By Paul M. Sherer
With the 2022 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 caches 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.
When a major disaster strikes, the loss of access to life-sustaining medicine and medical care can lead to more deaths and severe illness than physical injury.
Direct Relief donates the hurricane supplies to local health organizations serving communities most vulnerable to severe storms. The modules vary in size from 112 pounds for individual clinics in the United States to larger 1,680-pound modules for international destinations.
Direct Relief this year is once again 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, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Panama, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Bangladesh. Fiji and Vanuatu received modules in late 2021, before the Southern Hemisphere hurricane season.
In late August 2021, Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana as a Category 4 hurricane, killing at least 107 people and causing more than $75 billion in damage, making it the fourth-costliest storm ever to strike the United States. In New Orleans, power outages and staffing shortages kept many doctors’` offices and health centers closed for many weeks.
Hurricane Ida “brought back so many memories of Hurricane Katrina for our community,” said Nancy Tardy, Director of Patient Engagement at Baptist Community Health Services in New Orleans. The health center reached out to Direct Relief when the storm struck, “and within about 48 hours we had insulin and other medications and basic supplies on their way. In addition, we received a set of solar-powered refrigerators to keep our vaccines safe as power was intermittent for several days.”
Direct Relief provides year-round support to Baptist Community Health Services and community health centers and free clinics in the U.S. “We routinely use Direct Relief supplies providing much-needed medication to our community,” she said. “Many of our patients would not take their medications if it weren’t for the free supplies and medications we provide. You truly make a difference.”
INCREASING RESILIENCE OF HEALTH SYSTEMS
From Caribbean hurricanes to California wildfires, the last several years of disasters have shown how dependent health systems are on electrical power. Puerto Rico was severely disrupted by 2017’s Hurricane Maria, which cut off power for much of the island for several months. Temperature-sensitive medication spoiled, electronic health records were inaccessible, essential medical equipment was inoperable, and vital health services ceased. Towns dependent on electricity-powered pumps lost access to water.
In the Caribbean and California, Direct Relief has been helping health clinics secure solar power and battery backup to keep treating patients even during extended power outages.
The resilient infrastructure was stress-tested in April when a major Puerto Rico power plant fire plunged much of the island into darkness for days. Nonprofit organization Por Los Nuestros, with grant funding from Direct Relief, had installed solar panels and battery storage systems in communities that are not served by the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA). These non-PRASA communities rely on electric pumps to supply drinking water. During the April blackout, 24 out of 25 aqueducts continued to operate adequately. Eight community health centers with solar energy systems and batteries installed also reported operating at full capacity.
Direct Relief is equipping Puerto Rico’s health centers, clinics and community facilities with more than 1 megawatt of solar production capacity and 1.7 megawatts of battery storage. Direct Relief has furnished 93 health center sites across the island with 170 FDA-compliant pharmaceutical and laboratory refrigerators and freezers with enough capacity to store roughly 6 million vials of vaccines.
Direct Relief is now carrying out similar resilient power work in California to keep community health centers operating amid ongoing and widespread power outages linked to wildfires.
PUERTO RICO REGIONAL RESPONSE HUB
Direct Relief has increasingly used Puerto Rico as a regional hub for crisis response. Relief supplies are kept in stock on the island, and emergency response personnel are ready to respond to any emergency in the region. When a magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck Haiti last August, Direct Relief’s Puerto Rico team immediately dispatched seven pallets of PPE and emergency medical backpacks to equip Haitian health workers, accompanied by a Puerto Rico-based staff member.
REAL-TIME DATA FOR DISASTER PREPAREDNESS AND RESPONSE
When responding to natural disasters, displacements and disease outbreaks, time is always of the essence. Early detection and early response lead to better outcomes in almost every case.
Direct Relief has expanded its focus on bringing emergency data analysis into real-time through precision alerting platforms like Dataminr and Factal, real-time population dynamics data from the Meta platform to understand evacuation and displacement, and sensor data on fire, smoke, heat, hurricane winds, and storm surge from Esri’s Living Atlas. By linking real-time data on disaster events and how communities respond to those events with baseline models on social vulnerability, hazards, and losses, Direct Relief can move quickly to provide the right assistance to the right places at the right times.
As a support organization, it isn’t enough for Direct Relief to understand these types of real-time data. Working with public sector and nonprofit organizations in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, Direct Relief is building local capacity by hosting data preparedness workshops, training, and support agreements through the CrisisReady partnership with Harvard University School of Public Health to ensure responders have the emergency information they need.
“Data analysis is just as essential to emergency response as material and financial forms of aid, but it requires strong data collaborations to be effective,” said Andrew Schroeder, Direct Relief’s Vice President of Research and Analysis.
“The more that both we and our partners can use the best data sources available, including novel sources from social media, imagery, and other sensors, for rapid and effective emergency response, the more effective our efforts will be for local communities in crisis,” Schroeder said.