Public Health Role as Businesses, Residents Return to Boston

Apr 25, 2013, 10:09 AM

Immediately after the explosions at the Boston Marathon yesterday, both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) updated their crisis management resources and moved the information to the top of their home pages.

Yesterday, NPR reported that business owners near the blast site are beginning to return and reopen their doors.

"They fled in a panic last week and returned both eager and anxious," said NPR reporter Tovia Smith. The piece describes how business owners returned to find food left half-eaten and rotting, because so many left in such a hurry, and blood splattered in some spots from those who were injured.

To help make sure businesses get the help they need to reopen safely, public health inspectors played a role in visiting every building on every block. "They also stood ready with trauma counselors, pro-bono attorneys and clean-up crews," said Smith.

But the public health response to any disaster goes beyond helping to restore normalcy in the immediate aftermath. An earlier interview with John Lumpkin, director of the Health Care Group at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, about the sustained response to Hurricane Sandy also applies here:

We saw with Katrina and are seeing again now with Sandy, [public health officials] are not only concerned with food, air, and water during and immediately after an emergency, but also with ensuring that services related to health care delivery and mental health are provided when and where they’re needed. It’s an interesting statistic, for instance, that the demand for mental health services was higher five years after Hurricane Katrina than it was immediately after the hurricane hit.

The Boston Public Health Commission announced this week, for example, that the organization has opened a new drop-in center to continue to provide emotional support to anyone affected by the Boston Marathon attack.

"While the physical injuries and destruction that resulted from the bombings might be the most visible signs of trauma, many people experience serious emotional distress based on what they saw, heard, and felt during and after the attack. Sometimes these symptoms do not surface immediately," according to the Commission release. "Understanding the deep impacts of this emotional distress, city officials opened the drop-in center as a safe place for people to come together and talk about their experiences over the past week."

>>Read more about building community resilience to recover from disaster.

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