Category: Nature Related Emergencies

The Public Health Effects of a Warming World are Worse for the Most Vulnerable

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August 7, 2018: Besides the huge Mendocino Complex, there were four other extremely large fires consuming large swaths of the state as well. (courtesy NASA)

Spurred by continued dependence on fossil fuels and industrial economies, climate change and its effects continue to rage around the globe. 2018 has already smashed records in temperatures, floods and typhoons. Wildfires in California this year beat records set last year to become the largest, most expensive and most complex conflagrations in the state’s modern history. This season has been one of the deadliest yet, particularly for wild-land firefighters. The increasing number and longer length of blazes poses an exhaustion risk for firefighters in what was previously a largely seasonal and episodic job and prompted the state’s agency responsible for fire protection, CAL FIRE, to increase the number of prison laborers engaged in wild-land firefighting in a highly criticized decision this past month. Three new fires ignited just this week.

Heat Waves are Becoming More Common and More Deadly 

Extreme heat waves with high mortality have struck this year from Quebec, to London, to Karachi, to Japan. These heat waves have toppled temperature records, melted roads, claimed lives, and overwhelmed emergency response and hospital services.

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Patients suffering from heat exhaustion in Karachi, Pakistan in May, 2018. The country’s largest ambulance service said their morgue received 65 bodies over four days, including people who reportedly died after losing consciousness on the streets. (courtesy The Guardian)

In Japan, 57,534 cases of heat exhaustion and heatstroke were reported between April 30 and July 29, including 125 who died from heat-related causes. The number surged as the heat wave took hold following torrential rains which caused flooding and landslides in early July. This year’s heat illness record has already surpassed last year and is expected to outstrip the record set in 2013. The long-running heat wave set new temperature records, including a national high of 41.1 C on July 23. The persistent warming of the earth poses a concealed threat to public health. Gasparini, et al (2017) note that warmer outdoor temperatures closely predict an increase in heat-related morbidity and mortality. Human health is directly affected by heightened exposure to non-optimal outdoor temperatures, but higher temperatures even outside of heat wave events markedly and often insensibly increase all-cause mortality. As noted by University of Miami Bioclimatologist Laurence Kalkstein in a Miami Herald article describing solutions for heat mortality, “Heat is the greatest weather-related killer in the U.S. – greater than tornadoes or hurricanes,” and “results are especially pronounced for maximum and mean temperatures, along with total mortality and those 65 and older.” Researchers at Public Health England (PHE) and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine predict a 2.1% increase in the number of deaths for every 1C rise. End of century analyses forecast that the average mortality increase varies by region:

In temperate areas such as northern Europe, east Asia, and Australia, the less intense warming and large decrease in cold-related excess would induce a marginally negative net effect, with the net change in 2090–99 compared with 2010–19 ranging from −1.2% in Australia to −0.1% in east Asia under the highest emission scenario… Warmer regions, such as the central and southern parts of America or Europe, and especially southeast Asia, would experience a sharp surge in heat-related impacts and extremely large net increases, with the net change at the end of the century ranging from 3.0% in Central America to 12.7% in southeast Asia under the highest emission scenario.

A 2017 study by Weinberger et al. applying these data sets to metropolitan areas in the United States forecasts that across 10 metropolitan areas, mortality is expected to increase by 10,300 heat-related deaths a year by 2050 and 26,000 heat-related deaths annually by 2090, compared to only about 2,300 in 1997. A “better case scenario” predicts heat-related mortality to increase to approximately 7,700 by 2050 and 10,400 by 2090 from the 1997 baseline. Gregory Wellenius, associate professor of epidemiology in the Brown University School of Public Health notes that “the conversation about climate change is typically focused on the costs of mitigation, but this paper shows the human toll of policy inaction. These results show the cost in terms of human lives due to just this one aspect of climate change: temperature. We have here an opportunity to save lives and improve people’s health.”

Catastrophic Storms Affect Vulnerable Patient Populations More Severely

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Massive waves strike a breakwater in the town of Aki, Kochi Prefecture, in western Japan. (Courtesy AP Photo)

Japan was struck by yet another climate disaster last week in the form of Typhoon Jebi, the most powerful Pacific tropical cyclone in a quarter century. Shocking images show massive swells crashing into harbors as the typhoon made each of its three landfalls. Meanwhile, the 2018 Atlantic Hurricane Season is only just unfolding but this year has yielded the highest number of early season subtropical storms since 1974, and Hurricane Florence threatens to be the most powerful storm to ever make a Mid-Atlantic landfall. As we recognize the anniversaries of catastrophic Hurricanes Katrina in 2005, as well as Harvey, Irma and Maria last year, the Atlantic Basin is rife with storms seething towards the Caribbean and US East Coast. The National Hurricane Center recommends interests in these areas hasten disaster planning. But typical disaster response planning often fails to incorporate consideration of marginalized communities and patient populations.

