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When disaster strikes, health-care workers respond

September 8, 2017

ASU clinical professor and longtime American Red Cross volunteer nurse shares health risks to be aware of during calamities

As superstorm Irma continues its destructive path and as residents in Texas and Louisiana grapple with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, health-care providers are responding to an onslaught of patients in need of care. Cheryl Schmidt, a clinical professor in Arizona State University’s College of Nursing and Health Innovation, well understands what the communities there are facing.

She has been a volunteer nurse in the American Red Cross since 1974 and served 70,000 Gulf Coast residents in Arkansas who evacuated during Hurricane Katrina. She has taught disaster-preparedness education to health-care professionals, nursing students and community members throughout the United States.

Question: What does a “typical” day look like for health-care providers responding to a major natural disaster like Irma or Harvey? What kinds of issues are they dealing with?

Answer: Health-care providers are most likely facing the same health issues we faced in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina. People with chronic illnesses and disabilities present the biggest challenge, especially if they are forced to evacuate their homes without their medications and supplies. During Hurricane Harvey, volunteers were working 12-hour shifts and sleeping on military-style cots in staff shelters. American Red Cross volunteers provide a wide range of services to people affected by the disaster, including health and mental-health care, helping to replace lost medications and medical equipment, and providing food, clothing and shelter for those who lost their homes or are displaced temporarily by the disaster.

Q: What health problems can arise from a major storm like Harvey or Irma, and how can people protect themselves from those risks?

A: Even people who are generally healthy face several risks during disasters such as the massive flooding in Texas. The biggest risk is drowning after driving through flooded streets. The statement, “Turn around, don’t drown” is ignored too often by people desperate to escape the area.

People who wade through floodwaters may develop skin rashes from the toxic chemicals that are washed out of garages and tool sheds, or from sewage in the water, like they experienced in New Orleans in 2005. It’s important to shower as soon as possible after contact with contaminated water.

Carbon monoxide from portable generators may cause suffocation for those who try to shelter in place at home, so only operate generators outdoors. Once they arrive in crowded shelters, people face an increased risk of respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses.

As floodwaters begin to recede, standing water may increase breeding of mosquitos. Standing water should be cleaned up as soon as possible, and people should wear mosquito repellant when outdoors.

Q: September is National Preparedness Month, and this year’s theme is, “Disasters Don’t Plan Ahead. You Can.” What can each of us do to prepare ourselves and our families for a disaster?

A: It is easy to become complacent living in areas that face less risk of natural disasters. But any area is at risk for man-made disasters such as apartment fires, overturned tankers transporting toxic chemicals, or even terrorist attacks.

Everyone should make at least a written plan of what they might need if they had to leave their home on short notice and never return. Internet sources such as and provide templates for such plans.

At a minimum, we should each have a “go-bag” containing:

  • One week’s worth of daily medications, or at least a list of medications
  • Copies of important papers (or scanned documents on a USB drive) such as proof of insurance for house and vehicle
  • Water and non-perishable food
  • First-aid kit
  • Flashlight with extra batteries
  • Small, battery-powered radio
  • Change of clothing
  • Personal hygiene supplies

Each individual and family should personalize their lists and supplies, preparing them to quickly evacuate the area or to shelter in place.

Top photo: Naval Aircrewman 2nd Class Jansen Schamp (left) and Naval Aircrewman 2nd Class Rion Johnson assist with a medical evacuation during Hurricane Harvey relief efforts. U.S. Fleet Forces Command sent personnel and assets to bolster Northern Command's support of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's assistance to federal, state and local authorities ongoing relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Christopher Lindahl/U.S. Navy

Katherine Reedy

Senior Media Relations Officer , Media Relations & Strategic Communications


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Helping distressed pets during disasters

ASU dog-behavior scientist shares how to help pets during natural disasters.
September 8, 2017

What to do (and not to do) when Mittens and Fido are frightened during an evacuation

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have displaced scores of humans, many of whom have equally frightened pets. Although pets experience life differently than humans, there are things we have in common, like family or pack bonds, and some things we don’t (hugging). It’s good to take note of the similarities and differences, says Clive Wynne, an Arizona State University professor of psychology who is a dog-behavior scientist.

Wynne talks about how pets perceive disasters like Harvey and Irma, what they seek as comfort and how to go about adopting a pet from a shelter.

Question: From the rescues, the pets being taken in looked stressed and scared, even when sitting in the arms of their owners. Why is that?

Answer: Just like us, our pets are stressed by frightening events, not just by being separated from loved ones. All of the strange sights and sounds of a major disaster — big bangs, things being shifted around, strange smells, water where it shouldn’t be and so on — all of these stress our pets just as much as they stress us. Probably more, because it is well-nigh impossible to explain to a dog or cat what is happening, that it is over now and they don’t need to continue in high alert.

It may be tempting to hug a dog or cat tightly when you are distressed, especially if you have become separated. But not all animals enjoy being hugged. Very tight hugging may cause an animal to panic. We are different species, and we have different ways of expressing ourselves.

Q: How do pets react to such dramatic events?

A: Different pets are stressed by different things and are going to react in diverse ways. Dogs may be more concerned at losing contact with a beloved owner; cats may be more afraid of water. At their most extreme, we see trembling and even uncontrolled toilet functions; milder cases involve heightened alertness with less sleep and possibly reduced appetite.

Q: What can be done to make them feel safe?

A: Safety equals familiarity. As soon as possible, help pets feel safe by restoring their familiar world. This includes the social world, where reunion with beloved family members is very important, but also the physical world. If it is possible in a different place to have some of the objects of the home world, like familiar toys, customary food bowls and so on, that will help.

Q: If you are looking for a potential pet in the shelter, how do you know this pet is for you?

A: Give yourself the time and space to get to know a prospective new animal member of your family. In our research, we found that people play with a prospective new dog for just eight minutes, on average, before making their adoption decision. It doesn’t need to be so rushed. Many shelters will allow people to take a new animal home for a night or two. These sleepovers are a great way to see if you really get along.

Also, give a new dog or cat time to come to you. Some well-meaning people crowd in on a new animal, and that can be stressful for the dog or cat surrounded by unfamiliar humans in a novel environment.

Top photo: Naval Aircrewman (Helicopter) 2nd Class Jansen Schamp, from Denver, assigned to the Dragon Whales of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 28, rescues two dogs Aug. 31 at Pine Forrest Elementary School, a shelter in Vidor, Texas, that required evacuation after floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey reached its grounds.  Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Christopher Lindahl/U.S. Navy

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