Protecting Health In the Aftermath of Natural Disasters
Leonard Achan | Forbes
Benjamin Franklin’s sage advice, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” is most often applied to matters of health. But Franklin was actually speaking of fire prevention, trying to help his readers “avoid being oven-roasted.”
Franklin’s recommendation applies equally to the dangers presented by natural disasters. While we can’t prevent a tornado, hurricane or earthquake from occurring, we can substantially improve preparations and solidify our infrastructures so people in harm’s way are better positioned to protect their lives, health and the environments in which they live and work.
The aftermath of hurricanes Maria, Harvey and Irma revealed the numerous health hazards confronting those who weathered the storms. Maria’s pounding of Puerto Rico has caused a humanitarian crisis with virtually no power and limited resources available to the entire island. Floodwaters in Houston were contaminated with bacteria — including high levels of E. coli inside homes — and toxins, such as lead and arsenic. Dozens upon dozens of industrial sites, particularly the many petrochemicals facilities around Houston, released toxic chemicals, and hazardous waste sites were flooded, spreading dangerous pollutants by water. Waterlogged homes in the flood-ravaged regions became infested with mold, an issue in some South Florida schools. Floodwaters are breeding grounds for mosquitoes in the warm Texas and Florida climates, raising the risk of a possible spread of West Nile or Zika virus that mosquitoes can carry. Then there is the danger of unstable structures and trees, downed power lines and the lack of air conditioning for Florida’s many elderly residents, which led to eleven tragic deaths at a nursing home.
Add the mental stress, loss of homes and possessions and damage to the employment and economic environment, and one can quickly see that health risks from a severe hurricane linger long after the storm has passed. The impact upon health and quality of life, as well as the damage to our health systems in the U.S. and its territories, could have been dramatically reduced with more prevention measures and planning.
Given this fact, America needs innovative solutions for better preparation that can protect human life and health not only in the aftermath of such natural disasters, but both before and during the events. Federal, state and municipal authorities need to elevate disaster preparedness, especially educating the public on how to handle various scenarios. When and where possible, our infrastructures should be hardened. Hazardous industrial sites can be better secured; seawalls can be strengthened; more frequent tree trimming can protect roads, homes and utility lines. Approaching natural disasters as if they were a dangerous disease whose risk can be minimized is a successful approach that can be transferred from the practice of medicine to emergency preparedness.
We need to make electrical grids more storm resistant. Florida utilities had replaced many wooden poles with concrete versions, increased the number of poles and installed water gauges in substations to monitor flooding, but still, Irma knocked out power to half of the state’s customers. It took Florida Power and Light ten days to get the lights back on in all the structures that were still habitable.
As Irma bore down on Florida, I witnessed a stark contrast between our capabilities and vulnerabilities. My six-year old daughter was tracking the storm using a smartphone app from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, while a friend in Florida, broadcasting via a social media app was asking, “Where can I get water?” Innovation has brought high-tech global communications to the palm of our hands, but the most basic need of life — water — was hard to find as the deadly hurricane approached Florida. Emergency management departments in hurricane zones need greater capability to provide more drinking water, food and shelter. How can we live in an age of having a super computer in our pocket connected to the world through a global communication network, yet be helpless for the basic necessities of life?
The everyday “ounce of prevention” to protect our health and prevent disease involves eating healthy food, avoiding excessive consumption of sugar and alcohol and exercising regularly. Innovators have built entire industries around these lifestyle disciplines: organic farming, health food markets, fitness clubs, diet and health coaches, to name just a few. Similarly, we need innovators to recognize our storm preparation vulnerabilities and invent new approaches that can save lives and protect health when we are confronted with disaster.
Overseas, innovators have improved disaster preparedness and response. British researchers have developed a real-time mapping and data gathering system, utilizing high-resolution satellite imagery that smartly presents post-disaster conditions and helps emergency response teams rapidly determine where resources are most needed. It has effectively been deployed after natural disasters in Thailand, Pakistan and Haiti, and is designed to help prepare for future disasters.
In Israel, Eli Beer, founder of United Hatzolah, has revolutionized emergency response. From personal experience as a volunteer Emergency Medical Technician, Beer saw that ambulances too frequently would fail to arrive quickly enough to save lives. So he organized a corps of volunteer paramedics willing to rush to the scene of a life-threatening emergency to save lives until an ambulance could arrive. On foot and using “ambucycles”— motorcycles equipped with medical supplies — they have accelerated emergency response, lowering the average response time down to three minutes in both Jewish and Arab neighborhoods of Israel. United Hatzolah has brought its rapid response approach to Panama, Brazil, Ukraine and Jersey City, New Jersey.
The United States needs innovators like Eli Beer to reimagine disaster preparedness because extreme weather events that pose severe health risks are increasing in frequency. By putting Benjamin Franklin’s words into action — taking an ounce of prevention — we will be able to minimize deaths, injuries and health hazards in the aftermath of natural disasters.
Leonard Achan, RN, MA, ANP, is Chief Innovation Officer and Senior Vice President of Innovation and Business Development at Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS).
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