Climate change brings with it an increase in intensity, frequency, and duration of cataclysmic events and subsequent public health emergencies. These disasters include classically recognized collapses in civil service and infectious disease outbreaks. However, beyond the initial havoc wrought by storms and wildfire, disasters also dramatically increase the morbidity and mortality of smoldering crises. Patients who already struggle to manage chronic illness are exposed to sharply heightened risk scenarios in the ensuing days and weeks of a disaster event. Studies of people who inject drugs in New York City, New Orleans, South Florida, Houston and Puerto Rico following climate disasters affecting each of those locations in the past decade found that essential public health services to prevent overdose and infection risk frequently collapse, leading to soaring morbidity and mortality effects. While NYC has a model network of harm reduction service organizations, the effects of Hurricane Sandy in 2015 on services for some of the most vulnerable and at-risk patient populations of people who inject drugs was profound. A 2015 study in the journal Substance Use & Misuse drew on interviews of 300 persons who use drugs about their experience in the week following Sandy’s landfall, finding that:

60% experienced withdrawal; 27% shared drug injection or preparation equipment or injected with people they normally would not inject with; 70% of those in opioid maintenance therapy could not obtain sufficient doses; and 43% of HIV-positive participants missed HIV medication doses. Though relatively brief, a hurricane can alter drug environments and behaviors, and may have lasting impact.

Andrew Golub, a researcher at the National Development and Research Institutes (NDRI) notes that the problems of alcoholism and addiction become more public in a storm. “During a storm, it becomes harder to hide and cope with one’s addiction in private.” In Hurricanes Drive Addiction Issues Into Public Square, Carla Johnson writes that  “Drug users took chances during storms, avoiding evacuation to stay near their dealers or sharing needles with strangers putting themselves in danger of HIV and hepatitis. Those in treatment missed doses of medications and went back to street drugs to avoid withdrawal… during Sandy, clinics that lost power measured methadone by candlelight.” Despite buprenorphine treatment recognized by the CDC and SAMHSA as  best practice for medication-assisted addiction treatment (MAT), methadone clinics are the only accessible MAT model in many municipalities in the US. While methadone clinics are required to have disaster contingency plans, the model limits patient autonomy and resilience during protracted events, leading to the unacceptable faltering of addiction treatment plans and all ensuing sequelae of unmonitored opioid use.

For areas of the country where resources are already limited, the effects of a storm are ever more dire. In Drug Abuse Linked to Extreme Weather, Marlene Cimons writes that “socioeconomic factors and natural disasters should become part of any national conversation about how to tackle America’s wave of opioid deaths…It is reasonable to expect that damage and destruction cause emotional and mental health problems and lead to drug abuse, both new and existing users.” Cimons draws on the research of Meri Davlasheridze, a professor of Marine Sciences at Texas A&M. Davlasheridze found that drug mortality in New Orleans more than quadrupled from 3.45 per 100,000 people in the years between 1999 and 2004 to 16.1 drug deaths per 100,000 in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. While there are many possible reasons for this increase in drug mortality including changing drug markets, drug composition, and use habits, this trend has been repeated elsewhere: Areas affected by Superstorm Sandy also showed a sharp increase in drug death rates after 2012. “There are many factors that contributed to this rise, and disasters are one of them.” Britni de la Cretaz observed similar circumstances for people struggling with addiction in What Happens to Drug Users During a Natural Disaster, during Harvey’s impact on Houston:

While other people may have been seeking out small amounts of food or water during breaks in the storm, these people were out looking for drug dealers when the rain let up, hoping to score enough to hold them over until the next lull. For people who are physically dependent on a substance, their need to avoid withdrawal symptoms could trump their ability to tend to other crises happening around them.

People who use injection drugs in Puerto Rico saw even more dismal circumstances in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. As David Ovalle writes in the Miami Herald, public health departments maintained their pre-storm indifference to the high mortality risk faced by opioid users following the storm, leaving public health activists and harm reductionists to continue to provide outreach to these communities.

