By Brittney Lofthouse, Western Regional Coordinator, Care4Carolina
As one of the most vulnerable states in the US, all regions of North Carolina have suffered the effects of natural disasters. Such was the case just over a year ago in Western North Carolina when Tropical Storm Fred unleashed havoc across the West, specifically devastating the Cruso, Bethel, and Canton areas of Haywood County. Even a year later, recovery is still underway in Haywood County, shining light on how access to healthcare is as important to the recovery process after a natural disaster as is drudging through mounds of muck to retrieve family heirlooms to salvage while fighting to rebuild one’s life.
The August 2021 damage to Haywood County was, and very much still is, catastrophic. The dark clouds that rolled into the West as part of Tropical Storm Fred poured record amounts of rainfall into the creeks and rivers, all of which happened so fast residents barely had time to save themselves, let alone their homes. The flood claimed the life of five people, with hundreds more impacted.
Because North Carolina has such a calculated history of adverse weather, the state was better prepared to swiftly respond to Haywood County’s disaster declaration. Learning from past disasters such as Hurricane Ida and even Hurricane Katrina that destroyed Louisiana, state leaders were in Haywood County to help pick up the pieces nearly as fast as Tropical Storm Fred unleashed its furry — however, crucial tools needed for recovery – affordable access to healthcare through expansion of Medicaid was and is not available to Haywood County residents.
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.
As Western North Carolina — and the rest of the state — brace for the peak of Hurricane Season, 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.