Shouting in the Dark: Emergency Communication in USVI After Irma and Maria

Nykole Tyson, Director of Public Relations for the US Virgin Islands Department of Health, speaking into a radio microphone.

Communication experts often say, “When you’re communicating during an emergency, always think about what you’d say to your mom. What information would she need the most? How would you explain it to her? What would you need to know for sure before you told her? And just how far would you go to reach her?”

When Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) in September 2017, this wasn’t just advice for Nykole Tyson. Nykole is the USVI Department of Health’s (DOH’s) Director of Public Relations. She serves as the DOH spokesperson and emergency communicator. Like all of USVI’s responders and government officials, she is a survivor who was impacted by the storms. Nykole’s home had water and roof damage and she was without water or power for four months. “I caught rain water in barrels and used solar lights sent to me by friends living stateside,” Nykole said. She lived on a cot in her office in the DOH for several weeks between and after both storms. .

The storms destroyed most of the territory’s communication infrastructure, making both personal and mass communication nearly impossible. Nykole was unable to reach her own family for four days after the second hurricane. However, within hours of both storms, she was on the radio talking to her community about how to stay safe, find shelter, and stay strong. Nykole wasn’t just talking to the public, she was talking to her neighbors, her community, her family, and even her mom.

Hurricane Irma

Just hours before Hurricane Irma hit USVI, Nykole was a spokesperson on local radio stations and distributed press releases, public service announcements (PSAs), and social media messages with critical information about how to prepare for the storm. When the storm hit on September 6, electricity, cell, and Internet access was cut off across most of the territory. People sought resources, shelter, and safety, and many struggled to locate friends and loved ones. Virgin Islanders needed to know how to stay safe around downed power lines, debris, mold, and floodwaters.  There was only one working radio station after the storm and Nykole immediately went on the air to give safety tips and updates about available services. She also realized that some people were still able to access Facebook, and the social network became one of the primary means of communication throughout the response. The USVI DOH Facebook posts from September provide a glimpse into how events unfolded and demonstrate the DOH’s commitment to responding to the public’s concerns.

Hurricane Maria

Just 12 days after Irma, USVI was preparing for another major hurricane—Maria. Only this time there were limited ways to alert the public and provide health and safety information. Virgin Islanders, Nykole included, needed to find shelter or prepare their homes, many of which were already damaged, for the impact of another hurricane. Nykole did a PSA on the local radio station from her own home as she was securing her furniture and checking her emergency supplies. “We will get through this,” she repeated over the radio. Unbeknownst to the listeners, Nykole’s family had lost phone service after Irma. She had been unable to reach them so she was driving to her mom’s house to give her family the same safety information she was sharing on the air.

When the storm hit, Nykole and about one hundred other DOH staff took care of special needs patients sheltered in the DOH building. As the wind battered and shook the concrete building, they thought of their communities, homes, and families on the islands. “We were all scared,” she recalls. As soon as the clouds cleared, Nykole was back on the radio, “We survived two category fives. We lost property but we still have our lives. All is not lost. It is time for us to rebuild.”

Resourcefulness and Resilience

USVI DOH staff had to be creative and resourceful after the storms because the typical means of communication were down. The best ways to share information immediately after the storms was through paper flyers, radio, and in-person outreach. CDC and the U.S. Postal Service assisted with printing and distributing a flyer on key health tips to every mailbox on all four islands. CDC health communicators deployed to USVI to support outreach efforts started conversations the islands at churches, stores, disaster recovery centers, radio stations, and schools.

When asked about lessons learned, Nykole reflected, “Do not underestimate the power of radio.” She is still making radio appearances to engage the community, repeat the key messages, answer questions, and encourage community members. While she is running errands, people stop to thank her and comment on her energy. “There were so many times I wanted to cry when I was on the radio, but the listeners didn’t know that,” she says. People tell her how she kept them calm during the worst of the storms, and, hearing her now, still on the radio, lets them know that their government officials are still working hard for them.