Mountain Point outreach counselor Carlos Sanchez carries supplies from a storage area in Cidra, Puerto Rico, Oct. 19, 2017. (courtesy Miami Herald)

For decades, Puerto Rico has battled an epidemic of addiction to injection  drugs,particularly heroin, with fentanyl […] emerging in recent years. With a $73 billion debt crisis and years of a spiraling economy, there’s little public appetite to spend money on treatment efforts. Because so many addicts inject drugs, Puerto Rico has one of the highest HIV/AIDs rates in the country, with nearly 40 percent suspected of contracting the virus from injection drug use. In contrast to many U.S. states… Puerto Rico has few options for treatment, with only about a dozen detox centers…few offering drugs such as methadone and buprenorphine to wean users off heroin. For harm reduction programs… operating was a challenge even before the hurricanes. They survive on private donations, not government money. Island authorities do not allow for the distribution of the anti-opioid drug Narcan, which revives users suffering from overdoses… Workers from an organization called El Punto en la Montaña (The Mountain Point), brought packets of clean syringes, mounds of antibacterial wipes and rolls of gauze from a dwindling supply. In the wake of the storm, their goal is to keep opioid users… free from deadly diseases they could get from injecting drugs.

“Excess Mortality” from Storms is a More Accurate Method for Analysis of Disaster Impacts 

Other vulnerable communities and patient populations face extreme risk during extreme weather events. Normally indolent chronic diseases account for a major increase in mortality in the post-disaster period. As Arrieta et al. (2009) determined, “the proportion of Katrina affected persons with 1 or more chronic illness diagnoses was estimated between 41% and 74% whereas an extreme increase in mental illness was also observed.” A 2015 study out of Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School uncovered that in the two weeks following Hurricane Sandy, in the eight counties determined to be high-impact areas, there was a twenty-two percent increase in heart attacks as compared with the same time period in the previous five years. In areas which saw less impact from the storm, the increase was less than one percent. Thirty-day mortality from heart attacks also increased by thirty-one percent in the high-impact area. Similarly, patients with diabetes face dramatically increased risk in disaster events. In their paper “Diabetes, Disasters and Decisions,” Allweiss and Albright (2011) write that following disasters:

Glycemic control among people with diabetes deteriorates. People with diabetes are at increased risk for morbidity and mortality caused by complications, such as diabetic ketoacidosis and foot infections, and ED visits for people with diabetes increase  Certain groups, such as the elderly, people of low socioeconomic status, people without health insurance, and many minorities, become even more vulnerable during disasters and experience increased morbidity and mortality in increase in admissions of people with newly-diagnosed Type 1 diabetes has also been reported post-disaster.

Multiple analyses of the death toll in Puerto Rico following Maria, including most extensively by the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, led to an official revision of the death toll from 67 to 2975, to account for excess mortality:

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The impacts of Hurricane Maria, September 2017. The disaster was felt even more heavily by the most vulnerable patient populations. (courtesy NY Daily News)

Every social stratum and age group was affected by excess mortality. However, the impact differed by age and socioeconomic status. The risk of death was 45% higher and persistent until the end of the study period for populations living in low socioeconomic development municipalities, and older males (65+) experienced continuous elevated risk of death through February [2018]. Overall, we estimate that 40% of municipalities experienced significantly higher mortality in the study period than in the comparable period of the previous two years. We conclude that excess mortality is a good indicator for impact monitoring during and in the aftermath of a disaster.

As climate change continues unabated, we will continue to see the public health effects of a hotter planet. These impacts are felt by everyone, but not equally: structural inequality and economic marginalization expose vulnerable communities, particularly in the global south, to the greatest risks of harm. Public health officials and activists must incorporate risk mitigation strategies responsive to the needs of the most vulnerable and stigmatized groups to avert the disastrous rise in mortality for these populations.

Report by Kasha Bornstein, MSPharm

Nepal Earthquake 2015: Natural Disaster at the Top of the World


On Saturday April 25, 2015 a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal approximately 50 km outside its capital of Kathmandu, the worst earthquake to hit the region in 80 years and caused an avalanche on Mount Everest, killing at least 17 on the mountain. The death toll so far is well over 4,300 people, with nearly 5,000 injured and tens of thousands displaced from their homes.  In addition, other countries in the region were affected including 56 deaths in India, 20 in China, and 25 deaths and 117 injuries in Tibet.  The earthquake only hit a depth of about 11 km, a relatively shallow quake. Unfortunately, the shallower the quake, the more destruction it leaves in its wake. “The shallowness of the source made the ground-shaking at the surface worse than it would have been for a deeper earthquake,” said Dr. David Rothery, a professor of planetary geosciences. The quake continues to cause large aftershocks, causing more destruction.

