Historic floods that affected southern Louisiana earlier this month was the worst natural disaster in the U.S. since Hurricane Sandy, according to the American Red Cross. Tens of thousands of residents were affected, prompting President Barack Obama to sign a Louisiana disaster declaration and deploy federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts.
Jamie Roques, MPA, MPH, APRN, is on the front lines of the public health response as a member of the state’s Disaster Medical Assistance Team. Roques — a member of APHA’s Council of Affiliates and member and Affiliate Representative to the Governing Council for the Louisiana Public Health Association — spoke to Public Health Newswire about what took place, the public health response, and how APHA can both help relief efforts now and prepare for health emergencies in the future.
Q: How have the Baton Rouge floods affected you and your work?
A: Since there was little advance notice that we would receive a deluge of unexpected, non-stop rain in less than 72 hours — that reached between 25 to 30 inches in some areas — many people were caught off-guard, mostly because the areas that flooded were located in no-flood zones. This meant that the majority of people had no flood insurance.
How much water did we get? To put it in perspective, 250 billion gallons of water dumped on New Orleans during Katrina and 400 trillion gallons of water fell from the sky in 56 hours during the historic flood of 2016.
The local health departments are run by the state. State offices closed on Friday, Aug. 12, and reopened for services on Monday, Aug. 22. Many of my co-workers and friends experienced anywhere between 2.5 to 7 feet of water in their homes. A medical special needs shelter was opened by the state and began taking patients in at 10 p.m. on the night of Sunday, Aug. 14. In approximately two days, the U.S. Public Health Service and two Disaster Medical Assistance Teams, NM-1 and AL-3, were here to begin transitioning the state-run shelter to a federal medical station. This allowed the public health staff and other state employees to either return to their job duties or to their homes and assist others who were directly impacted by the flood waters. On Wednesday, Aug. 17, our governor visited the shelter and told us that approximately one-third of the medical workforce; first responder workforce; teachers and educators; and state government workforce homes were flooded. He also said that 20 parishes were declared a national disaster.
I worked as an incident commander for two nights until the feds took over operations. Since the flooding impacted not only homes but also cars, and streets were closed, there was little movement around the community. East Baton Rouge, Livingston and Ascension parishes, the latter of which is among the largest and was one of the hardest-hit, all had curfews in place. Some went from dawn until dusk and some from dawn until 10 p.m.
As work goes, we are now faced with an environmental nightmare in regards to cleanup and a multitude of mental health issues. We still have in our area over 2,800 people living in large general population shelter — homeless and no personal belongings left. It is heart-wrenching to hear their stories and very sad to see the plight of their communities.
Q: The Baton Rouge floods continue to threaten the health and wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of people. How has public health supported affected families in its aftermath?
A: Affected families are way too overwhelming for the public health workforce in the area to address alone. It is estimated that 60,646 homes were damaged and approximately 30,000 people were rescued. With heavy hearts we did report 13 flood-related deaths to date. Ezra Boyd, who holds a PhD in geography from Louisiana State University, said that as many as 188,729 occupied houses and 507,495 people — 11 percent of the state’s population — were “affected” by the flood.
I know the public health community has worked through churches, nonprofit organizations and social media sites to help others in need, including donating; purchasing and sorting personal care items and clothing; collecting household cleaning supplies and other demolition materials for sheet rock and insulation removal; volunteering to wash clothing for neighbors, friends and families; and cooking hot meals for the workers.
Basically whatever the call, people are ready and willing to help. I am not involved in the environmental response but I know it is massive. There have been some water boil advisories issued to consumers in affected communities. Another major concern in many communities is mold in homes and its effects on those exposed to it.
As of Aug. 23, many people returned to work at the public health units and started providing their usual services to those in need. A mobile team of mental health professionals from the Louisiana Department of Health, Capital Area Human Services District have been going to the general population shelters doing assessments and trying to identify those who would benefit from psychiatric evaluations and professional counseling.
Q: You are a member of APHA’s Council of Affiliates. What can we all do at APHA to support relief efforts?
A: There is so much need that it is hard to know where to begin. Perhaps APHA could reach out to Johnson & Johnson or some other mosquito repellant company to see if they would be willing to ship mosquito repellant to South Louisiana. We already have problems with mosquitoes and I have no idea what this flooding situation will do to the mosquito population. My guess is it will probably increase.
Not to mention, we have grave concerns regarding Zika. This link offers several suggestions on how you can support the current relief efforts underway. I saw this on Facebook and it is pretty comprehensive.
President Obama was here to meet with flood victims and to tour the devastation in East Baton Rouge. His assistance was greatly appreciated by many.
Q: APHA’s Get Ready campaign offers a fact sheet to prepare individuals and their families for floods, as well as numerous other natural disasters. In your 25 years of public health work in Louisiana, including response to Hurricane Katrina, what are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned that can help all communities be prepared for population health emergencies?
A: Here are my thoughts:
- Plan, evaluate, test plan, plan evaluate, test plan.
- Communicate, communicate and communicate. Redundancy is never underestimated. We lost services via AT&T and were only able to communicate via FaceTime and Facebook Messenger, where we were able to communicate face-to-face or via texting. Thank goodness for social media — which, by the way, definitely must be deeply incorporated into any emergency planning and disaster preparedness strategy.
- The quickest and best response to an emergency is local. We live in Sportsman’s Paradise and almost everyone here owns a fishing boat. Well, we had local volunteers on their boats roaming the flood waters, rescuing their neighbors by the thousands. We now even have a group of volunteers known as the “Cajun Navy.” I truly believe the death toll would have been far greater if it had not been for these extraordinary heroic rescues!
- Be fortunate to have a governor who is calm and forward-thinking. (Louisiana Governor John Bel) Edwards had a national disaster officially declared by President Obama within two days. Then the federal resources started pouring in, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency director and Department of Homeland Security director. We even had a four-star general at one who leads the National Guard in Washington, D.C., at one of the general population shelters.
- I do believe that since this was not a named storm or hurricane, there was little to no national media attention in the beginning. I think that involving not only local media — which did an outstanding job— but also national media, is an important component of planning.