Public Health Impact Beyond a Hurricane

When a hurricane strikes, the resulting death, injury, and damage is an immediate emergency concern. Rescue teams rush into communities and individuals donate resources to help ease the burden of flood destruction. However, when the initial shock of the disaster is over, public health concerns that can lead to serious illness are often left in the shadows. Texas Senator, Tom Price, declared a public health emergency in the wake of Hurricane Harvey in response to these often-overlooked issues. He, along with other members of the community, acknowledged that the concern is predominately for already vulnerable populations such as: the homeless, elderly, and chronically ill. The addressed areas of apprehension were: (1) access to medical care and prescriptions, (2) spread of infectious disease, (3) harm from contaminated water, (4) exposure to mold, (5) mosquito-borne infections, and (6) psychological tolls.

Limited access to prescriptions and medical care is especially worrisome for individuals with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, who were forced to evacuate their homes without their medication. Not only do these patients lack their life sustaining treatments, but some do not even know the specific type of medication they were prescribed. Amidst the chaos caused by the hurricane and routine day-to-day emergencies such as heart attacks, the loss of medication and new emergencies surface and impose a strain on medical care and resources.

Aside from medical emergencies, rescue protocols, such as placing individuals in tight quarters for an extended period of time, can be wrought with health concern. This arrangement along with poor sanitation​ further strains the health of the community by easing the transmission of disease at a rapid pace. This is advanced with the now contaminated water. When individuals try to find shelter, they often times track through large amounts of water that may be contaminated with bacteria and chemicals. The risk of infectious contagions increases when individuals do not have the means to wash their hands from the contaminated water they were exposed to. Further, many individuals are injured during a crisis and cross the water with open wounds allowing microbes to seep into their system. Standing water poses another threat as it may exacerbate mosquito-borne disease. The pool of water remains as a breeding ground for many mosquitoes and raises concern for West Nile Virus and Zika. It is also important to note that not only do victims face health concerns, but the individuals that are part of rescue teams also face tremendous burdens. One major concern for rescue workers is their exposure to mold, especially in warm areas. Their health must not be neglected as they spend days surrounded in flooded homes filled with mold.

Public health concerns surrounding Hurricane Harvey are not limited to physical manifestations. Officials are also concerned about the psychological toll that crisis has on individuals. It is easier to distinguish a broken leg from one that is just strained, as compared to differentiating between a serious mental health issue and a healthy response to disaster. One approach that seems promising for mental health personnel during a crisis is effective communication, particularly with the focus on listening to community concerns.

Although the immediate health concerns in Texas will subside, there are many long term health concerns that cannot be neglected. Now that these​ health concerns have been brought to the communities’ attention, they can be monitored and used to mitigate public health concerns in future disasters. Perhaps in the future the State can prepare less crowded shelters, provide appropriate gear for rescuers working with mold, and address not only physical, but also mental health during times of crisis.

Margaret Kawarski is currently a second-year law student at DePaul University College of Law. Ms. Kawarski graduated from DePaul University with a degree in Bioscience. She is an active member in the Health Law Institute and will complete her law degree and certificate in health law in 2019.