United States

Filling Health Care Gaps in the Wake of Disaster

  • April 26, 2012
  • After the Joplin tornado, devastation surrounds St. John's Hospital
  • North America, US Disasters, Tornado, U.S. Medical Access, Primary Health Care, Emergency Response Blog
Garrett Ingoglia

Garrett Ingoglia

When AmeriCares launched its 2011 U.S. Disaster Recovery Grants initiative, emergency response director, Garrett Ingoglia, conducted site visits to assess the health care needs of affected communities in Joplin, Missouri, upstate New York and rural Alabama. Below is his first-hand account of the scale and scope of the challenges these communities still face today.

“It will take months, perhaps years before health facilities are fully repaired.”

While most of the communities I visited received a great deal of support during the response phase, there were plenty of crucial gaps apparent several months after the disasters.

In Joplin, where the damage was well-chronicled, the extent of destruction to the city’s health care infrastructure was shocking. Government funding has been made available to restore some of these facilities, but it will take months, perhaps years before they are fully repaired.

What happens to people who need care in the meantime? Two providers in Joplin were able to resume services with the help of our grants – ensuring that uninsured and underinsured children and seniors gain access to medical care over the next 12 months.

“There is little support available for in-depth therapy to address mental health issues that arise in the wake of disaster.”

In tornado-ravaged northwestern Alabama, many small towns suffered major damage, and throughout the area, people struggle with the economic, social, and psychological impact of the storms. The crisis counselors I met were having difficulty adequately addressing the severe post-traumatic stress suffered by so many survivors.

Similarly, people in upstate New York’s Schoharie County suffered an extreme blow with Hurricane Irene. In Schoharie Village, the floodwaters ripped structures completely off their foundations, damaging 80% of the businesses and homes beyond repair. Months after the storm, many schoolchildren and their families remained displaced, living with friends or in temporary housing.

School district officials described the noticeable changes in their students stemming from the terrifying experience of the disaster and the stresses of coping with the aftermath. The strain was apparent, as teachers and administrators struggled to educate a traumatized student body, repair their schools, and care for their own families.

FEMA does support crisis counseling in some disaster areas, but there is little support available for more in-depth therapy to address anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and other conditions that arise in the wake of disaster.  In both Alabama and New York, there was a clear need for services not covered by FEMA.  Our mental health recovery grants provided support to help fill this need.

Disaster preparedness is another area where government funding is relatively limited, and, in some cases, is being further cut. We’ve provided grants to health care organizations in Alabama, Tennessee and North Carolina to purchase back-up generators that will increase the response capabilities in these disaster-prone areas.