A week after Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast, parts of the Northeast are still reeling from the wind, rain and flooding. Though the darkened Manhattan skyline may be the hurricane's most obvious consequence, the storm's health impacts may be the more significant and longest-lasting.
The hurricane's death toll in the United States climbed to 113 over the weekend, with 48 fatalities in New York and 24 in New Jersey, the Los Angeles Times reported. Thousands still lack power as temperatures drop further and a brewing nor'easter threatens to pour over the area later this week.
Relief workers now have to contend with a variety of health issues stemming from the late-season storm. "Typically, we usually are dealing with these types of disasters when it's warmer out," said Melanie Pipkin, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross.
With the cold, people forced from their homes need to take extra care to find shelter and stay warm, Pipkin said, adding that people remaining in their homes and using alternative power sources like portable generators need to be cautious of carbon monoxide poisoning. Fires and shorts from damaged electrical wiring also pose health hazards.
At St. Jacobi Church in the Sunset Park area in Brooklyn, volunteers with Occupy Sandy coordinated relief efforts, including medical care. Outside, cars lined up for more than a dozen blocks, waiting for gasoline at a nearby station. Brett Goldberg, an organizer with Occupy Sandy, explained that the group emerged from Occupy Wall Street to fill the wide gaps in the disaster response, marshaling more than 2,000 volunteers at sites all over the city.
"We've set up a medical dispatch. We put out the word we're looking for medical professionals of all different sorts," he said, adding that New York City's towering high-rises make it difficult for people to get in and out when the elevators shut down during a power outage. "We will dispatch those professionals that go door-to-door, canvassing to find elderly and disabled folks."
Hypothermia, flu, contaminated water
Diabetes, and particularly getting regular insulin, is a big concern among people seeking help, according to Goldberg. The colder temperatures are raising concerns about hypothermia, and people huddling in close proximity could increase cold and flu transmission, he added.
Pipkin said it is still too early to tell if New York and New Jersey face any unique health risks compared to similar and more frequent storms along the Gulf Coast. She also said the Red Cross would not take a stand on whether climate change may be a factor, as well.
"We stay out of that debate. That's a little too political for us," Pipkin said. "I think this is definitely a large-scale disaster, which we've dealt with before. We're still working along the same procedure lines." However, she added, "We're still right in the thick of it."
Patrick Kinney, a professor at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University and director of the school's climate and health program, agreed that health risks might yet emerge. "This particular storm, I think we're still learning what the health impacts specifically were," he said.
However, he said there are likely patterns based on previous storms. Many of the initial storm deaths resulted from flooding, especially in areas from which officials told people to evacuate. In the immediate aftermath, many injuries and fatalities came from removing debris, fire and electrical damage.
"From a longer-term perspective, you start looking at things like the effects of the power outage: What does that mean for the spoilage of food? For the contamination of the water supply? You also worry about access to routine medical care," Kinney said. People with chronic diseases like high blood pressure might not get their regular medication after storms, and might suffer as a result, he noted.