Nykole’s experience shows how a talented spokesperson who is also a survivor can be the best voice to engage and reassure a community after a disaster. All responses could benefit from people who care for and communication with the public as if they are family.

After the Storm: Helping Kids Cope

A boy and his mother wait to cross the street on their way to school.

Changing schools is hard for any kid. Imagine picking up without any notice and moving to a new school in a brand new place with a different climate, culture, and maybe even a different primary language.  Harder still is the thought of moving because your home and community have been devastated by a major hurricane. The truth is, this is the reality for the tens of thousands of students from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) who moved to the continental U.S. after Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria.

Recognizing a need

As a Massachusetts native, I subscribe to news alerts from the Boston area. One morning before heading to work in CDC’s Joint Information Center, I saw a news article about the influx of PuertoCDC's Joint Information Center (JIC): The JIC Outreach Team is responsible for reaching hard-to-reach and at-risk audiences with important health and safety information during and after a public health emergency. Rican children displaced by the hurricanes who were relocating to the cities of Springfield and Holyoke in western Massachusetts.  Both cities have large Puerto Rican populations, and many residents were taking in relatives and friends from the devastated island. Schools in the territories would be closed for months after the storm, so many families were coming to the continental U.S. so their kids could keep going to school.

Children who were displaced as a result of the hurricanes faced the challenges of leaving behind their homes, communities, and schools, family and friends, and even their pets.  Kids in middle and high school were old enough to understand the uncertainty facing their families. They had to stay strong to support their parents and siblings, while finding a routine at a new school and keeping up with their academics.

Understanding the issue

During my meeting with the Hurricane Emergency Response Communication Teams, I brought up the article I had read that morning. Dr. Melissa Mercado-Crespo, a behavioral health scientist at CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, took a special interest in the well-being of the families who had been displaced by the hurricanes. Dr. Mercado serves on the Editorial Board, and grew up in Puerto Rico. Most of her family and loved ones still live there, and when the storms hit, her husband was deployed to the island with the U.S. Army Reserves.

In collaboration with the CDC At-Risk Task Force, Dr. Mercado and I reached out to federal and local partners to find out how many hurricane-displaced students from Puerto Rico and USVI had enrolled in the middle of the semester. Through media and local sources, we learned that most of the students had enrolled at schools in Florida and New York, as well as cities in western Massachusetts. The Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, City University of New York, confirmed our findings. They estimated that after September 20, 2017 – the day Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico – 10,324 Puerto Rican students enrolled in Florida schools. The Puerto Rico Department of Education reported that nearly 25,000 students have left the island and are no longer enrolled in the Puerto Rico public school system.

Taking action

My former colleagues in Boston put me in touch with José Claudio of the New North Citizens’ Council, a community organization that provides public and human services to residents in the Springfield area. He mentioned that many of the students were struggling to adapt to their new setting and that there were misunderstandings between the permanent students and their new peers. We wanted to provide teachers and youth organizations with tools and resources that could help make the transition easier for everyone.

To help address these challenges, we pulled together a list of resources to help teachers and youth organization leaders plan activities to prevent and reduce the emotional challenges new students may face and help them cope with the trauma following hurricanes. We published the list in a Spotlight issue of the CDC Emergency Partners Newsletter that was reviewed by CDC behavioral health experts and representatives from, SAMHSA, and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN). The newsletter went out to partners, and we received positive feedback from teachers, school counselors, and organizations that serve Hispanic populations in the U.S.

The messaging needs and target audiences change before, during, and after every emergency. We identified a new target audience during the 2017 Hurricane Response – children from Puerto Rico and USVI who left their schools and homes behind after the storms. Our hope is this is the first step in concrete efforts to help ensure they are no longer left behind.

