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Climate change: Communities hold the key to disaster preparedness

Hurricane Harvey rescue
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Hurricane Harvey rescue

As climate change causes increasingly frequent and disastrous events, we must be more prepared than ever to face a crisis. A recent poll found that most of us are taking note, with 54 percent of Americans thinking a major disaster could impact them or their families in the next five years. This increased awareness is a good thing. However, more than half of Americans do not have an emergency plan in place — emphasizing the gap between our concerns and the ability to prepare. 

Instead of pointing fingers or placing blame, we must recognize that a lack of preparation can be due to many factors. Competing priorities play a major role in the time or resources a household can devote to preparedness. If the priority is feeding the family or paying the electricity bill, extra resources to prepare for an event that might happen, like a hurricane or wildfire, are scant. Secondly, a lack of preparedness education at the individual level leaves many vulnerable to the harsh realities of disasters.

Far too often, we’ve witnessed the lingering effects of disasters and the impact that has on communities for years after an event. In fact, many communities across the U.S. are still in some stage of recovery from large-scale events that happened years ago. The lack of disaster planning and training has resulted in communities playing catch-up, while simultaneously trying to prepare for an upcoming disaster. Most communities, especially those in disaster-prone areas, are not resourced to respond while still recovering. We’ve seen this in areas of Texas, Louisiana, Puerto Rico and even New Jersey as a result of Hurricane Sandy. And it’s not just hurricanes. Look at parts of California, where residents are still struggling to rebuild from the wild fires. The same can be said for Nebraska, as it grapples to recover from historic flooding with more expected to come.

All efforts to improve community resilience should start by assessing the needs and challenges of a community during a calm period. This will enable us to plan ahead so that we can address those needs at a moment’s notice once disaster strikes.

For example, we know that more and more people are relying on their communities in the face of disaster. In fact, 31 percent of Americans feel their state and local government are well-resourced and prepared to support them during an emergency. While nearly 38 percent say the same of their local community organizations. Since this may not always be true, and all disasters are local, we must develop tailored, local preparedness efforts and find ways to build local community capacity in disaster planning.

As the realities of disaster become clearer and more frequent than ever before, we must use these learnings to pinpoint the most pressing needs within our communities ahead of time. Data also reveals how little time most Americans have before facing a medical crisis. More than one-third of Americans would experience serious medial effects when forced to go without their medications for a week or less. This critical time should be spent implementing effective response and recovery protocols that can address dire medical needs we will see during a crisis, rather than scrambling to pinpoint where those needs exist as it’s happening.

Specifically, community-level investments truly improve preparedness and save money on costs associated with responses. If the infrastructure is already in place, it becomes easier to rebuild. Whether it be funding local organizations or nonprofits, we must invest in community level preparedness if we hope to move the needle. 

Federal organizations also have a role in empowering communities with health-centric tools to ensure their resilience, at least in the short term. In the long term, funding at all levels is going to define communities’ capabilities for disaster response. While we can celebrate advancements at the federal level with the recent reauthorization of the Pandemic All-Hazards Preparedness Act, funding remains reactive for the most part — which is like placing a bandage on a huge wound and expecting it to heal properly. It just doesn’t work.

The ability to effectively prepare and respond to disasters starts and ends with communities. Hurricane season is underway, and we’re running out of time to plan and implement tailored response and recovery protocols, especially at the community level. As more people rely on their communities in the face of disaster, it’s crucial that funding is focused on protecting and strengthening their resilience. 

Without community resilience ingrained into disaster preparedness and funding at all levels, we cannot expect to do better. 

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.

Tags Climate change Emergency Preparedness Natural disaster Nicolette Louissaint Public health

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