FEMA, Floods, and Fundamental Infrastructure: The Importance of Disaster Preparedness for Community Health Workers

September 24th, 2021

As a student living near the Mississippi Gulf Coast during Hurricane Katrina, I experienced first hand the incredible power of nature and its ability to grind civilization to a halt.  Unfortunately I also witnessed how such damage can be compounded by inadequate planning or coordination from government agencies, insurers, and aid organizations.  Six years later, these events were close to mind when the Souris River overran its banks and flooded the city of Minot, North Dakota, where I was stationed.  My role as a new Air Force physician taking care of aircrew and nuclear surety morphed into assisting our helicopter squadron assess the damage to critical healthcare infrastructure along with providing medical care/transport to stranded personnel.  I discovered that some effects of that disaster, like black mold or depression, might be hidden initially but can far outlast the floodwaters.

In these crises and many others around the world, people have the capacity for tremendous resiliency.  Wounds heal, homes are rebuilt, and livelihoods are restored.  However the people vulnerable to lasting injury are nearly always the poorest, sickest, oldest, youngest, and most physically or mentally disabled among us.  International HELP is committed to not only training community health workers to prepare these underserved populations for disaster but also providing those workers with the tools necessary to become effective first responders in the event of an emergency.  Every year, extreme weather events cut short tens of thousands of lives and cost hundreds of billions in damages.  And due to climate change, such disasters are only expected to increase in frequency and severity in the coming years.  I hope to leverage my background in medicine, experience dealing with natural disasters, and training as a FEMA-certified emergency responder to assist this organization in accomplishing its mission: to educate, empower and equip people in need to be health leaders in their community.

Here are 5 tips to preparing for a disaster in your own life:

  1. Understand your threats – What are the most common and most dangerous risks for your situation?  Learn everything you can about those and develop a plan.  
  2. Have an emergency kit – You remembered canned food but don’t have a can opener?  Credit cards and ApplePay don’t work when the phone lines are down.  Check out this helpful guide from FEMA.
  3. Develop useful skills – Take a course in CPR and learn how to handle a fire extinguisher.  Know how to board up windows and identify utility shut-off sites.  
  4. Don’t forget your pets – Are your pets microchipped?  How would you navigate a scenario in which your pet is not allowed in a hotel or public shelter?
  5. Help one another – Pay particular attention to those friends, family, and neighbors who may be infirm or otherwise require special assistance.

- Josh Stevens, Spring '21 Intern

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