Learn more

Subscribe! CDC Emergency Partners Newsletter

Educating Children After Hurricane Maria

In September 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria roared through the Caribbean just 12 days apart. The schools on St. Croix and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) did not re-open until October 24. Teachers talked about how many of the books and materials in their classrooms were moldy and how teachers and staff had to help the janitorial staff clean up classrooms. Parents shared stories of their children coming home from school with mosquito bites all over their arms and legs. Schools could not always run the air-conditioning because they were operating using generators.

Finding a natural fit

As a team lead in the Division of Adolescent and School Health, I have expertise in how health departments and federal agencies should work with schools. So when I was deployed to support health communication activities in the US Virgin Islands after Hurricane Maria, I offered to support the USVI Department of Health doing health communication outreach to schools. We worked quickly to connect with schools and distribute materials to students and their families about how to stay safe and healthy after a hurricane.

Making a vision a realityChildren are the key to primary prevention because they are the drivers of the health behaviors we hope to change. -Malaika Washington

I worked with Director of Public Relations, Nykole Tyson, at the USVI Department of Health and the USVI Department of Education to determine how many children were enrolled on St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John and which educational materials from CDC to distribute. With support from the CDC Foundation, we printed and distributed flyer packets for over 16,000 K-12 students on the three islands to take home to their families. The packets contained CDC-developed materials about how to stay safe after a hurricane, including tips for food and water safety, how to prevent mosquito bites, the health risks from mold, how to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning, and mental health. Since 35% of the children on St. Croix speak Spanish, we made the messages available in both English and Spanish.

Each child was also given a copy of the Ready Wrigley Flooding and Mold Activity Book as part of the flyer packet. Ready Wrigley is a series of CDC-developed activity books for children 5-9 years old and their families to help them talk about and prepare for emergencies. There are nine Ready Wrigley books that provide tips, activities and a story about disaster preparedness. The flooding and mold activity book talks specifically about safe mold clean-up after a flood and how kids should never touch mold and always tell a grown-up if they see mold.

Giving children a voice

Malaika Washington reading the Ready Wrigley Flooding and Mold activity book to students in USVI.
Sharing the Ready Wrigley Flooding and Mold activity book with students in USVI.

American Education Week takes place every November. The USVI Department of Education contacted Director Tyson and asked her to read to elementary school students on St. Croix. She asked me if I would like to join her visits to kindergarten and first grade classrooms. I jumped at the chance to interact with students in-person and suggested we read the Ready Wrigley Flooding and Mold Activity Book. I even colored the pictures in the book and completed the activities so the children could follow along. We shared the Ready Wrigley books with the teachers at each school we visited, giving teachers enough copies of the book for every student to take one home.

All of the students really wanted their stories heard. One first grader recounted how his mother and grandparents told him to stay far away from the cleaning products while they cleaned up the mold in their home. Another little girl shared how she was personally impacted by mold. She had to sleep on the sofa in her home because there was mold all over her bed and the other furniture in her bedroom. Several other children described the mold they found on the front door of their homes after the hurricane.

Fulfilling a passion

Working with school-aged children is so rewarding. This deployment experience was the best I could have hoped for. The time I spent in the USVI made me realize my personal and professional goal to provide public health education materials to children and their families. I have always believed that public health prevention work should begin with school-aged youth and it is my lifelong public health mission to ensure that they have a voice.

Malaika Washington has been a Commissioned Corps Officer in the United Stated Public Health Service since October 2009. She is a team lead in the Division of Adolescent and School Health, the only division at CDC that funds education agencies directly. Her deployment to the U.S. Virgin Islands for the 2017 HHS Hurricane Response was the first time she deployed for a public health emergency.

The Power of Us

Evacuteer checking someone in during 2017 full-scale city assisted evacuation exercise.

