The floods that surged through Baton Rouge, Louisiana in the summer of 2016 killed 13 people and did $20 billion of damage to an estimated 110,000 homes. More than 122,000 people filed for federal disaster relief aid, with FEMA approving $205 million in direct aid and advance payments to flood insurance policyholders. The federal government also provided clean water, food, cots, and blankets to those displaced by the floods. Delivery of a secondary wave – of medical supplies, pharmaceuticals, and other health care aids – was coordinated by the nonprofit Direct Relief of Goleta, California.
Since 1948, Direct Relief has worked to support communities in need with donations of medical equipment from throughout the health care industry. Although the agency has an international presence that reaches about 70 countries, in the past decade, it has focused on growing sustainable responses to medical equipment shortages caused by domestic emergencies. Whether abroad or at home, the organization takes the approach of establishing a strong distribution infrastructure so that, in times of urgent need, the groundwork has been laid upon which logistics can be organized.
“The most successful way to be doing relief work is to be doing it all the time,” said Damon Taugher, Director of the U.S. Program for Direct Relief. “Challenges occur when you don’t have operational actors. Our approach has always been to do what we do on a day-to-day basis, so when it’s pressurized, we can act quickly.”
Direct Relief encourages the facilities with which it connects to develop business continuity plans for such contingencies, which Taugher said can be a challenge. Whether resolving needs of access, equipment, or power, emergency response plans can save precious time connecting people who have skills and training to help those displaced by a disaster.
“One of our organizational practices is to work closely with folks who are rooted in the community who are going to be there long after an emergency happens,” Taugher said. “[Our role involves] aligning shipments of standing inventory to make specific requests of [equipment manufacturers for] items we can distribute.”
In 2006, Direct Relief had begun some of its U.S.-based work by piloting a free distribution network to deliver medications to community centers and clinics in its home state of California. After Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans, Direct Relief linked up with the National Association of Community Health Centers, a nationwide network of nonprofit clinics, to extend its pharmaceutical distribution license on a provisional basis in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas in order to support hurricane victims.
“We recognized that there really weren’t any nonprofit networks in the country that were licensed to ship pharmaceuticals nationwide,” Taugher said. “We had access to great companies that were willing to help, and the need was clear to us. These institutions provide a really good source of health care, which is important for emergencies if you’re trying to keep people out of hospitals and manage chronic diseases.”
After Katrina, Direct Relief leaders wondered whether “there’s a role we can play together trying to stitch together the front door of the health system,” Taugher said. In the time since, the agency has coordinated efforts at 1,300 facilities around the country that activate 4,900 clinical delivery sites, caring for more than 12 million people nationwide.
That network was tapped into during the most recent flooding in Baton Rouge. Initially, the organization worked closely with RKM Primary Care in nearby Clinton, Louisiana, which needed clinical products to replace those it had lost at a flooded site.
“In those first couple of days, we heard a lot of requests regarding chronic disease medicine,” Taugher said. “Whenever you have a major event that displaces people, if they have their medicines at home and they don’t take them with them, it can lead to worse health; potentially an admission to an ER.”
In the two months following the floods, Direct Relief sent 61 shipments of medical aid valued at $1.1 million to nine different health centers in the path of the storm. Most of the shipments were medications needed for the management of chronic health conditions like diabetes, asthma, and hypertension. Direct Relief also shipped other essential supplies like inhalers, vaccines, antibiotics, wound-care products, and personal care items. Nearly 40 companies made in-kind contributions.
Direct Relief sustained those efforts with the federally qualified health center Care South in Baton Rouge, with which the organization had worked since the days right after Katrina. In flood- and hurricane-prone areas of the country, Taugher said Direct Relief has tried to “pre-position” medical preparedness packs containing emergency hygiene kits and pharmaceuticals, which give providers “something that they can outreach with,” he said. Prior to the Baton Rouge floods, 50 of those packs had been placed in shelters throughout the immediate community, so when the flooding started, a contact onsite was able to outfit local shelters receiving more people than its inventory was able to support. Eight weeks out, as families still return to their homes to try to put their lives in order, there’s still a lot of work to be done.
“There’s the emergency itself and the emergency that happens months and years after,” Taugher said. “What we’ve seen is really the importance of community health. This network of nonprofit primary care providers is pretty important and often overlooked. They care for one in 15 people in our country. Our goal is to support these providers for the long term. The value of the services they provide is really critical.”