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First-person Account from Two Disaster Zones

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The 2017 hurricane season, which ended on November 30, has been one of the most active in history, with two of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded in the north Atlantic region — Irma and Maria. These Category 5 hurricanes slammed into land with punishing winds in excess of 157 miles per hour, according to NOAA’s National Hurricane Center.

Taken together, these factors compelled me to grab my “go” bag, leave my comfortable home in Bethesda, Md., and head into the affected regions for a month as a volunteer emergency medical technician (EMT). I initially deployed to Florida, then to St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. This account is my own, but my volunteerism was possible because of the incredible support of U.S. Census Bureau colleagues. Indeed, it was on the wings of colleagues, friends and family that I traveled to the affected regions and was able to assist disaster survivors.

The Census Bureau plays a major role in providing data for disaster response and recovery. Emergency officials from across government utilize Census data tools such as OnTheMap for Emergency Management and Census Business Builder: Regional Analyst Edition.

These instruments provide a quick yet comprehensive snapshot of the demographics and economics of impacted areas. Census supports the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and co-chairs their Data Analytics Working Group.

When additional information is needed, Census’ Emergency Preparedness and Response Team coordinates the request. This fall, in response to the four major hurricanes and the northern California wildfires, Census produced 1,214 demographic and economic reports and maps covering 607 geographies. A web page dedicated to each of the hurricanes was featured on the main Census.gov page for easy access.

I arrived in Orlando, Fla. — the deployment staging area for the American Red Cross — in September. Because of my medical training as an EMT, I was assigned to their Disaster Health Services (rather than, for instance, Mental Health Services) team. After a day of orientation, I was sent to the Jacksonville area, where surge damage from Hurricane Irma was severe.

Jane Callen at a multi-agency resource event in Jacksonville, Fla.

My “go” bag lives in the back of my closet, packed with supplies like trail bars and water filtration that enable me to survive for several weeks without food or potable water. It also includes a sleeping bag liner (lighter weight than a sleeping bag), sleep pad, three light-weight changes of clothing that are pre-treated with DEET, several courses of antibiotics, a head-lamp, and other battery- and solar-operated equipment, sunblock, wet wipes (bathing is often impossible), and my medical kit. All of this is tightly packed into one carry-on bag! Depending on the climate, as when I headed to the cold mountains of Nepal following the 2015 earthquake, the clothing and sleeping gear might change, but everything else remains essentially the same.

Drawing a distinction between health and mental services in terms of client care is challenging since physical and mental health are deeply intertwined in a disaster. For example, a client came to a so-called “Multi-Agency Resource Center” (MARC) event that was organized to offer multiple resources in one place to hurricane survivors. (The MARC events also presented excellent opportunities to don my Census Bureau hat, and point out the rich data resources offered by the Census Bureau.) The woman was complaining of cardiac symptoms so she was directed to me. After conducting a thorough assessment, I had her transported to the local emergency room and we provided information on additional resources to her husband — contact information for a local agency to help with reuniting their family, the FEMA application for housing help, plus a load of food and other supplies.

In addition to staffing the MARC, I conducted “hot shots” — heading out into the field to check on survivors. Often these visits are prompted by a call from a concerned friend or neighbor, or perhaps the survivor themselves. The situations can be difficult: many of the homes were flooded, and even after water recedes, it is not long before black mold sets in. Without electricity or potable water, things can quickly spiral out of control. Later, when downed wires sitting in water become re-electrified, new disasters can unfold. Diseases can be easily spread in poor hygiene situations when sanitary systems and infrastructure have been compromised, potentially leading to major public health issues.

A Case Study

While in Florida, I stayed in a staff shelter with about 100 other volunteers sleeping on cots a few inches apart. I primarily ate trail bars — as a vegetarian and in the midst of a disaster, it is easiest.

Another volunteer in Florida, Kathy Yaste, saw a truck smash into a car and she pulled over. She risked her life and ran across several lanes of oncoming traffic on the highway in order to reach a seriously injured woman, and called 911.

Kathy Yaste and Jane Callen

She assisted and comforted the woman until help arrived. The victim was a storm survivor who had lost her home and most of what she owned in the hurricane. Her remaining belongings were packed into the little car that was now totaled.

When Kathy returned to the shelter where she was volunteering, she came racing in to share her experience. As she talked, I noticed she didn’t look well. I checked her out and suggested she take some calming breaths. Her vital signs were bad. She said her jaw was hurting — a frequent symptom that women experience at the beginning of a heart attack. It turned out Kathy also had a cardiac history. I helped her lie down on the floor, ran into the kitchen to get an automated external defibrillator, and yelled to someone to call 911. The paramedics arrived and took her to a local hospital. Kathy is okay now. She even tried to volunteer again this hurricane season. Her heroism has been recognized with a commendation from the American Red Cross.

In the Disaster Zones

Every deployment is unique, and St. Thomas was an entirely different experience from Florida. We were stationed on a huge working vessel in the harbor of Charlotte Amalie. Staying on a ship is not for the claustrophobic: bunkrooms were small, with stacked beds. Nevertheless, our hosts were extremely gracious. Unlike Florida, where infrastructure was quickly returning, the U.S. Virgin Islands were still largely without power or cellular service weeks after the hurricane. Streetlights lay twisted in the street along with all of the hurricane-deposited debris.

Shelters housed many of those who had lost their homes and I helped to staff one for the profoundly disabled. It was emotionally difficult work, although bringing a strawberry and vanilla ice cream to a woman with a terminal illness (and no analgesic medications) made it all worthwhile. In another great Census Bureau moment, and with the amazing help of colleagues back in the Bureau’s headquarters, we were able to use household income data to target where to deliver food and assistance.

"Home" aboard the Ocean Constructor

In a year like 2017, with so many disasters unfolding nearly simultaneously (multiple hurricanes, wildfires in California, the earthquake in Mexico), finding enough volunteers to help can be tough. It is difficult for people to check out of their regular lives in order to head into a disaster zone as an unpaid worker for several weeks. Consequently, volunteers need to wear many hats to be as effective as possible.

Training prepares us to be successful in many roles. There are also pragmatic, small-step interventions that are doable in the field in the midst of crisis when larger interventions are virtually impossible. For example, asking a hurricane survivor what they are doing for self-care and teaching them some basic meditation skills, or stressing the importance of staying hydrated and getting a good night’s sleep, or taking someone’s vital signs and showing them how, through focused breathing, they can bring down their heart rate and blood pressure. Each of these small steps can represent an important “victory” for a survivor at a time of unfathomable loss. It may even help them retain their dignity.

Jane Callen is a Senior Writer/Editor at the Census Bureau.


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