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What Hurricane Katrina Taught Us About Community Resilience

Aug 27, 2015, 8:59 AM, Posted by Alonzo L. Plough, Anita Chandra

Hurricane Katrina left a path of destruction, death, and suffering in its wake. Its uneven recovery has taught us valuable lessons about community resiliency that will help us prepare for the next storm and beyond.

New Oreleans St. Bernard Housing project. Girl on scooter.

Ten years ago Risa Lavizzo-Mourey visited Gulfport, Mississippi, and witnessed firsthand the devastation and ruin wrought by Hurricane Katrina. “We may not be able to fix the broken levees, restore ruined cities, house the homeless, or feed the hungry,” she wrote soon after. “That’s not our job. But we most certainly can apply Katrina’s lessons to the wide range of good work that we support...”

On the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we must reflect on valuable lessons learned from this cataclysmic event, the complexity of recovery, and the disastrous health outcomes that can result from a fundamental distrust between residents and government agencies. Katrina’s devastation and the Gulf’s uneven recovery also have served as an opportunity for studying resiliency—the capacity of communities to prepare for, respond to, and recover from adversity whether in the form of a natural disaster, economic downturn, or a pandemic.

This emphasis on community resilience represents a paradigm shift in emergency preparedness, which has traditionally focused on shoring up infrastructure (reinforcing buildings, roads, and levees), improving detection of new hazards to human health, and being able to mount an immediate response to disasters. Katrina and subsequent threats such as Hurricane Sandy, the Florida panhandle oil spill and the H1N1 epidemic have taught us that to be truly prepared for the long-term impact of adversity communities must also develop a different set of assets: those that build strength through promoting well-being and community engagement.

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The Best Defense is a Strong Offense: Strengthening Our Nation’s Outbreak Preparedness

Dec 22, 2014, 5:08 PM, Posted by Paul Kuehnert

Outbreaks 2014

In the shadow of this year’s Ebola outbreak, the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released a new report, Outbreaks: Protecting Americans from Infectious Diseases.

The report finds that while significant advances have been made in preparing for, responding to, and recovering from emergencies, gaps in preparedness remain and have been exacerbated as resources have been cut over time.

On the eve of the report’s release, I spoke with Jeffrey Levi, PhD, executive director of the Trust for America’s Health to get his thoughts on today’s preparedness landscape—think, Ebola—what to do about shrinking budgets and growing infectious disease threats, and where to go from here.

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The “Resilience Dividend” and the Culture of Health

Nov 25, 2014, 8:23 AM, Posted by Susan Dentzer

Red Hook Ikea The Red Hook IKEA after Superstorm Sandy. Credit: Flickr user Ham Hock https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

Red Hook, Brooklyn, is named for its original red clay soil, and the “hook” of land that juts out into Upper New York Bay. Two stores located close to the water there fared very differently during Superstorm Sandy, which ravaged parts of New York and New Jersey in October 2012.

Judith Rodin, president and CEO of the Rockefeller Foundation, recounts the saga in her new book, The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong.

Ikea, the Swedish household goods chain opened its Red Hook store in 2008, built on pilings with a ground floor garage, an emergency generator, and show rooms and inventory well above ground level. Although its parking lot flooded during the storm, the inventory was untouched, and the store recovered quickly. It functioned as a local office for representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and served as “a neighborhood hub for the distribution of food, clothing, and other supplies,” Rodin writes. The store also “strengthened its neighborhood connections by taking on a new and important role.” 

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Mental Health Challenges of Hurricane Sandy’s Aftermath

Oct 29, 2014, 8:31 AM, Posted by Vicki Philips

Hurricane Sandy - Shore Tour Driftwood Cabana Club, Sea Bright, N.J.

On her 90th birthday, instead of celebrating, Dottie (whose last name is withheld for privacy) lost her home in Superstorm Sandy. Two years later, she is still displaced, living in temporary rentals.

Dottie’s nephew is trying to change that. He’s been rebuilding Dottie's home. Like so many New Jersey residents, he says he’s going to keep at it until reconstruction is complete. Meanwhile, he’s getting some much needed support from groups like BrigStrong, the County Long Term Recovery Group, and the Mental Health Association in New Jersey (MHANJ).

It’s been two long years since Hurricane Sandy slammed into New Jersey on October 29, 2012. As a mental health worker, I still see the aftereffects firsthand.

For the past two years, the Mental Health Association in New Jersey (MHANJ), along with other local groups, has been on the front lines of the battle to maintain the mental health of Jersey Shore residents. Thanks to a major RWJF grant, MHANJ has been able to leave the county in a better position to deal with the next disaster:

  • We’ve given mental health first aid training to city employees who, in their daily work, encounter community members with mental health issues.
  • Through our Certified Recovery Support Practitioner program, we’ve improved our ability to reach out to the most vulnerable. Many community members certified through the program have faced mental health challenges themselves, which only increases their credibility.
  • We counseled populations with mental health issues on how to safely evacuate or shelter in place, thus ensuring that first responders will be safer in future emergencies.

