"When Hurricane Irma hit, I got rapid deployment orders Sept. 11," said NIEHS Chief of Staff Mark Miller. "I was on a plane to Atlanta in less than 8 hours later, and shortly thereafter, on the ground in South Florida leading operation of a medical shelter in a high school. This level of response shows what the PHS can do as a team to support impacted communities."
In addition to his full-time role at NIEHS, Commander Miller serves as a planning officer on a U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps Tier 1 Rapid Deployment Force (PHS1-RDF). The USPHS rapid deployment teams include doctors, nurses, pharmacists, mental health providers, preventative medicine specialists, and others.
For Miller and his 130 teammates on PHS1-RDF, that meant early activation and deployment within hours of Irma's landfall.
Doctors, nurses, and volunteers
Miller was one of more than 1,500 PHS officers who responded to hurricanes Irma and Maria. More were involved in Hurricane Harvey relief. Miller's team of 30 officers provided medical care to nearly 300 patients and family members at East Lee County High School, just east of Ft. Meyers.
The team integrated with the coordinated federal response, State Department of Health, local school district, volunteer organizations, and contract nursing staff. All, Miller noted, were vital to the shelter's efforts. Within 10 days, most shelter residents were able to return home or find temporary shelter with friends and families. Others found longer term support in local nursing facilities, with the help of PHS.
From the Virgin Islands to Puerto Rico to Florida
Then, Miller and an expanded team of approximately 65 clinicians moved to Florida International University (FIU) in Miami. The medical shelter they managed there served more than 75 individuals in need of dialysis and other medical attention.
"In the wake of Hurricane Irma, many U.S. Virgin Islands residents in need of dialysis were moved to Puerto Rico, because so many clinics were destroyed," Miller said. "But as Hurricane Maria approached, it was clear that Puerto Rico would not be safe either."
In total, 97 dialysis patients were relocated from Puerto Rico to FIU via military aircraft. These residents received care, again with the help of a wide group of support organizations.
"I can't say enough about how Florida International University really stepped to the forefront, opening their doors and resources to us," said Miller. Through partnerships with the FIU College of Nursing and the College of Public Health and Social Work, students even got an opportunity for hands-on training while assisting the relief effort. Long-time grantee and former NIEHS Board member, Tomas Guilarte, Ph.D., was instrumental in building the partnership.
Others heed the call
The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) also recruited volunteers. From among the many who responded, NIEHS Emergency Management Program Specialist Julie Nixon and NIEHS Grants Officer James Williams were selected to serve.
"To be here on the ground, ready to help these people survive this storm from the moment it hit, has been a life-changing experience," Nixon said.
Williams had previous experience with disaster relief through a similar deployment after Hurricane Katrina.
"I was assigned to a team of six along Florida’s Gulf coast," Williams said. "These areas were drastically impacted by the hurricane, many more by flooding than wind." He is expected back in North Carolina on Nov. 2.
A culture of service at NIEHS
Miller, Nixon, Williams, and others revel in knowing that their day-job employer is every bit as committed to emergency response as they are.
"I'm so proud to work for an institute that supports disaster relief the way this one does," Miller said. "Whether through the work of our scientists to better understand things like mold or hazardous materials, our Worker Training Program often being one of the first on the scene, our Disaster Research Response program engaging with communities, the willingness of our grantees to develop real-time research priorities, or the outpouring of generosity from our employees with supply donations to affected populations, NIEHS always rises to the challenge when called to help others."
(Ian Thomas is a public affairs specialist with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison, and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)