“I am a Katrina survivor.” These were the first words out of Joan Ellen’s mouth when I spoke with her. And she was one of the lucky ones. She made it out of New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005. But not everyone was so fortunate. One of Joan Ellen’s neighbors did not evacuate because she could not bring her old dog with her to a shelter and would not leave him behind. Her neighbor died in the flooding. Joan Ellen recalls, “If I had known I would have taken her with me.”

Evacuations are more common than you might think. Every year people across the United States are asked to evacuate their homes due to fires, floods, and hurricanes. However, there are many reasons people may not be able to evacuate– including issues that New Orleans’ residents face, like lack of transportation, financial need, homelessness, and medical or mobility issues.

No one left behindJoan Ellen returned to her home in New Orleans 48 days after Hurricane Katrina. She likes to tell people, “I only had a foot of water – but it was a foot over my roof.” The thing she remembers most vividly about going home was not the destruction, but the smell. When Joan Ellen heard a radio announcement that they were recruiting volunteers to help in a mandatory evacuation she signed up. She has been training other Evacuteers since she joined the organization in 2009. She loves the casual definition of family that keeps people together in the event of an evacuation. “Family is anybody we say is family, and we will keep everybody together. In New Orleans we are only two degrees of separation.”

According to FEMA’s Preparedness in America report, people in highly populated areas were more likely to rely on public transportation to evacuate in the event of a disaster. In the event of a mandatory evacuation, approximately 40,000 people living in New Orleans will need assistance to evacuate because they don’t have a safe or alternative option.

After learning from Hurricane Katrina, the City of New Orleans will now call a mandatory evacuation nearly three days in advance of a dangerous or severe storm making landfall on the Louisiana coast. Everyone must leave during a mandatory evacuation until officials declare the city safe for re-entry.

Mobilizing the Evacuteers

The City also started City Assisted Evacuation (CAE) to help people who are unable to evacuate on their own. Through this program, the city provides free transportation for residents, along with their pets, to a safe shelter. CAE counts on volunteers from, a local non-profit organization that recruits, trains, and manages 500 evacuation volunteers called “Evacuteers” in New Orleans. As the Executive Director of this organization I tell people, “We are a year-round public health preparedness agency that promotes outreach to members of the community that aren’t always easy to reach, nor trusting of government, about their options and the evacuation process. The goal is to make sure that everyone using CAE is treated with dignity throughout the entire process.”

Lit evacuspot in Arthur Center
Evacuspot outside of Arthur Monday Multipurpose Center

Evacuteers receive a text message if the City of New Orleans calls for a mandatory evacuation. Teams are assigned to seventeen pickup points, called Evacuspots, placed in neighborhoods around the city. The Evacuteers help register people and provide information about the evacuation process. When residents go to an Evacuspot, Evacuteers will give every person a ticket, a wristband, and a luggage tag to help track their information and ensure that families stay together. After the paperwork is filled out, evacuees are transported to the downtown Union Passenger Terminal bus station where they will board a bus, and for a smaller percentage, a plane, to a state or regional shelter. When the city is re-opened after the storm passes, the process will bring residents back home to New Orleans.

An artistic approach to save lives

Each Evacuspot is marked by a statue of a stick figure with his arm in the air, and looks as though he is hailing a safe ride out of the city. Erected by international public artist, Douglas Kornfeld, the statues are a public art initiative led, and fundraised, by Installed at each of the pick-up points in 2013, the stainless steel statues measure 14-feet tall, and stand as a reminder to residents year-round that there is a process to ensure everyone has the opportunity to safely evacuate.

Do you know what to do?

  1. Have a plan. Know where your family will meet, both within and outside of your neighborhood, before a disaster.
  2. Fill ‘er up. Make sure you have a half a tank of gas at all times in case of an unexpected evacuation. If an evacuation seems likely, make sure your tank is full.
  3. Keep your options open. Have alternative routes and other means of transportation out of your area. Choose several destinations in different directions you can go to evacuate.
  4. Leave early. Plan to take one car per family to reduce congestion and delay.
  5. Stay alert. Do NOT drive into flooded areas. Roads and bridges may be washed out and be careful of downed power lines.

