Forging Partnerships for Preparedness in New Orleans

November 20, 2015

November 20, 2015 - We are pleased to highlight the preparedness initiatives the New Orleans Health Department is undertaking with this guest blog from Sarah Babcock, Emergency Preparedness Lead for the New Orleans Health Department.

In August of 2012, Hurricane Isaac tore through New Orleans leaving the city without power for eight days.  In January 2014, the threat of a rare ice storm in New Orleans caused Mayor Mitch Landrieu to declare a state of emergency and urge all residents to stay home for three days.  In both instances, the New Orleans Health Department was left to answer the calls of concerned citizens whose dialysis providers were shut down, whose home health nurse hadn’t arrived that day, or who were running out of oxygen.  The only options were to open shelters and direct people to use Emergency Medical Services to reach hospital emergency departments. 

In the years after Hurricane Katrina, the City of New Orleans developed a Special Needs Registry, a list of residents who have medical or mobility needs and require extra assistance during an emergency.  These individuals are at the highest health risk and are the first to face adverse health consequences during an emergency. The New Orleans Health Department revamped this registry in 2013 following Hurricane Isaac and with a vigorous outreach campaign have enrolled almost 4,000 people.  Now we are faced with the challenge of providing assistance for those 4,000. 

During an emergency the New Orleans Health Department is able to provide a variety of services such as a call center to answer questions and connect people to medical care and transportation services, a shelter for individuals with special medical needs, and assist with the evacuation of the homebound residents in the event of mandatory citywide evacuations. However, our department alone cannot provide for all of the people who need assistance.  We need to make sure that our entire city is “Healthcare Ready.”

Every day the healthcare community in New Orleans provides high quality care to thousands of individuals.  By developing relationships with these healthcare providers we have been able to build a system for those same providers to continue providing quality care to the patients they already know during an emergency.  This system allows patients to comfortably receive care from the providers they know and trust, while the health department plays a supporting role and fills in gaps.

Every year during hurricane season (June 1 to November 30), the New Orleans Health Department leads a comprehensive hurricane preparedness outreach program throughout the city. As a part of this initiative, we host hurricane season trainings for community health centers, dialysis providers, home health and hospice agencies, nursing homes, senior living facilities and durable medical equipment companies. Training sessions are tailored for each group, but all provide an overview of:

  1. The City’s plans for sheltering-in-place and mandatory evacuations
  2. The New Orleans Special Needs Registry
  3. Agency preparedness tips
  4. Preparedness tips for clients

In addition to this training we provide agencies with methods to reach our staff during an emergency in case they need supplies, power restored or to let us know if their normal operations are going to be altered.  We also provide placards to healthcare providers to be able to move through the city during curfews in order to get to work or see patients.  These trainings serve to facilitate collaboration and remove any disconnect between the Health Department and healthcare organizations.

For community health centers specifically, the Health Department collaborated with an association of healthcare organizations called 504HealthNet to develop the NOLA Emergency Connection. This online tool allows healthcare providers to inform the community if they are open, have changed hours of business or changed locations during an emergency. At any time during an emergency, the Health Department has a snapshot of active health centers.

The most recent initiative to promote continuity of care during emergencies is our partnership with durable medical equipment (DME) providers. Earlier this year, we met with local oxygen suppliers to learn more about oxygen therapy equipment, the needs of their clients in an emergency and issues they’ve had in the past with oxygen supply and delivery during emergencies. From their suggestions, the Health Department developed a plan for oxygen-dependent individuals during a long-term power outage. Key aspects of the plan include scheduling a yearly meeting with DME providers and a process to re-establish any lost communication between residents and their oxygen suppliers during an emergency.

By actively engaging in strong partnerships with the local healthcare community, the New Orleans Health Department is more ready than ever to meet the needs of our most vulnerable populations. While we have not yet reached everyone, each year our program continues to grow and our relationships become stronger. It is only through these partnerships that our city will be able to make it through the next emergency.

Sarah Babcock

Sarah Babcock is the Emergency Preparedness Lead for the City of New Orleans Health Department. Prior to joining the Health Department, Sarah served as an AmeriCorps volunteer with Florida's Children's Medical Services. She holds a Master's in Public Health in International Emergency Management from Tulane University.