HHS Declares Public Health Emergencies for NY, NJ in Wake of Ida

The announcement will free up federal resources to aid flood- and wind-torn communities.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Article author Mark Spivey is a native and current resident of New Jersey who has lived in four counties of the Garden State through the years, and previously spent a decade as a sports and news reporter for two local newspapers there. 

New York and New Jersey are a thousand miles from the hearts of Hurricane Alley and Tornado Alley, the respective parts of the Gulf Coast and Midwest where nature’s most uniquely destructive brands of storms often tend to wreak havoc during summer and fall months.

Last Wednesday, it felt like they were right in the middle of both.

The remnants of Hurricane Ida, which ravaged the Louisiana coastline as a powerful hurricane just days earlier, hammered the New York City metropolitan area, causing devastating flooding and spawning multiple tornadoes while taking more than 50 lives across the Northeast – easily ranking it among the deadliest weather disasters ever to strike the region.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) responded by declaring a public health emergency (PHE) for both the Empire and Garden states, overlapping the existing COVID-19 PHE that has been in place since early 2020. The declarations, along with waivers authorized under the Social Security Act, offer Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) beneficiaries and their healthcare providers and suppliers greater flexibility in meeting emergency health needs for individuals in both states.

“The significant destruction this storm left in its wake has threatened the health and safety of residents in New York and New Jersey,” HHS Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Dawn O’Connell said in a statement. “With these declarations and waivers, we can help ensure that some of the most vulnerable residents – beneficiaries of Medicare and Medicaid – have continuous access to the care they need after this storm. We stand ready to provide additional public health and medical support to help these communities respond and recover.”

The declaration is retroactive to Sept. 1 – the day a tornado outbreak was caught on surveillance cameras across southern and central portions of New Jersey, including an EF-1 that passed directly over the Burlington-Bristol Bridge, spanning the Delaware River between Trenton and Philadelphia, and an EF-3 that destroyed 20 homes in the town of Mullica Hill. The latter, which tore a 12-mile path through Gloucester County, had estimated winds of 150 miles per hour, with the National Weather Service rating it as one of the five most powerful tornadoes ever to hit New Jersey, and the single most powerful since 1990.

Crushing floodwaters started rising later that night into the next day along virtually every major river in North Jersey, as 8 to 10 inches of rain – more than a month’s worth, at this time of year – fell in a matter of hours. The historically flood-prone Raritan River crested at a record 26.85 feet, more than 12 feet over its flood stage of 14 feet, in the small Somerset County community of Manville, which was visited by President Biden this week amid calls for more federal aid.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced Major Disaster Declarations for six counties in New Jersey and five in New York, paving the way for federal funding to help in the recovery, but additional counties in New Jersey, including three of its most populous (Essex, Hudson, and Union) have since asked to be added to the list. 

HHS officials said in a press release announcing the PHE that regional emergency coordinators and recovery specialists are also currently working with health officials in both states to determine any federal public health, medical, or social services support the states may need in recovering from the storm.

“In addition to making support available to New York and New Jersey, an HHS incident management team is providing post-storm coordination of federal health and medical support for states in the Gulf of Mexico impacted by Hurricane Ida,” the announcement read. “Teams from the National Disaster Medical System are deployed to augment local healthcare professionals providing care in several Louisiana hospitals. HHS also deployed a federal medical station equipment to Louisiana to serve as a temporary medical facility within the Ernest Morial Convention Center in New Orleans.”

HHS also noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises victims of such storms to take actions such as preventing carbon monoxide poisoning and other power outage safety risks; avoiding driving or walking through floodwaters; ensuring safe food, water and medications; and addressing mold and other health risks.

To assist residents in the impacted areas, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) also has a Disaster Distress Helpline available, offering immediate 24/7, 365-days-a-year crisis counseling and support to people experiencing emotional distress related to natural or human-caused disasters. The toll-free, multilingual, and confidential crisis support service is available via call or text at 1-800-985-5990 (for Spanish, press 2), with trained crisis counselors standing by.

“Recent natural disasters have demonstrated the importance of ensuring accessibility to health and human services for everyone living in the United States, including individuals in need of interpretation and translation services,” HHS added in its press release. “To help first responders provide on-the-ground language assistance and communicate effectively during disasters and in accordance with federal civil rights laws, the HHS Office for Civil Rights offers a plain language checklist PDF, including recommendations, specific action steps, resources, and tips such as to how to identify language needs in a disaster-impacted community to effectively utilizing interpreters. Additional information is available on the HHS OCR website.”

Public health and safety information for Hurricane Ida can be found on the HHS emergency website, phe.gov.

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