By Katie Horneffer, Intern, Care4Carolina
In North Carolina, September means peak hurricane season. In the past two decades, twenty-six recorded hurricanes have affected our state during the month of September, more than double any other month. As one of the most vulnerable states in the US, all regions of North Carolina have suffered the effects of hurricanes. And while Hurricane Ida may not have hit our coastline, we are no stranger to the recovery experience and importance of access to healthcare after a devastating storm.
The recent damage in Louisiana is catastrophic, leading many to compare Ida to Hurricane Katrina, which hit the state in 2005. Yet the state is much better prepared to respond to the impacts of this disaster than it was to Katrina. Because Louisiana closed its health insurance coverage gap in 2016, its low-income residents will be able to seek care for injuries, illnesses, and other health problems in the aftermath of the hurricane without worrying about how to pay for it. But North Carolina has still not closed its coverage gap and, as a result, does not have the same capacity as Louisiana to respond to the health needs of its residents after a natural disaster.
Natural disasters can lead to a host of health problems. The most obvious one is serious injury: after Hurricane Irene hit North Carolina in 2011, the most affected regions saw a 45% increase in injury-related emergency department visits. But there can also be longer-term impacts. Respiratory illnesses increase in the months following a hurricane, likely due to mold growth in flooded buildings. Natural disasters can make it harder for people to manage chronic health conditions. They can also lead to an increase in infections: skin and gastrointestinal infections can spread through floodwaters, while overcrowded shelters can lead to outbreaks of illnesses like COVID-19 or flu. And flooding can lead to the spread of toxic environmental contaminants. After Hurricane Florence in 2018, researchers found dangerous levels of cancer-causing chemicals in North Carolina’s soil.
Mental health, too, can suffer after a natural disaster. Hurricane survivors experience higher rates of PTSD, depression, and anxiety, which can last months or years after the disaster. Ten months after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, 31% of survivors reported a new mental health problem, but only 8% were receiving mental health services, with cost cited as the main barrier.
Natural disasters can also lead to job loss and economic hardship. Restaurants, hotels, and construction sites may close due to damage, while farmers’ crops may be destroyed in floods. In the week following Hurricane Florence, North Carolina unemployment claims quintupled. Yet because North Carolina hasn’t closed its coverage gap, many of those who lose their income during an emergency can’t access affordable health insurance.
Since Louisiana has closed its health insurance coverage gap, it’s better equipped to provide needed health services to its residents during and after Ida. With insurance, survivors of Ida will be able to access they care they need for injuries, illnesses, and mental health concerns that resulted from the storm—both now and in the future. After evacuating their homes and watching their property get destroyed, Louisianans will—at the very least—not have to face an added hurdle of figuring out how to pay for healthcare.
North Carolina may have been spared from this hurricane, but we know that won’t always be the case. We need to ensure that all North Carolinians can access needed healthcare in case of an emergency. By closing our coverage gap now, we’ll bolster our state’s capacity to respond to health needs in the aftermath of future disasters.