01/25/2013 03:41 pm ET Updated Mar 27, 2013

Including Health Care in Discussions of Storm Preparedness

With the three-month anniversary of Superstorm Sandy approaching, the New York City Council has launched a series of hearings on storm preparedness and response. While topics across the board are being addressed, the City Council had the good foresight to give health care issues the attention they deserve, addressing health service shortfalls at the first oversight hearing and holding a separate hearing on health care access.

As we have heard over and over, Sandy devastated oceanfront communities in the city -- including in the Rockaways, where buildings were flooded, the power supply cut off, and transportation disabled. But the storm also wiped out the health care infrastructure on the peninsula: Doctors' offices were shut and pharmacies were closed. Residents had no way to get the medical care or products they needed, including seniors and the disabled who in many cases were unable to leave their homes.

Having absolutely no access to health services and medications is frightening for individuals and a major public health problem. And, it's exactly what happened in the Rockaways.

One 55-year-old patient living in Hammal Houses in Far Rockaway, where our mobile health clinic provided primary health services following the storm, provides a good illustration. She is a diabetic whose blood sugar levels were under control before the storm. By the time she saw our medical providers, not only was her blood sugar dangerously high -- perhaps the result of post-disaster stress -- but she was also about to run out of insulin. She had nowhere to go. Her doctor's office was shut and so was her pharmacy.

We titrated her insulin and then went to work figuring out how we were going to get her -- and many other residents just like her -- the meds they need to live.

We quickly realized we needed to improvise. We called in the prescriptions to the closest pharmacies: In some instances, the pharmacy was able to deliver to our mobile clinic; in other cases, our staff drove to the pharmacy to pick up the medications.

We treated patients with respiratory infections, allergic reactions to cleaning products, and other aches and pains. Not only did we provide medical care, including home visits for those who were unable to leave their apartments; we also provided mental health counseling, helping individuals to deal with the stress brought on in the aftermath of the hurricane. Every person who was seen at the mobile clinic came with a story and many shed tears and felt tremendous relief to have a professional to talk to.

As we have learned in the weeks after the storm, the Rockaways isolation from the rest of the city had consequences far beyond our imaginations. Nobody could have predicted the devastating impact Sandy would have on our shoreline communities, especially peninsulas like the Rockaways. But now we know, and as we plan ahead and prepare our city and its residents to better deal with major disasters there are several things we need to address.

First, residents and medical providers alike need medical service updates with information about when doctors' offices and pharmacies will reopen and where residents can get needed services.

Second, a mobile pharmacy with basic medications and medical supplies needs to be available around the clock in areas where the health care system has been shut down.

Third, mental health counseling needs to be readily available to address post-disaster stress.

The city and its residents have much to address in the way of preparedness. Some of the infrastructure issues are daunting and are certain to demand much of our collective attention. But health care should not be relegated to a "phase two" role. It is too important and the consequences of not addressing shortfalls in the system are too steep.