How Hurricane Responders Track People Whose Lives Depend on Power

By: - October 2, 2017 12:00 am

Snapped electric poles in the Tampa Bay area following Hurricane Irma. Power outages can be life-threatening for people who rely on home medical devices. State and local emergency responders are increasingly using databases to locate residents with special medical needs.

© The Associated Press

In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, large swaths of Florida went without power for days. Sweaty and frustrating for millions, the lack of electricity could have been deadly for tens of thousands of mostly elderly Floridians who rely on home health equipment such as oxygen concentrators, ventilators, motorized wheelchairs and dialysis machines.

But in much of the state, first responders and public health officials knew exactly where the most vulnerable residents lived and what their medical needs were.

That’s because Florida, like a handful of other hurricane-prone states, requires counties to create registries of residents who are most vulnerable to severe storms and the prolonged power outages that follow them. Some states also maintain their own databases of medically fragile residents.

As the U.S. population ages and more people opt for home health care services instead of lengthy hospital and nursing home stays, the number of Americans who rely on the electrical grid to power life-sustaining home devices is soaring.

That fact, combined with climatologists’ predictions that the number of major storms is likely to increase, puts an increasing number of Americans at risk when the power goes out.

Hurricane Sandy, which hit the East Coast in 2012, caused prolonged power losses for millions of residents in 17 states and sent hundreds of medically fragile people to hospital emergency departments to plug in their devices. At the same time, people with life-threatening injuries were crowding the same hospitals, creating chaos and death.

That’s when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) decided to help states locate and care for electricity-dependent residents during natural disasters. Using Medicare claims data, the agency created a database of people who use home medical equipment paid for by the federal insurance program for the elderly and disabled.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Christine Vestal

Christine Vestal covers mental health and drug addiction for Stateline. Previously, she covered health care for McGraw-Hill and the Financial Times.