When Disaster Strikes

Rooftop view of debris and destruction

When Disaster Strikes

UMN experts share disaster response experiences and explain how they're working to improve future responses


By PAIGE CALHOUN | Photos COURTESY OF MIGUEL FIOL

"I had to help my people." Miguel Fiol, M.D., was in Puerto Rico when talk of Hurricane Maria making landfall began. He could have gone back to the United States where he is a neurologist and an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School, but he decided to ride out the storm to provide assistance once the storm cleared.

Fiol and his wife stayed in a relative's home because their hotel was too close to the water. They stayed in the house for 2 days and waited the storm out.

"We had the windows covered for safety, but every now and then I would peek out to see what was going on. When I did, I could see trees flying like birds."

Fallen and twisted trees in Puerto Rico

Downed trees on the side of the roadway in Puerto Rico.

Hurricane destruction in a building

A damaged building in Puerto Rico.

Fiol said the winds were incredible, but they fell quiet for an eerie two hours while the island was in the eye of the storm. "Then the winds came howling again as the backside of the storm hit. It was a monster.”

When it was finally safe to venture outside, Fiol captured images of the destruction. Downed trees blocking major roadways, buildings with roofs torn off and windows blown out, and people across the island in search of clean water.

For a week after the storm, Fiol provided medical care to the storm victims, many of whom needed general medical care for their chronic conditions. The wind swept everything away, including their medication.

Now back in Minnesota, Fiol is still determined to help the people of Puerto Rico. He is part of the Puerto Ricans in Minnesota Committee, which is working to organize help in the area. Fiol also organized the Puerto Rico Medical Supplies Relief Group to collect medical supplies. A hospital in San Juan will help distribute the supplies to other hospitals in the area. 

Donate medication and supplies, or money to fund the shipment

Providing Support Where Truly Needed

While Maria is the most recent hurricane to make landfall, it isn’t the first major storm this year. Hurricane Harvey dumped record amounts of rain on Houston, Texas and surrounding areas, leaving local communities flooded and thousands of residents out of homes as they waited for floodwaters to recede.

It was a similar scene in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. Shortly before Katrina hit, The University of Minnesota formed its Medical Reserve Corps (MRC), offering students, staff, and faculty members from the Academic Health Center and Boynton Health an opportunity to be of service to their community during a public health emergency or disaster. Katrina was the first disaster the MRC was called on for assistance.

The University sent 4 waves of relief workers to New Orleans, and James Pacala, M.D., professor and associate head of the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Minnesota Medical School, was part of the third wave.

The experience was vastly different than what he was anticipating. “You go down thinking you’re going to be performing life-saving procedures on people, but that couldn’t be farther from the reality,” Pacala remembered.

In fact, Pacala said, the main focus for many medical professionals responding to a natural flooding disaster is helping people manage their chronic conditions, such as providing medication for people with diabetes who ran out of insulin to keep their blood sugar in check, or making sure someone with a heart condition has their daily medication.

Listen to the local officials. Let them tell you what they need, and then do it. So many people respond to these events with heroic expectations, but really it’s about listening and providing support where and how it’s truly needed.

Pacala also said he and his team spent a lot of time providing mental health support. “Living through an experience like this is obviously traumatic, so we stepped in to provide the care they needed to help them cope with what happened.”

The MRC has not been called to help with Harvey or Maria, but Pacala has advice for those who are responding: “Listen to the local officials. Let them tell you what they need, and then do it. So many people respond to these events with heroic expectations, but really it’s about listening and providing support where and how it’s truly needed.”

Meeting the Need – There’s An App For That

Amy Kircher, DrPH is the Director of the Food Protection and Defense Institute (FPDI) at the University of Minnesota. She knows how difficult it can be to deliver food, water and other disaster supplies to an area impacted by a natural disaster.

“A lot of times people end up sending stuff that’s not needed, or the timing isn’t right and the shipments clog up the ports creating a logistics nightmare.” These issues are complicated by private donations which are not aligned to needs at the disaster site. “I appreciate organizations sending donated supplies immediately, but there’s a better way to do it to ensure we’re getting it to the right people at the right place at the right time.”

That’s why Kircher and her colleagues are working to develop a new app to support disaster supply chains, to create a more efficient and effective way to deliver supplies after a natural disaster when multiple organizations are providing relief items.

Kircher and her FPDI colleague Erin Mann are partnering with a technology company and their work has been funded by the Department of Homeland Security and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. Their app will allow users to input data including quantities of disaster supplies along with their locations. Shelters can also input information about what supplies they need or don’t need.

In practice, Kircher said someone using the app would pre-load warehouses with necessary supplies like meals and water in advance of a natural disaster. Once the storm hits, the data coming from the shelters would indicate how many people are being fed, what meals they’re getting, what inventory is left, what trucks are in route to the location and what’s left in the warehouse.

The capability is currently built in support of responders however there is a desire that it could be used to align private donors with location needs. Kircher said, “You could think of the capability like a wedding registry.

The capability is currently built in support of responders however there is a desire that it could be used to align private donors with location needs. Kircher said, “You could think of the capability like a wedding registry. If a city has a hurricane come through and they say they need 8,700 cases of water 15 pairs of boots and 400 tarps, when people donate they should be donating those specs or they can donate money that will go towards those items.”

The app could also help volunteers trying to deliver supplies get to each delivery location faster. “Especially in a disaster with critical infrastructure destroyed, we can mark that and reroute the driver around the destruction so they can get there efficiently,” Kircher said.

The app is currently in the beta-phase. It’s developed, but needs to be tested by disaster responders during an actual disaster event so they can enter the data and see how it functions. From there, Kircher and her colleagues can adjust the technology to ensure it supports the need appropriately.

“This issue is not an insurmountable challenge, and we’re looking forward to helping people and organizations help each other.”