As Waters Recede, A Community Rises

August 29, 2016

August 29, 2016 - For more than a week, our team has been focused on the impacts of the 2016 Louisiana floods, which have devastated communities and claimed 13 lives in Baton Rouge. There has been countless damage caused by this disaster on the individual and community level – including agriculture and small businesses. Though not a hurricane (but one may be on the way), this flood damaged homes, businesses and gutted communities. Even more tragic is the fact that many of the displaced victims are also Hurricane Katrina survivors. And there are elements of this response that remind us that Katrina was only 11 short years ago.

The state of Louisiana has a tremendous experience with natural disasters (especially hurricanes) and was able to quickly mobilize to respond to the flooding. Personally, I’ve been impressed by how quickly the response for this event was mounted (including at the federal level). It was remarkable to watch the level of coordination that happened over the one week response, especially in light of the fact that the event barely registered on national media outlets. As we shift towards the recovery efforts, our organization hopes that the same sense of collaboration will persist.

As is always our concern, this event exposed  vulnerabilities that community health is faced with during a disaster. This flooding resulted in a loss of power, inaccessible roads (alligator infested waters), severe structural damage, and many evacuations. Each of these complicates the process by which patients access their medicines (and medical care), and needed to be managed during the response. In addition, we know that more than 60,000 experienced severe damage to their homes, which will result in many citizens relocating at least temporarily as they rebuild.

Healthcare Ready activated for this event and spent days in constant communication with the Louisiana governor’s office, the shelter staff (including the Red Cross personnel), and others who were focused on the public health aspects of the response effort. This is a huge component of why our organization exists, and we were heartened to be able to provide daily coordination during the response.

I was so impressed by the level of support demonstrated by the private healthcare sector, particularly the chain and independent pharmacies, distributors, provider groups, and others. Throughout our activation we worked with groups that worked around the clock to find solutions to pressing problems of medical access and communication. We’re thankful to our partners who have worked so hard to respond to this disaster, and we are confident that their efforts have helped to save countless lives (and avoid disease progression in many more).

While we know that once such a disaster strikes a community, the community will never really be the same, there is hope that the community will recover and regain its strength. There are a number of risks that the community still faces, and other risks that may be exacerbated by the flooding and stagnant waters, so we know that this is not over yet.

This event also raises the concern about dealing with multiple events at the same time. While the public health preparedness community has been focused on mitigating the effects of a potential Zika outbreak (while some of us have barely recovered from the Ebola Outbreak of 2014), this event occurred. And we’re still in hurricane season (fingers crossed) so it is likely possible that we will battle other natural disasters in the midst of the response to this emerging infectious disease. While I enjoy multitasking as much as the next person, I also recognize that the frequency of events (and overlapping events) will take a toll on public health personnel, as well as the system, over time. Frankly, I already wonder if we’re stretched too thin. There is some evidence suggesting we already are.  

These waters will eventually recede, and the hurricane season will eventually be over, but there are other threats on the horizon for which we need to prepare. I hope that we continue to use lessons learned from this disaster to figure out how we improve our responses to events and build greater resilience. It is too soon to formally begin that process, but when it begins I am eager to begin the process of identifying lessons learned and implementing them.

Nicolette A. Louissaint, Ph.D.

Dr. Nicolette A. Louissaint is Director of Programming at Healthcare Ready. Prior to this position, Nicolette served as a Foreign Affairs Officer at the U.S. Department of State in the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs. During the height of the Ebola Epidemic of 2014, Nicolette served as the Senior Advisor to the State Department’s Special Coordinator for Ebola. Nicolette earned a Ph.D. in Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences, specializing in HIV Clinical Pharmacology from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She completed post-doctoral fellowships at the Johns Hopkins University and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.