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Flood Preparedness: Staying Afloat

Did you know that September is National Preparedness Month? My reports this month are going to focus on various natural disasters and how to be ready to weather the storms. This week – monsoons!

Monsoon Crisis

Five days of heavy and unrelenting monsoon rains in the Kashmir regions of northern India and Pakistan have killed over 120 in India and 160 in Pakistan in landslides and flash floods. In India, 450 villages are submerged and 2,000 others have been affected, while in Pakistan the floods have hit at least 286 villages and collapsed over 4,000 homes. Rescuers in both countries are attempting to reach thousands of stranded citizens, though their efforts are being hampered by fast-moving floodwaters. For example, even though the rains had stopped on Sunday, the overflow from the Jhulem River was moving too quickly to allow boats to reach those in need. In Srinagar, a major city in Indian-controlled Kashmir, the floodwaters were 12 feet deep, with entire houses completely under water. Even the state’s maternity hospital was flooding, forcing patients and staff to flee to higher floors of the building. The Indian Prime Minister has described the situation as a “national level disaster.”

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

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Volcano Preparedness: Getting Ready to Blow!

Did you know that September is National Preparedness Month? My posts this month are going to focus on various natural disasters and how to be ready to weather the storms. Up first – volcanoes!

Volcanic Geography

There are over 160 volcanos within the United States alone with most centered around the western coast in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Wyoming, Hawaii and the western islands – find the full list here. You can find a list of all the active volcanoes around the world here.

Last week the world learned how to pronounce Bárðarbunga as word spread that another Icelandic volcano was ready to blow. We all remember when Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010 spreading ash miles into the air and causing airlines to shut down flights in Europe for 6 days out of fear that the ash would ruin the jet engines.

Baroarbunga on map

Bárðarbunga is part of a system of volcanos in the center of Iceland which lay beneath a massive glacier. Seismologists detected over 3,000 earthquakes in the region, a forewarning of a future eruption. Indeed on Monday the 8/28 Bárðarbunga erupted, and had a second eruption a few days later on 8/31. While these eruptions were nothing that those experienced in 2010, Iceland still banned flights within 6,000 feet of the peak on the 31st for a few hours until it was determined that no ash had been released and air travel remained safe. You can read more about the Bárðarbunga volcano via Vox’s excellent coverage here and here. And even catch a livecam of the volcano.

image courtesy of the BBC

image courtesy of the BBC

Iceland wasn’t the only hot zone this last week, however. Mount Tavurvur’s Rabaul volcano in Papua New Guinea also erupted on August 29, 2014, spreading a plume of smoke and ash 18km into the air.  4,000 people in the town of Rabaul were evacuated in anticipation of the storm, and the rest were warned to stay indoors. This eruption is causing changes in flight patterns, with Qantas airlines rerouting planes to avoid the smoke and ash. Others are concerned for the fate of agriculture nearby as ash blankets the land, similar to a previous Rabaul eruption in 1994 devastated the area.

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Tavurvur imageImages via @hhnamani

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Napa Earthquake: Wine Country Shaken but not Stirred

The strongest earthquake to hit Northern California in 25 years occurred Sunday August 24th at 3:20am.  The magnitude 6.0 earthquake was located near American Canyon, CA, approximately 6 miles south of the city of Napa.

Building at corner of Second and Brown Streets damaged from Napa earthquake. Courtesy of

 Early Morning Devastation

The pre-dawn trembler woke many area residents from their sleep, and individuals all across the Bay Area felt the impact with nearly nine million people experiencing the tremors.  Initially, 70,000 customers lost electricity, but by Monday morning only 2,200 were left without power reported the electric company Pacific Gas & Electric.  In addition, multiple water lines were ruptured during the event, and it may take a week to have them all repaired said Napa Public Works Director Jack Rochelle. However, “Running water is safe to drink,” stated Rochelle. Napa Division Fire Chief John Callanan told reporters that the earthquake spurred six major fires that destroyed multiple mobile homes in the area.  Some of these fires were caused by broken gas lines.  There were 20 gas distribution “outages,” and utility team are responding to several hundred “gas odor” calls. Amtrak suspended its train service through the Bay Area so tracks could be inspected. Governor Jerry Brown has declared a State of Emergency.

