Hurricane Harvey Series: Emergency Management Issues Reemerge

September 5th, 2017 by Trudy Henson

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, news stories abound about ongoing rescue and recovery efforts, efforts to get federal aid, the resilience of communities as citizens return to their cities and homes, and future concerns as Texans look to rebuild. At the same time, the dangers from Harvey are far from past: many returned to find their homes flooded, and already beginning to mold, and a few, with alligators in them.  Schools face massive clean-up and recovery efforts at the same time that administrators are trying to determine new “back to school” dates, and how to create a safe learning environment for children whose lives are likely going to be far from normal for the foreseeable future. The water that is everywhere and now receding is considered a health concern itself, potentially hosting all kinds of unwanted chemicals, microbes, and other hazards. And that doesn’t cover the hoardes of floating fire ants.

In the short time since Harvey made landfall, its impact has raised important questions in emergency preparedness and planning and everyday life: community and government preparedness, city planning and development, hospital emergency and evacuation plans, ways to ensure disaster aid is accessible, the impact of changing global weather patterns. And there is more to consider: the explosion and fires from chemical plants, the closing of oil refineries, the need to evacuate and/or shelter thousands and  thousands of people, innovative ways to rescue property and livelihood. Many of these issues arose over ten years ago with Hurricane Katrina, and again with Superstorm Sandy; happily, the emergency preparedness and planning community has successfully incorporated a number of those lessons learned. Many hospitals evacuated their most critical patients ahead of the storm; many residents safely evacuated; sheltering efforts have been largely successful. Local, state, and federal coordination, while almost never seamless, was ongoing well before Harvey made landfall.

As Texas moves forward, stories of success and lessons learned will continue to surface, and CHHS will be analyzing and sharing these insights.  For example, the public health aspect of Harvey recovery alone is a topic to which several articles could be devoted. Much has already been written about health concerns with rebuilding facilities, and the difficulty of balancing the need to rebuild quickly with the need to give facilities a thorough assessment and proper repair. There are myriad issues and obstacles to recovering a disrupted health system—hospitals, health departments, and pharmacies haven been rendered inaccessible or unusable. And there are the health risks of working in a disaster area—from rusty nails (tetanus) to sewage-soaked debris. What innovations will we see with Harvey?  In the coming weeks, CHHS will continue to monitor and write about these efforts and issues.

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