Emergency Medicine and Natural Disasters

Medical Author: Benjamin C. Wedro, MD, FAAEM
Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stoppler, MD

May 6, 2008 - It is not often that the NCAA basketball tournament and the cyclone that has ravaged Myanmar could be related. But except for the distance of a few blocks, the disaster in an Asia country could easily have happened in Atlanta.

As the death toll rises (as I write this, it is estimated at 22,000 dead with 41,000 more people missing), because of its relative isolation and poverty, it is possible to presume that what is happening in Myanmar would never happen in the US. Not two months ago, severe storms hit the Atlanta area as a men's college basketball game had the Georgia Dome packed with fans. Parts of the roof were ripped off by high winds, while tornados touched down nearby. Imagine the devastation if the tornado had hit the Dome: 60,000+ people in jeopardy.

But this is the United States. There are plenty of emergency workers to respond, people to lend help, and hospitals to care for the injured and ill. Except that perception is far from reality. No longer can emergency departments, operating rooms, and intensive care units handle an unexpected influx of disaster victims.

As a practicing emergency physician, I have a dog in this fight. Over the past many years, hospitals have closed, emergency departments have shut their doors, and the shortage of critical care nurses and doctors has increased. Inner cities and rural areas are affected equally. The inability to find medical care has become a crisis across the country as the decreased capacity to care for patients has caused longer waits for patients, ambulance diversions when ERs are overflowing, and patients being cared for in hallways and closets. With the system filled, the question that needs to be asked is what happens when disaster strikes? The ability to handle a surge of patients would overwhelm the system that exists today.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 12/9/2014