Here's what we can do in between natural and man-made disasters

Here's what we can do in between natural and man-made disasters
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Disasters, natural or man-made, tend to draw an outpouring of support and aid — these moments of crisis have the power to bring citizens together in amazing and collaborative ways. Yet, as quickly as they draw attention, these devastating events quickly become old news, edged aside by the latest hurricane, wildfire, earthquake, or other disaster. There's no doubt that immediate relief efforts are essential, but it seems we're missing what happens in between these events and afterwards.

If we’re going to thoughtfully prepare and mitigate risk in disaster-prone areas, we must work with communities that lie in the path of potential destruction during times of peace to safeguard their ability to prepare for and respond to disasters.

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After a spike of discussion about lessons learned, efforts to conduct after-action reviews, and promises of policy change and support directly after a crisis, lethargy, and competing priorities, begins to set in among those who have made promises to be better prepared next time. The tragedy is that countless lives depend on these necessary changes being made.

 

In the U.S., prevention and preparedness efforts have become more advanced since the hard lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina. But, we still face multiple challenges, including how disasters are chronically politicized and underfunded, including the federal agencies and programs that bear the tremendous responsibility of leading recovery efforts for these devastating events.

As public health officials often point out, the way we think about disaster preparedness should not differ much from how we think about our nation’s military defense. As a country, we build and support our military capabilities in times of both war and peace. Similarly, when the winds die down and flood waters recede, we must roll up our sleeves and do the hard work of ensure we are better prepared next time, even when disaster is not imminent.

So, what can we do in between events that will make a meaningful difference for our citizens the next time disaster strikes?

  • Policymakers must appropriately fund the agencies we count on in times of disaster. Agencies such as FEMA, ASPR and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should be a top priority for funding, as they are the first line of defense for citizens affected by a devastating event.
  • Deepen the lines of communication and coordination between federal agencies, NGOs and private sector. Private sector organizations that have not established an infrastructure for aiding in disaster response must realign their thinking so that they can quickly and efficiently offer these resources to NGOs and federal agencies in a manner that will make a meaningful difference to those affected by disaster.
  • We must become more deliberate about rebuilding communities with resilience in mind when they are leveled by a disaster. For most communities, building back to the way things were before the disaster struck isn't always an option. Local leaders must ensure that infrastructure — like transportation and electrical grids, sewage lines, drainage plans and building codes — don’t become a hindrance as a hurricane, or wildfire bears down on homes.

This country has lagged greatly in the years leading up to this hurricane season, and we have quite a bit of catching up to do in terms of true preparedness.

Prior to this hurricane season, the U.S. has had the luxury of skirting catastrophic hurricanes — reminding us that continued investment, resources and funding must be put into disaster preparedness, or we cannot expect any of our communities to be fully resilient in the face of disaster.

As hurricane season draws to a close and other disasters loom, we must incorporate these calls to action if we want to avoid the "what could we have done better?" question in the future.

In the wake of the devastating hurricane season this year, it is absolutely essential to take a hard look at our national emergency preparedness infrastructure, and begin to assess and address these gaps that exist in preparedness and response.

While prioritizing disaster preparedness between crises can be difficult, it is not impossible, and as we have seen over the past few months, it is critically important to the wellbeing of citizens across the country.

Strengthening the underlying structure of our population's disaster response in between disasters will improve recovery trajectory and ultimately, countless lives.

So, before we turn our attention to the next headline grabbing news, we must commit the time, resources, and national energy to better insulate our communities from future disasters. Disaster response is incomplete without preparation.

As communities continue to recovery from back-to-back catastrophes, we must continue rebuilding communities, investing in resilient infrastructure, and fighting for investments, so that when disaster does strike, we are ready.

Nicolette Louissaint, Ph.D., executive director of Healthcare Ready, a D.C. based non-profit that coordinates between the federal government, NGOs and the private sector to meet health needs during and after a disaster, and helps advance health-related readiness.