The Atlanta “Snowpocalypse”–The Case for Preparedness Training for Rare Weather Events

For U.S. cities like Albany and Green Bay that are accustomed to winters of low temperatures and high snow drifts, two inches of snow is barely cause for concern. In the warmer cities of the south, however, what may seem like a minor weather event can be a major disruption to the community. Atlanta found itself in such a situation on January 28, when a snowstorm deposited the city’s entire average annual snowfall in a single day. City residents rushed home, resulting in severe gridlock that trapped citizens at work and children in schools. Commuters were stuck in their cars for hours, some even abandoning their vehicles on the highway when they ran out of gas.

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As federal, state, and local agencies feel the pinch from shrinking budgets, it can be tempting to forgo preparedness activities for events that may or may not occur, especially rare ones like extreme weather. However, advance planning and training are critical to maintaining the health and safety of the population when disaster does inevitably strike. Rare events can pose a great threat when they do occur because communities may be less familiar with appropriate protocols and needed resources. As climate change increases the frequency of extreme weather events like the recent cold spell across the southern U.S., it is all the more imperative to allocate sufficient resources for preparedness planning and training for responders and communities.

Training and peer-to-peer learning opportunities have dwindled along with agency budgets, but a few key fora still exist, including the 2014 Preparedness Summit. The Preparedness Summit offers the only four-day training opportunity that brings together nearly 2,000 experts in the field of public health and healthcare preparedness to share lessons learned and best practices from natural and manmade disasters. The 2014 Summit will highlight research, technical, and practice-based perspectives on strengthening public health preparedness. In-depth discussions will encourage collaboration across all levels of government, along with private and nonprofit sectors, to develop crosscutting solutions to some of the most difficult public health preparedness challenges.

Through participation in cross-disciplinary workshops and learning sessions, local preparedness practitioners can learn tools and strategies to improve their response capacity and capability. Pam Blackwell, Director of Cobb & Douglas Public Health in Georgia, will be attending the 2014 Summit in Atlanta this year. In her experience, the Preparedness Summit “provides the best opportunity for local public health professionals to learn from the experiences of others when dealing with unique emergency situations in order to better prepare, train, and respond in the future.”

The problem of extreme weather events like what the South recently experienced will only worsen over time. “With the threat of climate change, cities like Atlanta must adapt and take advantage of opportunities to learn how to respond to, prepare for, and recover from unfamiliar severe weather and other hazards,” said Jack Herrmann, Senior Advisor & Chief of Public Health Programs at the National Association of County and City Health Officials and Chair of the 2014 Summit Planning Committee. “The Summit offers invaluable training opportunities across a breadth of topics in preparedness and provides a place for professionals from all sectors to learn from each other’s responses to disasters and emergencies.”

Instead of directing criticism at Atlanta for its lack of capacity to respond to a rare weather event like the recent snowstorm, the media should take this opportunity to bring attention to gaps in preparedness training for rare weather events that could lead to severe consequences for communities across the nation. From the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy on New Jersey and New York City in 2012 to the massive damage and displacement caused by the floods in Colorado in 2013, there is no shortage of recent examples to illustrate these gaps in preparedness. Communities cannot close these gaps if federal funding for preparedness keeps dwindling and training opportunities continue to decline.

See below for a sampling of sessions at the 2014 Preparedness Summit that will provide training and critical information for climate change adaptation and preparing for rare weather events:

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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