resilience reporter

resilience starts with information

Hurricane Maria killed 64 Puerto Ricans. Another 1,000 died because the disaster response was inadequate.

keys-flooding-980Caring for disaster victims’ mental well-being: A first responder’s story


In my day job, I am a professor of social work and associate dean of academic affairs for the Robert Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work. But when disasters strike, I transform into a behavioral health specialist on a medical response team that includes physicians, nurses and paramedics also ready to leave on short notice. I travel with a backpack outfitted with essential supplies and nonperishable food to carry me for up to 48 hours on my own and a bigger bag to keep me going for the remainder of the two-week deployment.

Our team’s duties are to help out in all aspects of a rapid deployment, including setting up a base of operations. We are trained to potentially deploy into austere environments; we may sleep in the open air, aircraft hangars or in hotels. In Houston, we were stationed beside one of the large convention centers that sheltered evacuees from floods.

Attending to people’s behavioral and mental health is an essential part of disaster response and recovery. Evacuees frequently seek medical care and tangible services such as financial assistance, but they also often have psychosocial…


Hurricane Maria killed 64 Puerto Ricans. Another 1,000 died because the disaster response was inadequate.

On Dec. 8, the New York Times published a sobering report on Puerto Rico’s death toll from Hurricane Maria: mortality on the island spiked abruptly in the months following the storm, leading to over 1,000 more deaths than during the same period last year. This number dramatically exceeds the official death toll of 64 — which only counted people who were directly killed by immediate storm damage.

After major natural disasters, emergency responders often warn of the risk of a wave of secondary deaths unless immediate relief is delivered. Puerto Rico — where federal relief efforts have been widely criticized as inadequate — presents a grim test case.

Is it fair to blame these extra deaths on relief failures? Let’s explore these four takeaways…

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