By Dr. Swannie Jett, DrPH, MSc, NACCHO President and Health Officer for the Florida Department of Health in Seminole County
It only takes one storm to change your community. Hurricane Preparedness Week, May 15–21, is an opportunity to encourage preparedness on the part of individuals, groups, and organizations in our communities. Hurricanes and tropical storms cause high winds, flooding, and storm surges, which can have great effects on public health. Disease outbreaks, contaminated water, mold, and mildew are just a few of the issues local health departments (LHDs) must be ready to tackle in the wake of a storm.
Climate change is impacting the weather systems that create hurricanes. Experts predict that climate change will provide more frequent and intense storms. For the 2016 hurricane season, forecasters currently predict a total of 14 named tropical storms and eight hurricanes, four of which are expected to make landfall.1, 2
What Local Health Departments Can Do
The aftermath of natural disasters such as hurricanes demand public health responses to multiple issues at once. These include establishing infectious disease prevention, protection, and outbreak control procedures for shelters; promoting injury prevention among displaced people; monitoring homes, water quality, and shelters for health and safety; mental health first aid; and ensuring worker and responder safety.
Prior to an emergency, LHDs should focus on health inequities in the vulnerable population with greatest risk. Previous disasters such as Hurricane Katrina have dictated why we should foster open lines of communication and collaboration between local, state, and federal agencies. They should focus on transportation and accessibility for vulnerable populations. Such collaboration can also help clarify what each entity’s role is and identify what resources are available in the event of an emergency.
LHDs should employ communications staff who are trained in risk communication principles and best practices; can work with the media; and have the ability to develop messages for websites, social media, and triage hotlines. Even though this can be challenging for smaller LHDs, it is critical to preparing for and responding to natural disasters and other emergencies.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides an excellent overview of the issues LHDs should be prepared to deal with in the event of a hurricane and contains links to related resources such as the following:
- Medical care after a hurricane (immunizations, medical management and patient advisement, medical records, pediatric care, dialysis care);
- Health risks after a hurricane (carbon monoxide poisoning, mold, contact with human remains);
- Helping survivors and public safety and health workers cope with trauma and stress;
- Public health assessment tools; and
- Safety precautions before reopening healthcare facilities.
LHDs should also encourage their communities to be proactive. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) offers tips and related links to help individuals prepare for a potential land-falling tropical storm or hurricane. Another great resource is #HurricaneStrong, a national hurricane resilience initiative by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, and NOAA. #HurricaneStrong encourages individuals to make a preparedness plan: know their evacuation zone, make sure their insurance coverage includes natural disasters, build a disaster supply kit, take steps to protect their homes, and learn how they can contribute to their community’s preparedness as well. Tap into the effort to engage and inform members of your community through #HurricaneStrong’s social media campaign.
A prepared public health system can mean the difference between life and death in a disaster situation. Hurricane Preparedness Week is a great opportunity for us to take stock and be proactive in preparing ourselves and our communities to safely weather whatever storms may come.
- Hurricane Preparedness Resources (NACCHO)
- Building Partnerships before Disaster Strikes: A Guide for Public Health Preparedness and Emergency Management Leaders (NACCHO)
- Policy Statement on Risk Communications Capacity (NACCHO)
- Planning for Unaccompanied Minors in Shelter Operations (NACCHO)
- Community Resilience for Local Health Departments (NACCHO)
- Hurricane Katrina 10th Anniversary: Lessons Learned for Public Health (NACCHO)
- Hurricane Preparedness Week: May 15-21, 2016 #ItOnlyTakesOne (NOAA)
- Emergency Preparedness and Response – Safety Information for Health Care Professionals (CDC)
- #HurricaneStrong – Make a Plan (FLASH)
- MacMath, Jillian. (2016). “’Cold blob’ to be a wild card in the 2016 Atlantic hurricane season.” AccuWeather.com. Published April 13, 2016. Retrieved April 13, 2016, from http://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-news/cold-blob-to-be-wildcard-la-nina-atlantic-hurricane-season-forecast-2016/56491288
- (2016). “FACTBOX: Meteorologists Predict 2016 Hurricane Season Will Be More Active.” Insurance Journal. Published April 8, 2016. Retrieved April 13, 2016, from http://www.insurancejournal.com/news/international/2016/04/08/404636.htm