COVID-19

As Disaster Survivors Suffer, Are Americans Turning a Blind Eye?

Hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires don’t stop for pandemics. When it comes to disaster relief, neither should we.

The lowlands of Louisiana were water soaked. The destruction of 140-plus mph winds was laid bare for miles in every direction; trees were tossed across roads like barricades. Over the more than 200 miles of roads driven, we scarcely saw a power pole standing straight. All that’s left of many homes in Cameron Parish, where Hurricane Laura made landfall, are the cement slabs of foundations. In the neighborhoods of Calcasieu Parish and Lake Charles nearly every home and business is impacted, many are fully destroyed.

All of this in a region that is experiencing the largest COVID-19 caseload in the United States. Louisiana has the highest number of COVID cases per capita in the country. The coronavirus hit the state early and continues to surge across many rural communities.

Hurricanes don’t stop for pandemics. As disaster relief organizations, neither should we.

In our combined decades working in disaster relief, we have never seen such a glaring disparity between community need and aid. Never before in America have we seen such a gap between devastation and the resources needed to survive, let alone begin to rebuild. In Louisiana’s Cajun Country, the scene is as bad as, or worse, than it was in Houston after Hurricane Harvey. When Hurricane Laura came ashore more than 6,000 families’ homes were totally destroyed by the storm and nearly 22,000 people had been displaced and were, and are, living in shelters in Louisiana and Texas.

All this in the middle of a global pandemic. All this with more storms—like Delta, which is swirling in the Gulf now—on the horizon.

Begging Not to Be Forgotten

Even for many of those not displaced, life is not much better. It is hot and humid. The rains come daily and pour into now roofless homes. For weeks, there was no electricity to run fans and no way to dry out the floors and walls. More than 253,000 people—225,000 people in Louisiana and 28,000 in Texas—were without power into and throughout much of September. Access to clean water was equally troublesome. Across Louisiana, 424,485 people were under a “boil water” advisory. In 13 of the state’s parishes, more than 142,000 people were without water altogether for longer than should be expected.  Without water, you can’t draw a glass of water to drink, flush the toilet, or wash your hands properly. You certainly cannot wash your facemask. If this continues, a hygiene and sanitation crisis could be on the horizon.

David Burke talks to a homeowner in Louisiana.

We have seen the impact on families firsthand. While conducting route clearance in a rural neighborhood in Sulphur, LA, on the morning of August 28, we met a survivor, Kelly Parker, and her family. Kelly asked for help and we quickly cleared enough branches from her driveway to ensure there was safe access for her family or emergency responders to get to the home. As we left, we told the Parkers we would circle back after finishing priorities elsewhere for safety access. She asked us not to forget her family. Then, with tears rolling down her cheeks, she shared that she was already scared everyone would forget. When returned on September 1 we realized Kelly had been right: most the country has already moved on. 

It has barely been a month since Category 4 Hurricane Laura made landfall and already the disaster and its survivors are being forgotten. By the media for sure; by the American public largely; and possibly also by our nation’s aid organizations.

A Moment of Reckoning

Having been on the ground in Lake Charles for a week and a witness to the environment, destruction, and dire conditions, we are dismayed not to see Hurricane Laura and its debilitating aftermath on every front page or regularly in the news. Maybe that’s due to the fact that we have a global pandemic to contend with, the pending contention of the election, or the very real specter of racism in America. Maybe it’s because the area devastated wasn’t a major metropolitan area, although it is a major population center for the state of Louisiana. Or, maybe it’s the fact that when the rural and poor are affected our attention wanes. Yet without a doubt, the people of Louisiana and upper Texas have not forgotten about the devastation. Most also have no idea how they will return to the lives they once knew.

For many disaster relief organizations, this has become a moment of reckoning: Do we stand up and take action, potentially opening ourselves to exposure to the coronavirus, or do we wait until the dust has settled before moving in?

At Team Rubicon, we made the difficult decision that we cannot sit idly by as things grow increasingly worse for these Americans. Not every aid organization will have the resources to respond and we understand that, but those that do must act and they must act now. And, they must do so with a very carefully formulated plan.

If we can test professional athletes two times a day to allow them to practice, we can test frontline disaster response volunteers…

Even before hurricane season, Team Rubicon was preparing to meet the needs of hurricane-affected communities in the backdrop of a global pandemic. Our team has worked tirelessly over the last several months in collaboration with the World Health Organization and health systems like Atrium Health to ensure that we have COVID-safe strategies for deployment. Learning from professional sports teams, political conventions, the CDC, and the military, we have placed age restrictions on our volunteers, increased pre-deployment medical screening, implemented COVID- protection protocols, and developed ways of caring for volunteers if they are exposed. These steps reduce COVID risk, but what is really needed is rapid COVID testing that can deployed outside of a laboratory. If we can test professional athletes two times a day to allow them to practice, we can test frontline disaster response volunteers serving the people of Louisiana and Texas.

Committed to Serving Survivors, Pandemic and All

Disaster response is complex and never without risk. Not every aid organization will have the resources to respond and we understand that, but those that do must, and they must do so with a very carefully formulated plan. At Team Rubicon, that plan has included putting nearly 300 Team Rubicon volunteers on the ground in Lake Charles in the weeks since Laura hit. As an organization and as individuals, we have committed to operating under the collective obligation to protect ourselves, our teams, the natural disaster survivors we will serve, and the communities to which we will return. We cannot eliminate risk of exposure or even infection, and that’s the first thing we tell every responder before they ever walk out the front door, but we also cannot fail those who are suffering along the American Gulf Coast right now.

We cannot ignore the suffering of the Americans who have survived natural disasters this year.

Natural disasters don’t spare the most vulnerable and those at highest risk. They don’t dole out suffering in measured portions. Hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires don’t stop for pandemics. Neither should America’s disaster relief organizations. We, the aid organizations of United States of America must act now in whatever ways we can. Those of us who can safely and effectively put boots on the ground should. Those who cannot, but who have the means to fund the aid organizations that can, must also step up to the plate. This is our reckoning. We cannot ignore the suffering of the Americans who have survived natural disasters this year.

David Burke

David Burke, the Vice President of Program & Field Operations, graduated from the University of Iowa where he majored in business, bicycle maintenance, and beer snobbery. He served just under 5 years in the Marine Corps as a logistics officer and he deployed to Iraq with RCT-8 and to Afghanistan with the 2d Marine Division. David finished active service as a Captain in Quantico, VA, supporting the M1A1 Tank and M88 Recovery Vehicle. After a short stint in consulting, David traveled the US logging 1000's of miles on the road and 100's with a backpack.

David W. Callaway

David W. Callaway, MD, MPA, is Team Rubicon's Chief Medical Officer and the Medical Director of Emergency Management for Atrium Health’s Carolina Medical Center-Main.