Working for You During Hurricane Sandy

By: Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.

You may think that FDA is simply an organization that reviews medical products or works to keep your food safe. But FDA’s broad public health mission includes mobilizing to protect Americans when natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy strike.

FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg visits the Emergency Operations Center at the agency’s headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., where FDA experts are monitoring, assessing, and responding to the impact of Hurricane Sandy on FDA regulated facilities and products. Mark Russo, acting director of FDA’s Office of Crisis Management, and other members of the FDA Incident Management Group brief the commissioner on their progress. Click on the photo to enlarge it.

We often think of major storms like Sandy in terms of the risk to life and damage to property. But at FDA we also have to focus on the effects of natural disasters on the safety of the products we regulate and that consumers and patients depend on – everything from fresh produce to canned foods to medicines and high-tech medical devices. Flooding, extreme temperatures, and power outages can create a multitude of safety problems for those products and the facilities where they are made and stored.

FDA’s preparation for hurricanes begins even before the tropical season starts. Every year, we use our Geographic Information System to create and continuously update a set of maps and a list of FDA-regulated facilities, sorted by the type of product the facilities produce. This information prepares FDA offices across the country to act immediately in the event of a natural disaster by showing us the location of the affected facilities.

FDA’s work during public health emergencies is coordinated through our Emergency Operations Center, which is in a constant state of readiness 24/7. The EOC, as we call it, is staffed by FDA experts on such subjects as emergency management and coordination, investigation, epidemiology, public and environmental health, the safety of food and medical products, imported products, legal issues, and cartography.

To prepare for Hurricane Sandy, we consulted with other public health and preparedness agencies, received regular updates from the National Hurricane Center, and conferred with sister agencies during telephone conferences conducted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). And to help the public prepare, we posted information on our website about ensuring the safety of food and medical supplies.

This map in FDA’s Emergency Operations Center shows the concentration of FDA-regulated facilities in each affected county. Combined with an overlay of the projected rainfall amounts provided by the National Weather Service, the FDA is able to tell at a glance which facilities producing FDA-regulated products would be impacted by Hurricane Sandy. Click on the map to enlarge it.

As Sandy moved up the East Coast, the experts in our EOC swung into action. We created a series of maps for FDA field offices overlaid with the predicted storm track and FDA-regulated companies in the storm’s path to give us a picture of Sandy’s potential impact. Monitoring reports from our field offices, we produced situation reports, which we fed to FEMA and other agencies. This awareness was crucial in strengthening the agencies’ preparedness and immediate response efforts.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, some of our most important work is just beginning. FDA’s district offices are reaching out to the affected states and regulated industries to assess the full impact of this devastating storm. Our offices are using detailed and specialized maps, as well as historical information about facilities, to decide which manufacturing plants to inspect first.

The first priority might be a damaged plant that manufactures complex monoclonal antibodies to treat cancer, a flooded facility that produces medical devices, or a cold storage food warehouse that has lost power. As we assess the damage, we need to inspect facilities and focus on situations that pose the greatest risk to public health and safety.

The Emergency Operations Center is staffed during a disaster like Hurricane Sandy by a FDA Incident Management Group comprised of personnel who are expert in a variety of public health and regulatory areas. They work with FDA Incident Management Teams in the field to monitor the impact of the storm and help shape the agency’s response. Click on the photo to enlarge it.

In the case of an unprecedented natural disaster like Sandy, state and local governments may ask for help with tasks they normally perform, such as inspecting restaurants, school and hospital cafeterias, and facilities where diagnostic x-ray and mammography equipment are installed. Working with our parent Department of Health and Human Services and FEMA, FDA can provide expert teams of inspectors with specialized training to assess and help correct problems.

Fortunately, storms like Sandy occur rarely. But when they do, FDA employees are on the job, dedicated to protecting the public health and working to keep you safe.

Margaret Hamburg, M.D., is Commissioner of the U. S. Food and Drug Administration

For these and similar images go to FDA’s Flickr photostream.