Prepositioning relief supplies, increasing health system resilience and using data to inform action
By Paul M. Sherer
With the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season officially starting on June 1, Direct Relief is staging caches of emergency medical supplies along the U.S. Gulf and Atlantic Coasts and throughout the Caribbean and Central America.
The humanitarian effort comes as global temperatures keep rising and the frequency and intensity of hurricanes and other disasters increase. The 2020 hurricane season was the most active on record, producing 30 named storms, 14 of them hurricanes. Two were Category 4 storms, Eta and Iota, that crashed into Nicaragua two weeks apart, causing catastrophic damage and triggering a massive wave of displacement.
Direct Relief’s prepositioned modules contain the medical items most needed in the wake of a disaster, including trauma supplies, antibiotics, and medications for diabetes, hypertension and other chronic conditions. The supplies are made available through local health organizations serving communities most vulnerable to natural disasters. The modules vary in size from 112 pounds for individual clinics to larger 1,680-pound modules for international destinations.
Direct Relief this year is staging the emergency modules at health facilities in every Southeastern and Gulf Coast state from Virginia to Texas, as well as in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Saipan.
Internationally, Direct Relief is prepositioning the modules throughout Central America and the Caribbean, including in Anguilla, the Bahamas, Barbados, British Virgin Islands, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Panama, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, as well as in Bangladesh, Fiji, and India.
Increasing Health Infrastructure Resilience
Where hurricanes go, power outages follow. Most notably, in 2017’s Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico went dark for months.
Much of the island’s temperature-sensitive medication spoiled, electronic health records were inaccessible, essential medical equipment was inoperable, and vital health services ceased. Hurricane Maria proved that power is a prerequisite for health.
With the increase of climate change-driven disasters, building resilient health infrastructure has become a core element of Direct Relief’s response activities. The organization has installed solar power arrays and battery backup systems at community health centers across the U.S.
- outfitting 89 health centers across the island with 164 FDA-compliant pharmaceutical and laboratory refrigerators and freezers capable of storing roughly 6 million vials of vaccines
- furnishing 22 community water pumps with backup solar and battery storage
- installing full backup solar power and battery storage on a fire station that lost grid power for months
- and providing home-based generators to 32 children who depend on powered equipment to breathe and for other medical needs.
Data-Driven Disaster Preparation
Whether responding to storms, fires, or disease outbreaks, data increasingly guides Direct Relief’s work.
Using various data sources, including the CDC/ATSDR Social Vulnerability Index and Facebook Disaster Maps, Direct Relief can identify areas at greatest risk from hurricanes, predict whether people will evacuate, and gauge the impact on local healthcare providers.
“We’re increasingly able to get a real-time, high-resolution view of evacuation dynamics, medical needs, and the pressure placed on healthcare infrastructure,” said Andrew Schroeder, Direct Relief’s VP of Research and Analysis.
Direct Relief is also looking at long-term displacement of people whose livelihoods have been destroyed by hurricanes, such as those in parts of Central America hit sequentially last year by Hurricanes Eta and Iota. “There’s a geography to poverty that corresponds with physical risk,” Schroeder said.
Covid-19 + Summertime Disasters: Why This Year May Be Different
This hurricane and wildfire season is the second to overlap with the Covid-19 pandemic. While disease prevalence in the U.S. is down sharply from its 2020 peak, the summer of 2021 presents an additional challenge.
Last year, emergency management agencies and aid groups could maintain social distancing by relocating disaster evacuees into hotels and motels, largely empty due to the steep drop in domestic travel.
This summer, with travel rebounding sharply, those rooms will no longer be available, making it more challenging to safely shelter evacuees.