Exercise aims to better serve needy in disasters

After Hurricane Isaac cut out power in New Orleans for days last summer, city health officials went knocking on doors at high-rise apartments where they knew low-income senior citizens lived, letting people know help was available if they were struggling without electricity or dealing with the heat.

On Friday, the city and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services embarked on a new pilot project — the first of its kind in the country — to take a more systematic approach to identifying people with medical needs and helping them during disasters.

During the three-day “emergency preparedness exercise,” focused on New Orleanians with at-home oxygen tanks or ventilators, the two agencies are looked at whether federal Medicare data can be used to track down people on electricity-dependent machines after the power goes out.

Dr. Karen DeSalvo, head of the city’s health department, said Monday that the preliminary results are promising. The Medicare data run Friday show there are about 600 people using such equipment at home, and city records showed the addresses overwhelmingly appear to be legitimate.

On Tuesday, teams of federal and city workers will go to about 100 homes to see if they can verify that somebody using oxygen does, in fact, live at that location.

When the teams find people, they will ask them about whether they want to be on the city’s “special needs” registry, a list of people who need extra assistance evacuating or sheltering in place, DeSalvo said.

Of the 600 people identified as using oxygen or ventilators, only 15 were already on the registry, she said.

“We want everyone to feel safe and supported and to have the opportunity to not only be helped for evacuation, but to be able to shelter in place if that is what they so choose,” DeSalvo said.

If the New Orleans exercise is successful, the model can be rolled out across the country, said Dr. Nicole Lurie, an assistant secretary with the federal health agency.

Lurie came to New Orleans for Isaac and was in the Northeast for Hurricane Sandy, which left hundreds of thousands of homes without power for weeks.

Lurie helped the city try to come up with a more efficient way to locate needy people after watching officials basically go “door-to-door” after Isaac, DeSalvo said.

While one goal is to identify in advance people who might need help, the exercise also serves as a test of whether it’s possible to use federal data to quickly find people who are “medically high-risk” after a disaster.

DeSalvo said that if the exercise proves successful, the city will consider using the same methodology to locate other people who might need special help, such as those who use wheelchairs.

People who want to register for New Orleans’ special-needs registry can call 311 or go to http://new.nola.gov/ready/special-needs/enroll/.