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USA: Three months later - An update on AmeriCares Hurricane Katrina response

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Three months ago, Hurricane Katrina crossed the Gulf Coast and left devastation in its wake, causing hundreds of deaths and displacing more than half a million people. Today, communities across four states continue their efforts to repair and rebuild homes, restore public services, recreate jobs and help the affected residents recover a sense of normalcy in their day to day lives. Nationwide, communities have taken in evacuees and are helping them to rebuild their lives.
AmeriCares responded rapidly to this disaster and, thanks to the generosity of thousands of donors, is continuing to work in the many communities that still need help. As of November 30, 2005, AmeriCares has delivered aid valued at more than $7 million to Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Alabama. As always, we are collaborating with local partners in the affected areas, to ensure that our aid is appropriate and meets the greatest needs of the communities affected by Hurricane Katrina that have asked for help.

The following is a summary of our efforts to date. AmeriCares remains committed to working in the Gulf Coast to improve the lives of those most affected by this catastrophe, to rebuild health care infrastructure where it no longer exists, and to ensure that long-term solutions are created that will have long-term benefits.

AmeriCares Emergency Response

In the days following the hurricane, AmeriCares dispatched emergency response teams to Mississippi and Louisiana, and later, into Texas. Among those with the AmeriCares team was Dr. Jonathan Fine, who performed medical assessments in Mississippi and Louisiana, working with local medical officials to ensure rapid delivery of needed medicines and equipment. In the first week after Katrina struck, AmeriCares delivered nearly $1 million in aid to Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as to Alabama, where thousands of people were also affected by the Category 4 storm.

A few days later, the AmeriCares Free Clinics mobile health unit joined the relief effort, departing from our Stamford, Connecticut, headquarters and traveling to Baton Rouge. For the next four weeks, the mobile medical clinic, which usually services Connecticut's uninsured working poor, helped to provide basic health care services for first responders in New Orleans, as well as hundreds of others living in temporary shelters throughout affected areas. The clinic was staffed with doctors and residents from Louisiana State University and Tulane University, as well as volunteer nurses and a volunteer team from the AmeriCares Free Clinics.

Rebuilding the Health Care Infrastructure

As the relief efforts moved away from search and rescue into recovery mode, AmeriCares began working with local officials to create longer-term solutions to the health care crisis that developed after the hurricane. Hospitals and clinics were decimated by the storm, destroyed by winds in Mississippi and by floods in Louisiana. On October 3, AmeriCares teamed up with the Internal Medicine Department of Louisiana State University to open a clinic in Baton Rouge. The clinic's mission is to serve those displaced from New Orleans and the surrounding areas, as well as the affected population in Baton Rouge, where many people took refuge after the storm.

Dr. Catherine Hebert is one of the physicians who worked with AmeriCares to help start the clinic, which is staffed by residents from LSU's Internal Medicine Department, supervised by faculty from LSU and the Earl K. Long Hospital.

"We started that first week with three to eight patients a day and have now expanded to 23 patients in a half day," notes Dr. Hebert. "People from all over the devastated area come to our clinic for help. Some have insurance, some partial insurance, and most others have no insurance and no means to buy needed medication. This would not have been possible without AmeriCares. I cannot say thank you enough. This clinic has done more good than you realize."

AmeriCares provided the necessary medicines, medical equipment and supplies to get the clinic fully operational. This included a cardiology machine, sterilizer, stethoscopes, thermometers, microscopes, gloves, syringes and other critical supplies; as well as exam tables and other office equipment. It also included a computer system to help facilitate patient record keeping.

AmeriCares also helped many other health care facilities in the first two months after Hurricane Katrina, by providing a steady, reliable supply of medicines, medical supplies and medical equipment to those in need. Among those who requested and received help: Children's Hospital in Baton Rouge, Lafayette General Medical Center and the New Orleans Blood Center in Louisiana; Crosby Memorial Hospital, Mississippi Emergency Management Association, University of Mississippi Medical Center, Biloxi Regional Medical Center in Mississippi; San Antonio Metro Health District, San Jacinto Methodist Hospital, St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital and Harris County Hospital District in Texas.

Responding to Hurricane Rita

Just three weeks after Hurricane Katrina, another hurricane swept into the Gulf Coast, causing damage along the Texas-Louisiana border. An AmeriCares emergency response team was deployed immediately to assess the needs in this area. Within a day, a relief shipment of medicines valued at $400,000 was delivered to Austin, where a health care clinic was treating evacuees displaced by both hurricanes. Follow-up shipments to other local partners continued on a regular basis.

