Alleviating Public Health Effects Before and After Natural Disasters

With every natural disaster comes media coverage, driving an initial influx of donations and charitable contributions to help those affected. But what happens after the media coverage subsides, and the worst of the storm has passed? After viewing the most recent effects of Hurricane Harvey, it is hard to imagine how a society is able to return back to normalcy after losing loved ones, incurring property damage, and experiencing monetary loss. However, beyond the initial strike, many Americans continue to suffer long-term effects as a result of the natural disaster. A recent study found that up to half of persons directly hit by a storm, and one in every ten people generally affected by a storm, may develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in its aftermath. Additionally, many hurricane survivors with pre-existing mental disorders, and survivors incurring new-onset disorders, have been unable to receive the treatment they need in the wake of a natural disaster. Factors such as ongoing stress, depression, low social support, and financial strain, can aggravate the poor health effects Americans experience after a hurricane.

While the effects of a hurricane cannot be assessed until after disaster strikes, preemptive measures can be taken to reduce a hurricane’s harsh effects. One predictor of a community’s ability to recover from a traumatic event is its health prior to a disaster. Communities with high social capital tend to suffer less from the consequent effects of a natural disaster. Further, a well-funded health system can help restore individuals to their functional lives quicker.

Of those who suffer from these events, it is often the poor who suffer most. Americans living in high-density housing tend to experience exacerbated effects as a result of these storms. Additionally, having immigrant or minority status, as well as lacking English language proficiency, are factors that may contribute to magnified pain and suffering after such events. Therefore, it is these groups of people that deserve particular attention from our society. In order to minimize the traumatic effects of a storm, communities must consciously work to build their public infrastructure and social capital before a storm occurs. Strengthening public infrastructure by ensuring a city has proper water treatment and supply, installing proper flood management plans, and increasing funds towards improving environmental conditions, can help to reduce the impact of detrimental conditions to public health and safety. Additionally, encouraging residents to participate in local organizations and clubs, can help drive social capital by establishing a strong sense of community, and securing people in place to help when and if a natural disaster were to occur. Taking these preventative measures can make it easier for a society to rebuild its community after a storm, and can prepare a community before another disaster strikes.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), play an enormous role in helping communities cope with the effects of these natural disasters. Unfortunately, the Trump Administration has proposed budget cuts​ to both FEMA and NOAA. After viewing the disastrous effects of a natural disaster, we can only hope the President will reconsider his position on these budget cuts. After viewing the harsh effects of these traumatic events, it is apparent how important these organizations are to the reconstruction or our society after disasters such as Hurricane Harvey. The resources and leadership these organizations provide is crucial to the rebuilding of a community after disaster strikes.

Natalie Skizas was greatly involved in the School of Public Health, and graduated from Indiana University with a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology. Ms. Skizas is currently a second-year law student at DePaul University College of Law. She is an active member in the Health Law Institute and will complete her law degree in 2019.