A Registered Dietitian Nutritionist’s Role in Hurricane Relief Efforts

Relief workers inspecting donated food
Photo: U.S. Public Health Service

In late August 2017, Hurricane Harvey tore through southeast Texas and southern Louisiana dumping an unprecedented amount of rain in its path. As the Category 4 storm moved through the area, approximately 20,000-30,000 people sought shelter according to the American Red Cross. As rescue and recovery efforts began, dietitians were among the first responders as members of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps’ Rapid Deployment Force team.

A division of the Department of Health and Human Services, the Corps is made up of various health care professionals dedicated to delivering public health promotion and disease prevention programs throughout the country. Corps dietitians hold a variety of positions throughout the department’s federal agencies. Their work ranges from clinical health care to public policy, and deploying to natural disasters, such as hurricanes, also is part of their role.

Lieutenant Commander Stephanie Magill, MS, RD, CD, has been a Corps member for five years and has worked as a registered dietitian nutritionist in federal agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and United States Department of Agriculture throughout her career. She was among the 100 plus health care professionals who deployed to Houston, Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey to set up the Federal Medical Station, a non-emergency medical center for displaced persons with special health needs.

Magill’s work began with an evaluation of the possible service population to determine any special needs or diets she may need to consider. For example, older adult populations may have chewing or swallowing problems and require modified texture foods. She also reviewed relevant medical nutrition therapy practices and evaluated government-provided supplies such as infant formula and nutrition supplements that may play a role in providing nutrition support.

“In a traditional hospital setting you can order the specialized diet, such as soft or low-sodium, that the patient needs. We don’t necessarily have that option when we’re responding to natural disasters,” says Magill. “Often, a third-party foodservice contract is in place and we have to determine the best available options to meet the patient’s dietary needs.”

During Hurricane Harvey, Magill’s team partnered with the American Red Cross, who established a contract with a foodservice company to get food to people in need. However, this did not mean food was always available or that the dietitians knew when or what kind of food would arrive. Meals ranged from fast food sandwich donations to more balanced hot meals featuring a variety of food groups. Snacks such as granola bars or crackers were sporadically available. Food safety was an additional concern. At times, the public health department would have to turn potentially unsafe food away.

“It’s unique to work in a situation where there aren’t a lot of resources available to you and you have to make do. Even though you know a renal patient needs a low-sodium diet, you have to weigh the risk of consuming too much sodium with the benefit of eating a meal,” Magill says.

Registered dietitian nutritionists on deployment teams also fulfill roles beyond nutrition support. They ensure the rest of the staff is fed and taken care of during their 12 hour or more shifts. Additionally, they can serve as public affairs officers or help connect patients with needed resources or secure post-acute care placements. For Magill, the variety of roles available to RDNs is one of the most rewarding aspects of being a Corps member.

Serving in the Corps provides unique and challenging opportunities for RDNs to grow and learn throughout their careers. A Registered Dietitian Nutritionist’s Role in Hurricane Relief Efforts - To learn more about the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and opportunities available to registered dietitian nutritionists, visit www.usphs.gov.

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Dana Eufrasio Peters
Dana Eufrasio Peters is graduate student and dietetic intern at the University of Illinois-Chicago. She previously received her bachelor’s degree in journalism and hopes to combine her passion for nutrition and writing in her future career. Dana believes in using a holistic, non-diet approach to nutrition and wellness. Connect with her on LinkedIn and Instagram.