More recently in southeast Texas, AmeriCares collaborated with a local nonprofit, The Living Bank, to feed more families who were impacted by Katrina and Rita during the Thanksgiving Day holiday. Through a cash grant by AmeriCares, money was donated to the Houston Food Bank to purchase a holiday feast for more than 3,000 families who were affected by Hurricane Rita. Funds were also given to the Southeast Texas Relief Fund to support the nutritional needs of other families through the upcoming holiday season.

More than Medical Relief

AmeriCares has a 23-year history of responding to disaster situations. One of the things we do best is to fulfill "unmet needs"-that is, step in and fill the gaps in providing assistance that other organizations can't provide. In the case of Hurricane Katrina, AmeriCares efforts have extended beyond medical assistance to deliver other vitally needed services and equipment.

For example, when firefighters in Connecticut learned of the many fire companies in Mississippi that had lost their trucks and other fire-fighting equipment to hurricane damage, they were eager to help. The cities of Shelton and New Milford, Connecticut, were among the first to offer to donate fire trucks to Mississippi, although they did not have the resources to get them there. Fire trucks aren't meant to be driven long distances, and so special flatbed trailer transportation was needed. AmeriCares arranged the transportation and funded the delivery of these vehicles to the community of Kiln in Hancock County, Mississippi, which was in desperate need of this life-saving equipment.

Shelter continues to be a major issue after Hurricane Katrina. While family housing continues to be a priority, there are many other types of community buildings that were destroyed in the hurricane and the loss of such buildings has impacted local services.

AmeriCares relief workers arranged for the donation of temporary, tented structures called "Sprung Structures" to fill the gaps in two Louisiana locations.

In New Orleans, AmeriCares workers managed the donation and installation of three large Sprung structures in St. Bernard Parish, one of the communities badly affected by the storm. Most of the people who have returned to this area are now involved in its rebuilding, and they are living in trailers. With no movie theaters, no restaurants and no shopping outlets, there was literally nowhere for these workers to go to relax in their off-hours except their trailers. Upon recognizing this need and being approached by the local authorities, the AmeriCares relief team installed a Sprung structure, which is now being used as a recreation center/community space. More than 100 people who are living in trailers and working to help rebuild St. Bernard now have somewhere to go in their off hours where they can relax and socialize with others. Two other structures were also given to St. Bernard, where they are supporting the work of the local rebuilding crew by providing temporary meeting space, an area sorely lacking in such facilities.

In St. Gabriel, five additional structures were provided by AmeriCares to FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency), and are serving as temporary offices for post-hurricane recovery work there. AmeriCares staff and Sprung technicians were on-site there for several weeks, working with the local authorities to supervise the placement and installation of these structures. Like those in St. Bernard, these semi-permanent facilities have been wired for electricity and are climate controlled, providing cooling relief to the humid heat of daytime Louisiana and taking the chill off cooler nights.

Moving Forward

"In the nearly three months that I've been working in this area, I've been impressed with the resilience and determination of the people," says AmeriCares relief worker Tom Turley. "It has also been interesting to observe New Orleans coming back to life. Week to week I have seen more cars and people return to the city center, as sectors are re-opened and public services are restored. But there is still a long road ahead for the hardest hit areas."

Many people in New Orleans are still lacking access to health and medical care. AmeriCares is committed to supporting the area's revitalization, with a number of partnerships underway that will span well into 2006. One of the most important community facilities in New Orleans is the St. Thomas Clinic, which has been providing health services for nearly 20 years to an underserved and impoverished area. AmeriCares is donating medical equipment that will enable the clinic to refurbish 11 patient exam rooms, and a counseling room. The clinic works closely with the Louisiana State University Medical School, which is contributing to the restoration of this important community facility by providing staffing support.

And while the physical needs of the population are being addressed, AmeriCares is also focusing on better access to mental health services for those in Louisiana and Mississippi. The almost unthinkable loss of family, friends, shelter and property are traumatic and nearly paralyzing. A critical need expressed to the AmeriCares staff by local health professionals is the need for mental health services. In response to that need, AmeriCares will be implementing a program dedicated to providing support for mental health programming for evacuees and the communities to which they relocated. Additionally, AmeriCares will continue to reach out to primary care providers through in-kind and financial support as they face expanded caseloads and a loss of staff.

In the months to come, AmeriCares will continue to focus on health care and also look at other areas to which it can apply its resources, thus making a difference in the many communities that were shaken by the fury of this deadly and devastating storm.