After a giant EF5 tornado slammed into the small suburban Oklahoma community of Moore earlier this week — razing neighborhoods, businesses, churches, schools and anything else in its path — the news media has covered the tragedy from a variety of angles.
Amid the stories of the victims, damages estimates, discussions of the role of global warming in the rising toll of natural disasters across the globe, a few stories also emerged issuing warnings to rescue workers and those trying to help with cleanup in the aftermath of this tragedy.
Helping out is usually seen as a positive action, one which, it perhaps could be argued, exemplifies humanity at its best.
But experts have now begun to examine the toll helping out has taken on bystanders and rescue workers helping to ameliorate destruction.
Risks for responders
Rescue workers face many dangers when they decide to assist. The prospect of death and injury are very real risks, even as they attempt to find survivors.
Dr. Matthew Levy, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says that risks come as responders are often walking or standing on unsteady ground and piles of shifting debris, and risk injury or even their lives should they fall through. Levy saw this as a first-hand responder to Hurricane Katrina.
In an interview with CBSNews.com, he also said that debris may also obscure shards of glass and metal — or gas and electrical lines, risking explosion or electrocution, respectively.
Levy also noted that disaster rescue response often begins with local authorities before regional reinforcements arrive, and these responders are likely community members of the affected areas, which can threaten their emotional well-being.
On Wednesday, authorities confirmed that the focus for responders to the tornado in Oklahoma would shift from a rescue to a recovery effort, as anyone still missing after the twister ripped through town is now presumed to be dead.
About 50 percent of tornado-related injuries occur following the weather event, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates. Common injuries include stepping on nails, electrocution from damaged power lines, being hit by falling or rolling objects, and lacerations and open wounds.
More than 200 were injured, including 70 children. A report in the New York Times stated that search and rescue crews had finished combing through Plaza Towers Elementary, which was decimated by the storm — resulting in the deaths of seven children.
Twenty-four people have been reported dead so far, including 10 children. Two of the children who died were infants, one at only 4 months old, the other at 7 months. The medical examiner’s office has reported that the cause of death in almost every case was either blunt force trauma or asphyxia.
“Anytime children are involved, the emotional stakes are high,” Levy said.
Many other injuries incurred in the aftermath of a disaster can affect victims as well as responders. Those might include eye injuries from falling debris, puncture wounds that may be contaminated with soil or sand (thus raising infection risk), and tetanus, a serious infection that can lead to muscle spasms of the jaw and spine, Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency medicine physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told CBS.
Glatter said that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be devastating both to adults and children after a disaster like a tornado.
Beyond the tragedy in Moore
These threats faced by first responders were never more exemplified than by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. There has been growing concern over the health effects arising from the tragedy in New York City.
Within seconds of the collapse of the World Trade Center, building materials, electronic equipment and furniture were pulverized and spread over the area. In the months following the attacks, dust from the pulverized buildings continued to fill the air of the World Trade Center site. Increasing numbers of New York residents are reporting symptoms that have been labeled as Ground Zero respiratory illnesses.
The dust from the collapsed towers was “wildly toxic,” according to air pollution expert and University of California Davis Professor Emeritus Thomas Cahill, in a report from USA Today.
Thousands of workers who toiled at the World Trade Center site continue to experience health problems, according to doctors at Mount Sinai Center for Occupational & Environmental Medicine in New York.
This has led to debilitating illnesses among rescue and recovery workers. Increasing numbers of cases are appearing in which first responders have developed serious respiratory ailments, and studies have linked an association between exposure to the World Trade Center debris and excess cancer risk.
One study revealed that cancer among 9/11 first responders is 15 percent higher than among people who were not exposed to the toxins at Ground Zero
The silver lining
This may lead one to ask what motivates the men and women who rush into harm’s way on a daily basis, risking life and limb to make the world a better place.
“I wanted my family to be safe, but I wanted everybody else’s family to be safe too,” says Ledonna Cobb, a survivor of the Oklahoma tornado.
Pictures of a bruised and bloodied Mrs Cobb and her husband Steve carrying away their daughter Jordan and another child have been seen around the world in the wake of the tragedy.
A teacher and mother of a student at Briarwood Elementary School, Cobb, who was inside a classroom when the EF5 twister struck, and says she was “grabbing onto everything” in an attempt to stay grounded, and to protect the students she had used her own body to shield.
She was knocked out when one of the classroom walls fell on top of her. After she came to, she and her husband Steve stayed to comfort other children who hadn’t yet been reunited with their own parents.
However, experts say that there is a silver lining to the risks faced in the wake of tragedy, as with every mass-casualty event — be it hurricane, bombing or tornado. “We have gotten better and better at responding and minimizing casualties,” Phebe Tucker, MD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center told The Gupta Guide. ”With each event … we’re getting better and better at responding,” she said.
“We learned how to mobilize emergency teams, prepare the emergency room to respond, and get the injured to the specialists best prepared to care for them,” she said.
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