Learn more

Read our other National Preparedness Month blogs:

Thermal structure of Hurricane Maria

Hurricane Maria touched down in Puerto Rico. This visualization by Joshua Stevens at NASA shows what the thermal structure of the storm looked like, based on data collected by the Terra satellite.

Colder clouds, which are generally higher in the atmosphere, are shown with white. Somewhat warmer, lower clouds appear purple. The image reveals a very well-defined eye surrounded by high clouds on all sides—an indication that the storm was very intense.


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Hurricane preparation and response resource list

Hurricane preparation and response resource list |

Updated September 15, 2017

In the wake of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, public health laboratories in affected regions will be busy testing for potential environmental contamination, monitoring for increased water- and mosquito-borne diseases, or repairing damage to their own facilities. APHL has activated its Incident Command System (ICS) to support member laboratories with their response. The ICS team is participating in CDC’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) State/Local and Partner Conference Calls, and will assist member labs with their response, facilitate communications between CDC and member labs, and share lab needs/stories with policy makers and the public.

Below are helpful resources for those communities hit by the recent storms. Many of these resources are useful for any severe weather event, not just Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Preparing for and weathering the storm

Hurricanes, Preparation and Response, EPA
Hurricane Preparedness Checklist, FDA
Preparing for a Hurricane or Tropical Storm, CDC
Flooding Toolkit, National Public Health Information Coalition
Disaster, US government platform for locating disaster-related resources
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Toll-free FEMA hotline for survivors of Hurricane Harvey: 1-800-621-FEMA

Keeping your family and community healthy after the storm

Food Safety:
Food Safety Tips for Areas Affected by Hurricane Irma, USDA press release
Protect Food and Water Before, During and After a Storm, FDA

Infectious Diseases:
Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, CDC
Vector-borne Diseases, CDC​​​​​​​
Waterborne Disease Prevention, CDC

Drinking Water:
Drinking Water Safety and Testing Information for Texas, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (accredited labs for microbial testing of drinking water, advice for customers of public water systems, disinfecting your well, etc.)
Drinking Water Testing and Information for Houston, TX, City of Houston
Private Wells: What to Do after the Flood, EPA
Private Wells: Water-related Diseases and Contaminants, CDC
Health Department Laboratory, Drinking Water Testing and Information, City of Houston

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning – Clinical Guidance, CDC
Mold: Cleanup and Remediation, CDC
Mold: Flood Cleanup, EPA
Waste Management, EPA

Rebuilding and repair

Cleanup after a Hurricane, CDC
Status of Systems in Areas Affected by Harvey, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality – drinking water, waste water and sewage, residential wells, flood waters, water infrastructure

The post Hurricane preparation and response resource list appeared first on APHL Lab Blog.

Comparing the strength of Hurricane Irma against previous hurricanes

For perspective, The New York Times compares the strength of Hurricane Irma to hurricanes from the past 50 years that reached Category 3. They transition through three views in the scroller, which would probably be too advanced on their own, but I think the short notes and focus on Irma gets the charts over the hump.

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Thirty years of hurricanes

After their graphic for thirty years of floods, Axios follows up with thirty years of Atlantic hurricanes. Each area represents the wind speed and time of a hurricane, and color represents the category.

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Cost of Hurricane Harvey

Kevin Quealy for The Upshot charted the estimated cost of Hurricane Harvey, along with the cost of storms past, going back to 1980. I like the animated bands for the Harvey estimates — kind of like a neon light.

If you’re interested in the data, you can grab it from NOAA.

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Harvey rainfall map

In case you didn’t hear, Houston is getting some rain due to Hurricane Harvey. The Washington Post provides a map that shows the cumulative rainfall since Friday morning through Sunday morning.

Also worth coming back to: the flooding piece from last year by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune.

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