Health and Medicine People and Community

University community unites to aid devastated southwest Florida

In the wake of Hurricane Ian’s destruction, relief efforts will explore assisting agencies on Florida’s West Coast, collecting essential supplies, and providing other help that may be needed.
Damaged homes and debris are shown in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Fort Myers Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Hurricane Ian destroyed homes and scattered debris throughout Fort Myers Beach, as seen in the aftermath on Sept. 29. Photo: The Associated Press


Florida’s Lee County municipalities are the hardest hit, but all along the southwestern coast, cities and towns of every size are now reeling from the brunt of Hurricane Ian, which made landfall in the region on Wednesday as a powerful Category 4 storm, knocking out power to millions of people, tearing houses off foundations, destroying critical bridges, and turning streets into rivers. 

From health care and housing to food and clothing, relief efforts will be immense, with calls for aid being initiated even before Ian even slammed into the coast, emergency managers are reporting.

The University of Miami Miller School of Medicine’s Division of Emergency Management was among those contacted by West Coast medical facilities on the same day of the storm’s landfall. 

“In the immediate aftermath, it is difficult to know how many have been affected and to what degree, but as ’Canes fueled by a mission of service, we are determined to provide hope and take action during this critical time,” President Julio Frenk said in a message to the University community. 

Vincent J. Torres, emergency management director for UHealth and the Miller School of Medicine, drove to the region early Thursday to assess any potential damage to the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute in Naples, which is in Collier County. The facility, he said, will be ready to reopen on Monday. 

Plans are also being made to send Bascom Palmer Eye Institute’s Vision Van to Florida’s West Coast to operate from the parking lot of its Naples facility and provide further care, as needed. 

UHealth and Miller School leaders are waiting for state officials to conduct their assessments and then share the best way the University can offer support as part of a concerted effort to provide relief to the impacted region. 

In addition, Dr. Barth Green, a world-famous neurosurgeon who is executive dean for global health and community service and leads the Global Institute for Community Health and Development, along with Dr. Elizabeth Greig, an assistant professor of medicine at the Miller School who serves as co-director of education and research programs at the institute, are engaged. 

In past relief efforts, the global institute has sent doctors to places such as Ukraine and the Bahamas to aid in relief efforts. Greig said that when medical aid is rendered in a city decimated by a natural disaster, it involves helping residents to maintain their regular health care regimens. 

“Usually, a lot of morbidity after a disaster comes from interruption in routine medical care services such as people not being able to get their medications and get treatment for conditions that can turn into major problems such as asthma exacerbations, heart attacks, and strokes,” she said.  

Torres has also met with emergency management officials at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers. The University of Miami is a member of the National Intercollegiate Mutual Aid Agreement, which supports peer institutions impacted by major disasters as requests come in. 

“We are ready to assist any institution of higher education who we can support in their time of need,” said Matthew Shpiner, executive director of emergency management. 

Shpiner said the entire region faces daunting challenges in the weeks ahead. “In the short term, the focus will be on ensuring the safety and basic needs of the community,” he noted. “Over the next few days and weeks, the community will see a massive influx of local, state, and federal resources to address those immediate needs. The pictures and video coming out of the region make it evident that recovery in that area is far more than just power restoration. This is a life-changing event for so many people, and it may take months or even years to return to a sense of normalcy.” 

Meanwhile, the School of Nursing and Health Studies stands ready to assist the region, just as it did for southern Miami-Dade after Hurricane Andrew devastated that part of the county 30 years ago. “In the aftermath of Ian, we are once again ready to serve our fellow Floridians in areas that are most in need,” the school’s dean, Cindy L. Munro, said. "Our thoughts are with those affected by this terrible storm." 

First responders deploy 

First responders who are part of the City of Miami’s and Miami-Dade County’s Fire Rescue Urban Search and Rescue Teams have already deployed to the area, employing the lifesaving skills they learned at the Miller School’s Gordon Center for Simulation and Innovation in Medical Education. 

