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One month out from 2018 hurricane season — are we prepared?

One month out from 2018 hurricane season — are we prepared?
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The catastrophic 2017 hurricane season left a decade’s worth of recovery efforts in its wake. And while many groups remain focused on recovery, emergency response officials are well aware that the clock is ticking with additional threats that require our attention. This means that preparedness must be a priority even while we continue recovery work. This is especially important with the looming 2018 hurricane season just around the corner.

Our national preparedness and response posture must be fully equipped to carry out multiple missions at once, and it is a matter of life and death that our emergency preparedness, response, and recovery capabilities are fully resourced to do just that. Investing in preparedness and responding to a disaster with swift action helps ensure both lives and dollars saved. With the 2018 hurricane season less that one month away, we must be prepared to act with such resolve.

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Due to the increasing frequency and magnitude of natural disasters such as hurricanes, wildfires and earthquakes, we cannot afford to continue rebuilding our communities continuously after catastrophe. Rather, we should be investing in mitigation strategies for communities with an increased likelihood of being affected by a disaster, such as those in flood-prone areas, by ensuring they are able to withstand and rebound from major disasters faster in the future.

 

If we do not take the time to invest in these communities ahead of disasters, we will continue the cycle of rebuilding and recovery, while losing millions, and potentially billions of dollars.

We must remember that while news coverage fades, many communities are still rebuilding and will be for years to come. Without proper investment in our disaster-prone communities, we can only expect this trend to continue unless something is done. The 2018 hurricane season starts on June 1, and Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are extremely vulnerable to threats posed by possible storms this season. The islands are still in a state of recovery from the 2017 hurricane season, and the reality is that another catastrophic hurricane season would be enough to reverse all of the recovery made on the islands thus far.

Damage from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria totaled 265 billion dollars. This begs the question, how much could we have saved if investments in mitigation strategies were prioritized, and preparedness efforts were consistently funded? We know that mitigation and preparedness save money and lives, but there is still much to be done to move the needle and ensure that communities are able to build back stronger and more resilient in-between disasters.

Staring down the barrel of another potentially record-breaking hurricane season, we must remain focused on key priorities that will support communities in the path of destruction.

First, we must plan smarter cities by evaluating their infrastructure, assessing evacuation routes, and scrutinizing our power grids. Healthcare, and much of society, depends on this critical infrastructure, which includes electricity, transportation and water. These aspects of critical infrastructure directly impact the ability of people to survive and recover after a disaster and cannot be neglected.

We must also implement disaster planning and preparation on a continuous basis so that when disaster does strike, jurisdictions are equipped with the training and resources necessary to endure the disruption. We can do so by emphasizing the importance of coordination across sectors.

From NGOs to government agencies and private sector partners and donors, these groups must all work together to address the wide breadth of needs that arise when preparing for an impending disaster. There is still time to learn lessons from last year’s events and enter the upcoming season more prepared to build partnerships that will improve our collective response efforts.

In addition, we must gain a common understanding of the sectors that do not necessarily target public health, but still have an impact on public health during a disaster. For instance, if we need to deliver critical medicines to patients in dire situations, passable roads are necessary for transportation.  

If we’re going to shelter displaced patients, we need facilities that are prepared to withstand power outages and support patient needs, along with trained staff who can reach these mass care facilities. Finally, it is almost impossible to share important information in the absence of telecommunications (which can depend on electricity).

While we depend on these capabilities to sustain public health year-round, it is especially evident during a disaster. These sectors are absolutely critical in the midst of a disaster and can be the difference between life and death in many cases.

Fostering a more robust preparedness and response posture is needed if we expect to withstand the current threat environment. Every corner of the U.S. is vulnerable to threats, whether it be hurricanes or pandemics. It was Puerto Rico last year, but it could be any other part of the country this year.

We will be unable to rebound from future disasters if we continue to lack sustained investment and coordination from critical parties. Right now, in-between disasters, is the most opportune time we have as a nation to rethink our approach and act before the next event occurs. 

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.