From the Field: The New England Blizzard of 2013

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By John Peterson

Many of you followed the historic blizzard that hit the Northeast last weekend.  Sure, it was fun to watch the weather reporters with yardsticks ready to measure the torrents of accumulating snow.  For me, what quickly became apparent in the February nor’easter is how many ways public health touches lives in a disaster and how the public health response is affected by factors beyond our control. 

As a field assignee (FA) from CDC’s Division of State and Local Readiness, I am attached to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Emergency Preparedness Bureau.  I support the Bureau’s development of medical countermeasure preparedness and response capabilities as outlined in the PHEP (Public Health Emergency Preparedness) agreement between the State and CDC. Field assignees are the “on the ground” eyes and ears of CDC.

Public health was at the forefront of concern in this historical storm. Without power, homes, businesses, and healthcare facilities all lost heat. At my house it was 16 degrees below zero at 8:00 a.m. this past Sunday!

Unfortunately, there were casualties from carbon monoxide poisoning. Without heat, people turned to generators, stoves, and grills to heat their homes. People were also warming themselves up in their cars, but the exhaust pipes were clogged with snow and the CO gas backfilled into the car interior.  Prevention and education are core pieces of what public health does and even though the State and the media got the word out, we tragically still had victims of CO poisoning.

This snowdrift is actually John's car.

In Massachusetts, public health plays a prominent role in emergency sheltering activities. When a town or city sets up an overnight or warming shelter they typically reach out to Medical Reserve Corps volunteers that are coordinated through the state health department. With an accumulation of 2-3 feet of snow, roads became impassable and all efforts to transport goods and people stopped. For safety reasons, the Governor of Massachusetts declared a statewide ban on driving. The restricted roads hindered the Medical Reserve Corps volunteers that we heavily depend upon to staff our shelters.

Hospitals were severely affected by the transportation issues caused by the snow. A major challenge that hospitals faced was the discharging of well patients to make room for those in need of care. In most cases, the statewide driving ban meant that discharged patients had no way to get home. Ambulances were re-purposed to allow them to transport discharged patients to emergency shelters.

An ambulance struggles through the snow.

With road closures, pharmacies shut down, too. Officials made the decision to have functioning hospital pharmacies dispense to arriving and discharged patients, and also to be the pharmacy of last resort for the general public.

An interesting development from the power outage was the people without heat that came to the hospital for warmth. In addition to patient management and medical surge challenges, these health facilities needed public health guidance as to how to care for the cold and worried.

After having experienced a number of disasters in my role as an FA, a great lesson from an emergency situation is to make sure all systems, methods, and procedures are flexible and can adjust to the rapidly changing situation. While we can do our best to prepare for events, it is imperative that we be able to adjust effectively to protect the public’s health.

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One comment on “From the Field: The New England Blizzard of 2013”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    It’s always terrible to have any loss of life in any disaster, and in spite of our best efforts, it sometimes happens, but it’s also good to hear that you and others are doing everything they can to prevent that.

    I have to wonder how many lives were saved by the efforts and work of local, state, and federal EM and PH EP staff, volunteers, and responders, to include the PSAs, public outreach, messaging, warnings, and public health and medical coordination therein.

    Thanks for all of your work in MA during this last response and all of the work that you have done in working with your colleagues and local citizens there in emergency preparedness PRIOR to this disaster!

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Page last reviewed: March 4, 2013
Page last updated: March 4, 2013