With the sunshine and warm weather that summertime brings, comes severe heat and storms. Many communities in the southern United States are already experiencing such adverse conditions, with devastating outcomes. On May 24, heavy rainfall and destructive floods hit Texas and Oklahoma, resulting in hundreds of damaged homes, 28 deaths, and 11 people missing. The storm also impacted public infrastructure, leaving thousands without electricity and major roadways inaccessible.
These floods are just one example of how destructive summer weather can be. By anticipating the different kinds of summer threats and promoting safety precautions, local health departments can successfully protect their communities from weather-related emergencies.
Local health departments must encourage residents to develop all-hazards emergency plans to be ready for a variety of severe weather events. This includes identifying what kinds of hazards may occur in the area, knowing how the health department will communicate about impending hazards, informing friends and families, and creating emergency preparedness kits.
But preparedness isn’t limited to the public; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommends that health departments make their own preparations, and develop close working relationships with other emergency-related institutions, such as fire departments, local emergency planning committees, and neighboring health jurisdictions . By coordinating with these organizations, local health departments will be able to respond more efficiently to summer weather threats. Mitchell Lach, manager of the Office of Preparedness and Response at Maricopa County Department of Public Health in Arizona also stresses the importance of working with other institutions in the community. “The key is that it is a coordinated sort of community response that includes many organizations that are governmental and nongovernmental,” he says. “We work collaboratively in this region.”
Additionally, local health departments must pay particular attention to vulnerable populations, such as children and the elderly. When preparing for emergencies, it is important to monitor such populations and provide them with special resources. Local health departments should write specific instructions for how to handle at-risk populations in emergency plans. For example, if an evacuation were to occur, children and the elderly may need specialized medical attention or food at emergency shelters.
The following examples provide an overview of some of the hazards that local health departments can plan for during the summer season.
Hurricanes are often the most catastrophic of summer storms. On average, 11 tropical storms, six of which become hurricanes, develop in the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean Sea, between June 1 and November 30 . Major hurricane disasters are often due to lack of awareness and preparedness, proving the importance of educating communities about such threats.
Public health officials should inform communities of evacuation routes and emergency shelters and encourage them to develop hurricane emergency plans. This includes identifying potential home hazards, finding out whether one’s home is in a flood zone, learning how to secure one’s property, and preparing a list of emergency supplies.
One way local health departments can make their own preparations is to strengthen plans for volunteer communication and shelter operations. In response to Hurricane Sandy in 2012, HHS deployed its network of volunteers, the Medical Reserve Corps (MRC), which led to successes and challenges . Local health departments can learn from other departments’ experiences with volunteers during Hurricane Sandy to improve upon their own emergency response operations.
Extreme heat is another summer weather threat, which may not get as much attention as severe storms, but can be just as fatal. According to the National Weather Service, approximately 123 Americans died annually from extreme heat between 2004 and 2013 . High temperatures and humidity can exacerbate pre-existing medical conditions, and induce heat stroke, exhaustion, and cramps, which are easily preventable by taking the proper precautions.
In the case of an impending heat wave, local health departments should inform emergency responders, reach out to special needs service providers, open cooling centers, and inform the community. Moreover, using statistics to justify warnings motivates residents to take the proper precautions —whenever possible, local health departments should incorporate numbers into their public communications.
Beyond notifying the public about imminent heat waves, CDC recommends that local health departments educate their communities about ways to protect themselves and others from these risks, such as spending time in air conditioned buildings, properly hydrating, and monitoring children and the elderly. Local health departments should also promote methods of recognizing heat-related emergencies and ways in which to respond.
Local health departments, especially those serving communities in rural and forested areas, should encourage residents to keep wildfire risk in mind when designing homes and landscaping properties. For example, they should choose plants that contain rather than fuel fires, and fire-resistant materials for the exterior structure of homes. It is also important to install smoke alarms on each floor, and regularly check that they are working.
Local health departments can learn from San Diego’s work during the 2014 wildfires to plan emergency responses. Public Health and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) representatives from the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency were among staff deployed to their Emergency Operations Center . They communicated routinely with local pre-hospital ambulance services, hospitals, and nearby clinics. The coordination among the different institutions allowed for a swift and effective response.
For more extreme summer weather tips, visit:
• Severe Weather (Ready.gov)
• Emergency Preparedness and Response: Floods (CDC)
• Hurricanes (Ready.gov)
• Emergency Preparedness and Response: Extreme Heat (CDC)
• National Weather Service Heat Safety Tips (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
• Beating the Heat Preparing for Extreme Heat Events at the State and Local Level (American Public Health Association)
• Wildfires (Ready.gov)
- U.S. Department of Human and Health Services and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2011). Public Health Emergency Response Guide for State, Local, and Tribal Public Health Directors. Retrieved June 8, 2015 from http://www.bt.cdc.gov/planning/pdf/cdcresponseguide.pdf.
- National Weather Service. Hurricane Safety. Retrieved June 15, 2015 from http://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/hurricane/.
- Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Inspector General. Medical Reserve Corps Volunteers in New York and New Jersey During Superstorm Sandy. Accessed on June 17, 2015 from http://oig.hhs.gov/oei/reports/oei-04-13-00350.pdf.
- National Weather Service. National Hazard Statistics: Weather Fatalities. Retrieved June 9, 2015 from http://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/hazstats.shtml.
- American Public Health Association. Beating the Heat Preparing for Extreme Heat Events at the State and Local Level. Retrieved June 8, 2015 from https://www.apha.org/events-and-meetings/apha-calendar/webinar-events/beating-the-heat-preparing-for-extreme-heat-events-at-the-state-and-local-level.
- National Wildlife Federation. Global Warming and Wildfires. Retrieved June 16, 2015 from http://www.nwf.org/Wildlife/Threats-to-Wildlife/Global-Warming/Global-Warming-is-Causing-Extreme-Weather/Wildfires.aspx.
- National Association of County and City Health Officials. All-Hazards Preparedness in Responding to the California Wildfires. Retrieved June 17, 2015 from http://nacchopreparedness.org/?p=2146.