As a Louisiana network scrambles to replace battered women’s shelters devastated by Hurricane Katrina, ob-gyn nurses are flying to the Gulf Coast, Planned Parenthood is supplying contraception and the Ms. Foundation is raising relief funds.

Sara K. Gould

OAKLAND, Calif. (WOMENSENEWS)–Women’s health and safety advocates are mobilizing support for women affected by Hurricane Katrina, saying thousands hit by the worst natural disaster in U.S. history are in need of basic care.

"There’s a huge burden on everyone but particularly on low-income women with children," said Sara K. Gould, president and CEO of the Ms. Foundation for Women.

The New York-based Ms. Foundation on Wednesday announced the creation of the Katrina Women’s Response Fund, which aims to raise an initial $500,000 to help local organizations that serve women, particularly low-income women of color.

An initial grant of $15,000 went to the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, a nonprofit network of 20 domestic violence programs and shelters in the state that served 30,000 women and children last year. Four of the group’s shelters and two nonresidential programs have been shuttered because of the hurricane and flooding. Three other facilities have been destroyed.

The coalition is helping women with immediate necessities, such as getting bills paid; providing baby formula, diapers and clothing; making car repairs and tending to medical needs or prescriptions. They are also relocating domestic violence victims who were in shelters before the storm and attending to women who have been assaulted or abused in its aftermath.

"We have received reports that women are being battered by their partners in the emergency shelters and they need our assistance," said Merni Carter, executive director of the Louisiana coalition. "Sadly, domestic violence and child victimization are social problems that do not stop during this natural disaster and with cessation of all direct services into the Gulf Coast region."

Reports of abuse, sexual assault and rape are still unconfirmed.

Women’s Health Specialists Needed

Medical staff specializing in women’s health–particularly obstetrics–are also in great need in the affected Gulf Coast region.

The National Nurses Organizing Committee and the California Nurses Association, a large nursing union based in Oakland, Calif., have sent about 70 registered nurses from California, Arizona and Ohio to the region this week.

The nurses are at hospitals and mobile hospital units in Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana. A number of those nurses deployed are experienced in labor and delivery.

Janelle McClune, a San Francisco Bay Area nurse who works in women’s health, left for Wiggins, Miss., on Tuesday.

McClune, who triaged victims of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, was going to a small 15-bed hospital about 40 miles north of Gulfport, Miss., that has admitted at least 150 patients seeking medical care in the hurricane’s aftermath. The overwhelmed facility had a particularly severe need of medical staff to assisting in the delivery of infants and help women with basic and acute medical care, she said.

Chronic Care Needed

Federal health officials are now seeking medical volunteers to help over the next few months with chronic care, such as diabetes and oncology and mental-health counseling.

"The need for urgent care seems to be tapering off," said Jan Emerson, spokesperson for the Sacramento-based California Hospital Association, which is working with the Chicago-based American Hospital Association and the federal government to coordinate medical response. "People are being stabilized but there is a huge need for mental health care."

Among the chief mental health concerns are post-traumatic stress and depression for both adults and children. "Your whole life has been torn apart," Emerson said. "We’re getting requests from the federal government for many mental heath workers to go in the coming months."

In the meantime, privacy and safety are basic needs for women in the affected region.

Evacuated women may no longer have access to reproductive health services, for instance, or the regular prenatal care they were receiving.

"Now they are out of their communities and those services have been disrupted," Gould said. "They have the need for contraception and for abortion access. They may have had a supply of medicine but those have run out."

Planned Parenthood clinics around the country are providing a free one-month supply of birth control pills, emergency contraception and family planning services to women displaced by Katrina.

"In emergency weather situations the focus is on protecting yourself, your loved ones and your home," said Peter J. Durkin, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Houston and Southeast Texas. "Many times, essential medication is left behind in the bathroom cabinet."

Gould says the problem of domestic violence is also likely to become more acute.

"Anytime when there is a crisis, violence tends to rise and especially violence against women," Gould said.

Rebecca Vesely is a health care reporter at the Oakland Tribune in Oakland, Calif.



For more information:

Ms. Foundation for Women:

Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence: