“So we got in around 5:30 a.m., there is two inches of water in the surgery room, water on the carpets, two offices totally soaked, water leaking in from our large windows…we put out hundreds of towels and started mopping up… we started seeing patients at ten a.m.”
Rose Codding, director of Falls Church Healthcare Center, a Virginia clinic that provides abortions and other reproductive health care services, is calmly telling me about her and her staff’s response in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. These efforts were successful—the clinic did not close at all, a tribute both to very careful planning and to the extraordinary dedication of those who work in the abortion field.
FCHC was able to see patients on both Monday and Tuesday, the days of the greatest disruption by Sandy in Virginia. Of her staff of 11, all but two were able to make it to the clinic on those days, despite quite challenging driving conditions. And half of that day’s patients were able to reach the clinic as well on Monday and somewhat more on Tuesday. (Those unable to keep their appointments were mainly women who depended on public transportation, which was suspended).
Patients, according to Codding, were surprised and grateful that the clinic was opened. Ironically, the storm in one sense provided a benefit to the clinic’s patients—given that most workplaces were shut down, these women did not have to take time off from work. The only disgruntled patients were those scheduled for Tuesday abortions who had to make their way to the clinic on Monday for their sonograms, mandated by the state to take place at least 24 hours in advance of their procedure. “I can’t believe I had to drive through the rain just for this!” was a not uncommon refrain.
It has finally stopped raining in Virginia, and while things are getting somewhat easier, they are still not back to normal. Codding, for example, has been dealing with the aftermath of soaked carpets and the need to eliminate mold, which can cause a special risk to staff and patients with asthma. And of course, she and her staff, who heroically rose to the occasion for several days running and had to add heavy-duty cleanup to their already crowded work lives, are tired.
The willingness of Rose Codding and the staff of FCHC to go to such lengths to keep open in the face of natural disasters mirrors other stories I have heard over the years—stories which speak both to women’s determination to get their abortions, no matter what, and the abortion-providing community’s attempt to accommodate these women. I recall being told by the staff of a clinic in the Seattle area that when a rare earthquake in the region destroyed half the clinic, women still showed up for their scheduled abortions. I think of the efforts made by Southern abortion providers to offer free procedures to victims of Hurricane Katrina who had to flee New Orleans and thus miss their scheduled abortions. The willingness of FCHC staff to rise at dawn and deal with their water-logged facility (when most other workplaces in the region remained closed) reminds me of the efforts of the staff some years ago at a West Palm Beach abortion clinic who worked furiously at cleanup efforts after a firebombing, and who were able to reopen the clinic in a remarkably short time.
Codding is of course proud of her staff, and by extension, her field. “We always rise to the occasion. We are dedicated to the profession, and to the women we serve. We just keep on keeping on.” But she also puts the natural disaster of Hurricane Sandy in perspective, and makes clear that she, as an abortion provider, faces greater challenges. “It’s never been easy for the 30 years I have been doing this. A natural disaster at least is something we can cope with and then it’s over.”
FCHC as a Virginia-based clinic has been subject not only to protestors, but to relentless attacks by the Virginia legislature, and is currently facing uncertainty over the fate of the notorious Ambulatory Surgery Center measure passed by that body—which would require her facility, which provides only first trimester procedures, to be regulated like a hospital. Should the current version of the law be upheld, it is widely agreed, FCHC and nearly all of Virginia’s other freestanding clinics would close. The Virginia Health Commissioner has resigned in protest against this blatant politicization of health-care regulation. It speaks volumes about the current status of abortion care in the United States that Hurricane Sandy’s impact is trivial next to that of a red state legislature.