Hurricane Preparedness: An Opportunity for Local Health Departments to Assess Capacity and Plan for Season

By Rachel Schulman, MSPH, CPH, Program Analyst, Public Health Preparedness and Justin Snair, Senior Program Analyst, Critical Infrastructure and Environmental Security, NACCHO.

HurricaneLocal health departments can prepare for the start of hurricane season on June 1 by assessing current plans and building coalitions that may improve response. For example, Richmond, Virginia doesn’t suffer major hurricane damage every year, but hurricanes are common enough for the city to have a plan. As Hurricane Irene approached back in August 2011, the city implemented newly revised plans to support local shelter operations during the storm. With two shelters set up and staffed at opposite ends of town, local responders like Patrick Holland, Emergency Preparedness Coordinator for Richmond City Health District, felt well prepared. However, early in the evening the power went out at one of the shelters. Staff turned to the backup generator, but though it had been tested earlier that day, it failed to restore lights to the building. Patrick quickly worked with representatives from emergency management and the fire department on site to assess the situation, and together they determined that the shelter needed to be evacuated to ensure everyone’s safety. They reached out to the city’s Emergency Operations Center and leveraged their strong relationships with the Greater Richmond Transit Company to obtain a bus to safely transport shelter occupants and staff to the second shelter location.

Public health preparedness planning is critical, but as Patrick said of his experience with Hurricane Irene, “All of the graphics, layouts, detailed plans, and bells and whistles cannot be substituted for the sheer grit and emotional intelligence needed in responding to a real incident.” Plans and the responders who implement them must be flexible and adaptable, because even responses to routine events will run into unanticipated obstacles. Strong relationships between local public health and partners such as public safety, emergency management, and the media allow responders to be more nimble as they navigate the unique challenges of each disaster. Building relationships among response partners is a crucial ongoing activity that requires consistent collaboration and communication with local, state, and federal agencies and community organizations. Working with these partners before a disaster to identify roles and resources and overcome anticipated challenges will not only have better coordinated, more adaptable responses, but will also enhance the resilience of their communities.

The 2014 Atlantic Hurricane season begins June 1. Because of the anticipated development of El Niño, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center has predicted a near-normal or below-normal season, meaning fewer, smaller hurricanes than an average seasons. While their forecast provides cause for optimism, local health departments must continue to hone their plans and strengthen relationships to prepare for the hurricanes that will inevitably reach our shores this year. The potential for smaller responses to fewer serious hurricanes can provide opportunities for additional planning, exercise, and quality improvement activities that will improve response and speed recovery. As climate change increases the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, these activities will only escalate in importance. Patrick’s experience in Hurricane Irene illustrates that community resiliency in the face of an emergency isn’t simply an outcome to check off a to-do list, but rather a capacity that is built upon perseverance, flexibility, adaptability, and strong relationships with those equally committed to the community’s well-being.

NACCHO encourages local health departments to review these General Hurricane Preparedness Resources now to prepare for the impending hurricane season. For new experimental mapping tools for storm surge flood threats, visit the National Hurricane Center website at http://www.nhc.noaa.gov.

About Rachel Schulman

Rachel Schulman is a Senior Program Analyst for Public Health Preparedness at NACCHO. Her work includes enhancing and recognizing local public health preparedness planning efforts through Project Public Health Ready and building collaborations between public health and emergency management. Twitter: @rms_ph

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