Nursing and medical students, physicians, physician assistants, nurses, paramedics, firefighters, and instructors worldwide have all trained at the center, renowned for developing educational systems and training curricula that are used globally. A self-learning laboratory, standardized patient training area, a rescue vehicle, a car for extrication of trauma victims, and a mock emergency department are just some of the center’s features. The center received funding support from the Florida Department of Education to develop and disseminate life-saving training programs with an emphasis on those for first responders. This past year, the center received additional support to prepare health care professionals in responding to natural disasters, said Gordon Center director Dr. Barry Issenberg, the Michael S. Gordon Endowed Chair and Professor of Medicine and Medical Education. 

“The Atlantic hurricane seasons of the past two years were some of the busiest for deployment of the urban search and rescue teams,” Issenberg said. “The lessons learned from those previous deployments, together with the training they have received here, have better prepared them to respond to the current disaster in southwest Florida.” 

Climate change’s potential impact

After pummeling Florida’s southwest coast as a major Category 4 hurricane Wednesday afternoon, Ian was downgraded to a tropical storm on Thursday morning. But by Thursday afternoon, the cyclone had strengthened into a Category 1 storm, moving toward the South Carolina coast. 

It is one of the most powerful storms to ever hit the United States, immediately raising concerns among many that climate change is fueling more intense hurricanes. But just how much is a difficult question to answer without a fair amount of modeling and research, said Ben Kirtman, professor of atmospheric sciences at the Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science. 

“However, there are some robust assessments of future storms that we may be realizing now,” he explained. “For example, there is strong evidence that the number of Category 4 and 5 storms will increase as the climate warms. Moreover, given increases in sea level, we can expect the storm surge to also increase significantly regardless of increases in storm strength. There is also evidence that the storms are going to produce more rainfall and some indications that the forward speed of storms will decrease, which also tends to increase the local rainfall amounts.” 

Ian, which knocked out power to all of Cuba before making its U.S. landfall, drew comparisons to another hurricane, Charley, which hit southwest Florida in 2004. 

“They both tracked through the southern Windward Islands, passed south of Jamaica, intensified to make landfall in western Cuba as hurricanes, then rapidly intensified to 150 mile-per-hour Category 4 hurricanes in the hours before making landfall in the exact same spot,” said Brian McNoldy, tropical cyclone expert at the Rosenstiel School. “But the key difference between them was their size. Charley was an extremely tiny hurricane, while Ian was more typical. Just before landfall, Ian’s area of hurricane-force winds was about three times larger than Charley’s. And that makes a significant difference in the number of people affected by heavy rain, destructive wind, and storm surge, and in the storm’s ability to generate a larger storm surge. The category rating of a hurricane doesn’t tell you anything about any of those factors.” 

Thursday, as news of Hurricane Ian’s destruction spread, University of Miami students who are from that region and have family there reacted to the devastation. 

“It’s been strange watching it all unfold,” said Grace Altidor, a senior from Cape Coral, who is studying health science. “Here [in Miami], it was just a lot of rain. I didn’t realize how bad it was at home until Wednesday. My mom sent me videos of the storm ripping up trees and blowing things away. She shared photos of our whole fence, torn down. Our whole garden is gone. The screen door of my patio is gone. They’re okay, but a little worn out from having to clean up and deal with the power and water loss.” 

Dylan Waks, a junior from Fort Myers, who is studying finance and sports administration, said his family is doing fine. “They stayed at my house in Fort Myers because we live pretty far from the water,” he said. “Right now, they have no cell service, Wi-Fi, electricity, or running water. It’s been hard to maintain consistent contact because of the lack of service. In terms of the city itself, it’s really in bad shape.” 

Some student groups and organizations are planning relief efforts of their own, augmenting those of the wider University community. 

Writer Jenny Hudak contributed to this report.