Public Health Innovation Impacts Disaster Relief Efforts

By Elizabeth Kumru

(Released 5 October 2017)

To survive a natural disaster is one thing. 

But to survive the aftermath is another, especially if you're in immediate need of medicine and medical care, food, water or clothes. 

Where do you go when your house, clinic and pharmacy have been destroyed and the hospital has been evacuated? 

That's what Elayne Saejung and 13 colleagues from the U.S. and Canada found when they were deployed to Rockport, Texas, through an unusual disaster relief organization -- Field Innovation Team (FIT), a non-profit organization that creates cutting-edge disaster solutions. 

Saejung is assistant director of the Center for Preparedness Education, a joint endeavor with Creighton University School of Medicine; deputy director of training in the National Center for Health Security and Biopreparedness; and finally, instructor of environmental, agricultural & occupational health. 

Her mission was supported by Ali S. Khan, M.D., M.P.H., dean of the College of Public Health. 

"Our problem was to figure out what was open, what was available and how to get this information out to those who need it most," Saejung said. 

They developed a Public Health Digital Brochure (telephone/Short Message Service hotline) and a donation management (see below) system that can be adapted to any community after a disaster. 

The team arrived in Rockport 10 days after the eye of Hurricane Harvey forced 24-hours of 130 m.p.h. winds through the coastal retirement community of 10,000 people. When it was over, there was little water damage, but 30 percent of the buildings were gone and 60 percent needed renovation. Water and electricity were out. Oddly, land telephone lines worked. The town had no public health organization. 

To develop a list of working facilities, the team drove around town every day and updated the information in an online spreadsheet. The data in the online spreadsheet was linked to the telephone/SMS hotline. When the spreadsheet was updated, the automated messaging provided new and correct information via phone or text to those who called. 

"It only takes 10-30 minutes to become fully operational for us. A novice could have the information operational within two hours. We named it Recry," Saejung said. "It is sponsored by UNMC, and the cost for a town under 50,000 people is minimal -- $150 a month." 

People called in to hear automated messages on health advisories, medical providers, pharmacy information and mental health providers. To promote the hotline, the local Chamber of Commerce printed information flyers that were posted and handed out. 

"We accomplished much in five days and we left our work in the hands of volunteers," Saejung said. "Rockport was one of the most welcoming communities I've ever been in. I would have loved to stay longer."

Donation management

  • Donation management is critical post disaster. 
  • The donation dump after a disaster is often called the second disaster, said Elayne Saejung from the College of Public Health. 
  • Well-meaning people bring or send donations that can't be used or distributed. In Rockport, piles of clothes were left in a random parking lot where survivors dug through them, sometimes taking more than they needed. 
  • "There was no structure to distribute essential items, like food and fresh water. Few organizations were meeting the needs of the people," Saejung said. 
  • She and her colleagues on the Field Innovation Team developed a donation management system for Rockport that is now being used in the aftermath of Irma in Florida. The system can be adapted to any disaster situation. 
  • The system helped to schedule volunteers and organize donations. They opened shop in a warehouse that has since been condemned. On the first day they served 200 people; four days later, they served 1,000 people.

Released by the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Click here for source.