By Nicolette Louissaint, PhD.
As someone with Caribbean roots, I grew wise early on to the destructive power of hurricanes and the threat they posed to my family on the islands. But even after the storm passed and we got that reassuring phone call from loved ones, we knew that they had a difficult road to recovery ahead. This is also true for everyone recently impacted by the last hurricane season. For many of us, Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Nate are distant memories, despite the long recovery that people in those impacted regions face. For example, Puerto Rico recently experienced a full power outage after months of struggling to restore power on the island.
As the headlines recede, so do sharpened discussions with the general public on disaster mitigation and preparedness. This conversation is needed to foster resilience in the communities often left behind during disasters, and despite competing priorities, engagement on these issues is incredibly important in the current landscape of constant threats.
Hurricanes are only one threat. Tornadoes, wildfires, and disease outbreaks are just a few of the other catastrophes that can turn public health upside down. If we’re going to thoughtfully prepare for and mitigate risk for the vulnerable communities that lie in the path of potential destruction, we must do a few things better.
First, we still have a long way to go in adopting the right mindset for disaster preparedness in between disasters. Frankly, it has been nearly impossible to prioritize disaster preparedness between crises. In the U.S., prevention and preparedness efforts are chronically politicized and under-funded, including the federal and state agencies and programs that hold the tremendous responsibility of managing the local recovery from catastrophic events.
Next, we must prioritize addressing the variety of health needs that arise during a disaster. It’s no question, when someone is trapped on their roof, surrounded by rising flood water, the immediate need is rescue. In times of disaster, we must also remember the medically fragile patients who have a very short grace period before their health is seriously compromised, as routine medicines or care are suddenly out of reach. The disaster community has made important progress to dual-track urgent rescue and the need for immediate care in real-time, but more work is required to create the integrated systems necessary to navigate complex health needs that emerge amid disaster. In particular, tapping into the power of the private sector to meet unique and fast-evolving needs for patients on the ground is critical.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we must do a better job of harnessing the capabilities that already exist in communities to improve resilience. The people of Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and U.S. Virgin Islands have all demonstrated incredible resolve in surviving the last hurricane season. Our job now is to reduce the barriers they face by planning smarter cities, evaluating our infrastructure, assessing evacuation routes, and scrutinizing our power grids. This infrastructure holds direct impact on the ability of people to survive and recover after a disaster. If our nation’s infrastructure was as resilient as our people, this country and its territories would be able to withstand almost anything. With each catastrophic hurricane poised to cost $180 billion, only through building resilience will we be able to “move the needle” on disaster response.
Before we collectively turn public attention to the next big thing, we must commit the time, resources, and national energy to better insulate our communities from disasters. The most tragic mistake is the one that is easiest to make – turning our attention away too soon.