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Global Health in a Time of Ebola

Oct 21, 2014, 2:44 PM, Posted by Paul Kuehnert

Nelson Mandela's cell on Robbens Island Nelson Mandela's cell on Robbens Island (photo by Paul Kuehnert)

I returned from Cape Town, South Africa a week ago and want to share some reflections on my trip and my participation in the Third Global Symposium on Health Systems Research, in Cape Town September 30-October 3, with the theme “Science & Practice of People-Centred Health Systems.”

In the opening session, Professor Thandika Mkandawire from the London School of Economics made two remarks that resonated with me, and that were referred to by other speakers throughout the conference. First, referencing Napoleon’s quote that “War is too important to leave to the generals,” Mkandawire said that “health is too important to leave to health specialists.”  Instead, there is a need for multiple disciplines and sectors to create health and devise health policy. He went on to address the policy issues related to the most vulnerable populations, saying that “policies targeting the poor are poor policies”, arguing for the importance of social solidarity, not charity.

The current Ebola epidemic highlights the gaps in public health in many nations, as well as the erosion of public health emergency preparedness and response at WHO and many other nations, including the US.. This is putting our health at risk from all kinds of infectious and emerging diseases (e.g., MERS, polio) and threatens progress in health in other areas.

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Public Health Campaign of the Month: Know Where to Meet Your Family in an Emergency

Sep 2, 2014, 2:09 PM

NewPublicHealth continues a new series to highlight some of the best public health education and outreach campaigns every month. Submit your ideas for Public Health Campaign of the Month to info@newpublichealth.org.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is starting off National Preparedness Month with a series of stark, dark and attention-getting public service advertisements (PSAs) developed in cooperation with the Ad Council. They are set in what looks to be a dark, crowded school auditorium and showcase an intact family sheltering from the storm, and another family unable to locate their son. The obvious focus is on making a plan to know where all family members are when disaster strikes, but the auditorium—with too few chairs, no apparent cots and little room to move or stretch—gives a rare glimpse into what a public shelter looks like during an emergency and adds to the urgency of making that plan.

“The first step to preparing for disasters is simple and it’s free—talk to your family and make a plan,” said Craig Fugate, FEMA administrator. “Do you know how you’ll reunite and communicate with your family during an emergency? Through our continued partnership with the Ad Council, this year’s campaign illustrates how making a plan can keep families together and safe during a disaster.”

According to a recently released FEMA survey, 50 percent of Americans have not discussed or developed an emergency plan for family members about where to go and what to do in the event of a local disaster.

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Averting Disaster with a Pillowcase

Jun 6, 2014, 2:15 PM

During Hurricane Katrina, volunteers at American Red Cross shelters in the Gulf region noticed a pattern among some of the young children settling in as the storm began: They had brought pillowcases from home filled with some of their most precious items, such as a favorite book or a devoted stuffed animal. Other volunteers learned that evacuating college students also carried their belongings in pillowcases.

Following the storm, chapters along the Gulf launched a pilot called the “Pillowcase Project” that earlier this year became a national program of the American Red Cross, sponsored by the Walt Disney Company. Chapters across the country and in several pilot countries are now adapting the project to teach preparedness to children in grades 3 to 5 at school, after school and in camp settings.

file Courtesy: American Red Cross

“We’re working hard to get kids involved in preparedness,” said Jim Judge, a member of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council. Judge said getting kids involved helps dispel some of the fear they may face as they evacuate to avoid a disaster, “but we’ve also found that if you get the kids involved, often times they go home and get the parents involved [as well].”

But why a pillowcase? “Just about every home has a pillowcase, it’s inexpensive, you can decorate it and it’s a simplified way of getting kids involved,” he said.

In the pilot programs, kids get the pillowcases and supplies such as a mini first-aid kit, a glow stick, an activity book and crayons, all of which they use to start their own personalized disaster kit and preparedness plan. As part of the program, they learn about the types of emergencies that can impact their community and then they do a physical activity—such as leaving the building—to reinforce what they’ve learned. Afterward they talk about the lessons in small discussion groups.

“The hands-on activities will also help to build confidence so that kids are prepared to take action during an emergency,” said Francisco Ianni, who oversees Red Cross youth readiness programs throughout Oregon and Southwest Washington State.

>>Bonus Link: Watch a pillowcase presentation to a group of young students 

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.

When Springtime Turns Ugly: Public Health and Disaster Preparedness

Jun 6, 2014, 11:24 AM, Posted by Beth Toner

MOYER_110506_13128 EMOTIONAL AFTERMATH: A resident of Alabama, overwhelmed by the sight of her ruined home after tornadoes struck at the end of April, 2011.