Firefighters spray foam on a fire at a mobile home. Courtesy of

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Magnitude 6.1 Earthquake Rocks China

A 6.1 magnitude earthquake has struck China’s Yunnan Province near the Qiaojia County of Zhaotang prefecture. Reports so far suggest that at least 390 have been killed and hundreds are missing due to the devastation, though rescuers are still searching for trapped survivors. The rescue efforts have been complicated by recent mudslides in the area which have made some roads impassable, NPR reports. Additionally, over 1,400 have been injured, 12,000 homes have collapsed and at least 30,000 have sustained damaged. A resident described the scene as a “battlefield after bombardment”. While the USGS is reporting the earthquake to be of magnitude 6.1, the China Earthquake Networks Centre is rating the quake at 6.5

A paramilitary police officer carries an elderly man on his back after an earthquake hit Yunnan province China on Aug. 3. Picture courtesy of The Chicago Tribune

A paramilitary police officer carries an elderly man on his back after an earthquake hit Yunnan province China on Aug. 3. Picture courtesy of The Chicago Tribune

The United States Geological Survey has previously expressed concerns about the infrastructure in the area, saying: “Overall, the population in this region resides in structures that are highly vulnerable to earthquake shaking, though some resistant structures exist. The predominant vulnerable building types are unreinforced brick masonry and ductile reinforced concrete frame construction.”

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Mental Health Preparedness: Psychological Protection Prior to a Disaster

This is the second in a three-part series on post traumatic stress disorder following disasters. Part One, PTSD in Emergency Workers, can be found here.

General Public at Risk

Over 2/3 of the general population will experience some significant traumatic event in their lifetime, and 1/5 of Americans will undergo such an event in any year. One review of the literature found that the prevalence of PTSD in direct victims can range from 30-40%, in rescue workers 10-20%, and 5-10% in the general population.

PTSD in Natori Japan

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PTSD in Emergency Workers

This is the first of a series of posts which will cover post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

EMTs, Paramedics, Fire Fighters, Police Officers, Emergency Department Personnel. These brave individuals serve to protect, to save, and to heal us in times of our greatest need. Aid workers are dispatched around the world to respond to natural and man-made disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and war. Just as our nation’s soldiers and veterans battle the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), so do our first responders. Worldwide 1 in 10 emergency workers have PTSD. Ambulance personnel are the hardest hit, with over 1 in 5 ambulance personnel meeting criteria.

Image courtesy of the LA Times

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Hurricane Arthur Reminds Coastal Residents to Stay Vigilant During Hurricane Season

Hurricane Arthur was the first named storm of the hurricane season, making landfall in North Carolina last Thursday and affecting the northeast United States and southeast Canada. The storm’s 100 mph wind speeds and heavy rain reminded residents of coastal areas always to remain vigilant during hurricane season.

Courtesy of Animation: Hal Pierce/NASA


Hurricane Arthur, the first named storm of the hurricane season and the first to hit the United States since Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, made landfall in North Carolina Thursday, July 3, as a Category 2 hurricane. Arthur disrupted the region’s Independence Day celebrations before it weakened to a Category 1 and then a post-tropical storm as it moved along the northeast and affected parts of Canada on Saturday.

Despite the initial 100 mph winds, Arthur didn’t do much damage to homes or businesses in North Carolina, but it did manage to spoil the holiday weekend for many—4th of July parades and firework shows were cancelled due to the heavy rain.

Additionally, an estimated 44,000 people were without power the next morning. However, the damage was mitigated fairly quickly, with only 5,000 people left without power by that same afternoon.

No injuries or deaths were reported after the storm.

“We’ve always felt that it was better to overreact than underreact,” said North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, “Gladly this storm was more underwhelming than anticipated, which was very good news.”

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Major Earthquakes of 2013: One Year Later

Baluchistan Province, Pakistan

On September 24, 2013 a 7.8-magnitude earthquake devastated the Baluchistan province of Pakistan, causing at least 348 deaths and leaving thousands more homeless and injured. Aid groups and members of the Pakistani military struggled to reach people in some of the most heavily affected areas – including the Awaran and Kech districts – where early reports estimated that at least 21,000 houses had been damaged. Despite dispatching teams with medical aid and necessities such as food and water, officials from the Pakistani military confirmed that the sparsely populated and remote region with an underdeveloped communications and transportation infrastructures made delivering aid in an expeditious fashion a challenge.


(photo courtesy of

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