Rebuilding Healthier and More Resilient Communities Together

Dec 7, 2015, 4:01 PM, Posted by Reed Tuckson

Our nation spends billions of dollars to respond to, and rebuild from, disasters, which is why disaster planning must move beyond a narrow focus and create an optimally healthy community.

It felt like a nightmare to watch the floodwaters rise across New Orleans in August 2005. Yet as the hours turned into days, our nation realized we were watching reality–the reality of a great American city coping with a disaster for which city, state and country had not fully prepared.

The good news is that in the decade since, New Orleans has worked towards a new reality by not just rebuilding what was lost, but by asking how it can rebuild better. In so doing, the city is setting an example for us all.  

Rebuilding better means repairing critical infrastructure (roads, hospitals, businesses, levees), and reforming the organization and interpersonal relationships that are essential to promoting well-being and community engagement. As has been well chronicled, such efforts include fostering neighbor-to-neighbor ties, using data to guide community health strategic planning, and encouraging multi-sector partnerships between government, business and community organizations. In New Orleans, initiatives such as Fit NOLA and NOLA for Life have united the city’s health department, schools, community-based organizations, and businesses in ways that were unimaginable before the storm.

New Orleans’ efforts align closely with the recommendations of the report, “Healthy, Resilient and Sustainable Communities after Disasters: Strategies, Opportunities, and Planning for Recovery,” intended as a call to action and an action guide. The Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Science was commissioned to produce this report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. I was honored to serve as chair of the committee, which was composed of disaster planning, and health and human service experts. We were tasked with identifying ways in which local and national leaders can work together to mitigate disaster-related health impacts and optimize the use of disaster resources to create communities that are healthier and more resilient.

A First Friday Google+ Hangout discussion on "From Preparation to Recovery: A Focus on Health" took place on Friday, December 4th.

It is an unfortunate reality that our nation spends billions of dollars to respond to, and rebuild from, all manner of disasters. It is also an unfortunate reality that the health of far too many Americans—and the communities in which they live—is suboptimal.

As a result, efforts in our communities should focus on how we can better utilize the financial and human resources that are necessary for disaster preparedness and post-disaster response to create maximally healthy environments for people in which to live, work and play. To that end, the recommendations of our committee focus on leveraging the influx of resources that are dedicated to disaster planning and response, and more effectively synchronizing the planning processes that occur at a federal and local level.

Additionally, our committee developed a framework for integrating health considerations into recovery decision-making. The full framework can be found here, but the first step for any community is to develop a comprehensive and inclusive vision of a healthier and more resilient community. Ideally, this vision should unify the findings that are typically found in health improvement plans, hazard mitigation plans, sustainability plans and disaster recovery plans—most of which are currently developed in isolation.

Of course, a necessary part of developing a collaborative vision is to ensure that the doors of planning for disasters are open to all—especially public health leaders who intimately know the existing health challenges facing communities. At the federal level, elected and public officials can assist in this effort by enhancing the communication of the organization and administrative processes for disaster recovery so that all stakeholders can easily understand and participate in the process.

New Orleans is only one of several examples that were presented to our committee which show the possibilities that exist when disaster planning moves beyond a narrow focus on rebuilding to previous standards and instead looks to create an optimally healthy community. Ultimately, success in any community will depend on breaking down barriers to collaboration between community planners, emergency managers, health professionals and other stakeholders, establishing a shared goal for a healthier future, and bringing the resources of each sector to bear.

Such an approach has the potential to unify knowledge, tools and funding streams, and result in communities that are both healthier and more resilient in the face of future adversities.