Ah, springtime: especially welcome for those of us who experienced a particularly harsh winter. Spring often conjures up images of blossoming trees and blue skies, freshly cut grass and picnics.

Yet in May, several anniversaries of devastating natural disasters reminded us that springtime can also bring with it some of nature’s most violent weather phenomena:

  • On May 20, Moore, Okla., marked the first anniversary of the devastating tornado that killed 24, including seven children at an elementary school. It was the second EF-5 tornado to strike the city in 15 years; the May 3, 1999, tornado left 46 dead.
  • In Joplin, Mo., residents remembered the May 22, 2011, EF-5 tornado that killed 161 people.
  • On May 31, Johnstown, Pa,., observed the 125th anniversary of the devastating flood that leveled the entire city and killed 2,209.

While improved warning systems and 21st century technology have certainly played a role in reducing the number of lives Mother Nature’s temper tantrums claim, the fact remains that these events have a substantial impact on our health as a nation.

We recently talked to Paul Kuehnert, director, Bridging Health and Health Care portfolio—as well as a pediatric nurse practitioner and longtime state and local health official—to get his thoughts about the role public health plays in helping us prepare for, cope with, and learn from natural disasters.

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Building Disaster-Resistant Communities

Jun 5, 2014, 1:56 PM

One of the key lessons of Hurricane Sandy—which caused massive destruction in New York and New Jersey, two states that don’t usually see that kind of weather devastation—is that disasters can strike anywhere. That’s the thinking behind a new exhibit at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., Designing for Disaster, which brings together objects, video, photos and interactive components to show that policies, plans and designs can result in safer, more disaster-resilient communities.


A key goal of the exhibit is to share ideas for building and rebuilding. In a recent interview posted on the museum’s website, the exhibit’s curator, Chrysanthe Broikos, asks “as we face an increasing number of destructive and deadly natural disasters...should we have the right to build exactly what we want, where we want, no matter the risks? Should we give more thought to the long-term viability and protection of the structures and communities we build?”

Those are policy discussions underway right now, and some suggestions are being shared in a “disaster mitigation” blog launched  to complement the exhibit. The blog invites building and disaster experts to post their ideas and thoughts on how to make us all more disaster-resilient.

The exhibit highlights current work by planners, engineers, designers, emergency managers, scientists, environmentalists, business leaders and community leaders, some viewable in a short video on the exhibit. For example, constructed just for the exhibit is a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) “safe room” that would be highly protective if a tornado struck. But the exhibit asks the necessary questions, as well. For example: What if requiring safer construction makes housing unaffordable for many?

While many of the exhibit designs are experimental, the museum’s website also offers resources to learn about steps individuals can take in their own homes and communities to prepare for disasters, remain safe and prevent damage. FloodSmart, for example, is a FEMA resource which lets users see how much damage flooding can cause, assess flood risk and learn about flood insurance.

>>Bonus Link: On June 24, the National Building Museum will hold a competition, Rebuild by Design, that challenges contestants to envision rebuilding designs for communities devastated by Hurricane Sandy. 

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.

Road to Recovery After Disaster: Q&A with Alonzo Plough

Jun 4, 2014, 2:30 PM


Recovery after a disaster can take years or even decades—but what most people don’t realize is that recovery starts even before the disaster occurs. Resilience is about how quickly a community bounces back to where they were before a public health emergency—and only a healthy community can do that effectively.

NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Alonzo Plough, PhD, MPH, Vice President, Research-Evaluation-Learning and Chief Science Officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, about taking steps toward recovery even before a disaster occurs.

NewPublicHealth: What are some important aspects of preparedness that help prepare responders and the community for recovery from a disaster?

Alonzo Plough: Connectivity between organizations, between neighbors, between communities and formal responder organizations is absolutely critical to building community disaster resilience. This allows recovery to go more smoothly because the partners who have to work together in recovery have been working together and connecting to communities prior to a disaster event. Managing the long tail of recovery is easier if there has been recovery thinking in the preparedness phase.

NPH: One of the issues for the panel at the recent Preparedness Summit is the impact of the news spotlight when a disaster occurs, and then the impact of that spotlight turning off. How does that focus impact recovery?

Plough: Often the initial media frames are to wonder why there weren’t preventive mechanisms. In the case of the mudslides in Washington State, for example, why weren’t there zoning restrictions or regulatory restrictions? That initial media frame often will point a finger to ask why houses were allowed to be built in an at-risk location. Why were building permits given at all?

But none of that really addresses the long-term issues of communities working toward recovery, regardless of the specific event. There is a disruption of life as people know it in a disaster that goes on for a long, long period of time. The media doesn’t really capture the complexity of that while they’re focused on the short-term outcomes. When the media focus goes away, the appropriate agencies and organizations who need to be engaged continue their engagement.

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