession to the forefront with its myriad services and initiatives.

In my role as an emergency planner for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, I help bring public health and medical resources into states that have requested federal assistance.

In both New Jersey and New York, patients in hospitals, nursing homes, assisted-living facilities, group homes, and residents receiving health care within their homes were all displaced due to loss of electrical power, flooding or damaged facilities.

So where do all these patients go? Based upon prior public health and medical planning, special medicals shelters were identified—many in college gymnasiums or similar structures. After the states requested federal help, HHS brought in Federal Medical Stations consisting of up to 250 beds and all of the medical supplies needed to care for the displaced patients. U.S. Public Health Service officers and Disaster Medical Assistance Team physicians, nurses, paramedics, pharmacists, and support staff were moved in from throughout the country to provide patient care in conjunction with, or in place of, the normal medical staffs, many of whom had also become victims of the disaster.

When there are 250 patients being cared for in close quarters, public health initiatives become very important. Public health officials need to ensure: 

  • Medical waste is properly disposed
  • Food prepared safely to avoid an outbreak of foodborne illness
  • Trash removed
  • Water checked to ensure purity
  • Sanitation services provided
  • Patients who may have a communicable disease need to be isolated
  • Psychological care provided
  • Family services provided
  • Medications refilled
  • Stress managed
  • Planning done to help transition each patient back to a permanent place of care

The goal is to restore people to their pre-disaster way of life (or better) as soon as possible without creating additional or new hardship.

Based on lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy and other recent disasters, HHS is looking at innovative ways to help people who could normally care for themselves at home, but are challenged to do it after the storm. Some of these challenges include: needing electricity to charge wheelchair batteries, needing oxygen tank refills or replaced, people who have asthma or other chronic conditions and their nebulizer or meds are destroyed or lost in the floods. These challenges impact the entire healthcare system after a disaster.

Some of the typical public health challenges after natural disasters presented themselves after Hurricane Sandy: clean-up injuries, food and water safety concerns, and carbon monoxide poisoning. Working together, federal, state and local public health agencies made public service announcements available to broadcast media and worked with the media and nonprofit organizations to distribute information about how to avoid injury and illness after the storm. As a result of these rapid public health education efforts, along with other public health actions such as “boil water” advisories, many deaths and injuries may have been averted.

These actions recognize that every disaster holds the potential to impact health – personal health and public health. During a disaster, the connection between the two is evident. Every day public health is all around us and comes in many forms. Disasters just make public health professionals, along with their efforts, more visible and valued.

About the Author:

Bryan Scyphers is a retired college dean and has taught college courses for over 30 years. He is an emergency planner for the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Bryan has responded to more than 20 disasters and National Special Security Events, including four weeks in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York for the federal Public Health and Medical response to Hurricane Sandy.

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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