By Jill Zorn and Stephanye R. Clarke
Texas highways and communities were completely submerged under water. The images from Hurricane Harvey will forever be seared into our memory—the same way many of us continue to be haunted by images of Hurricane Katrina.
With Irma now wreaking havoc in Florida and climate change assuring we will have more frequent violent storms, what do we know so far about the impact of Harvey on health and public health? And how do people’s varying circumstances affect their ability to recover?
Health Care Challenges
Tending to the immediate health care needs of those with chronic and acute illness during and right after Harvey was extremely challenging. Some hospitals and nursing homes had to be evacuated or faced shortages of staff, medications and food. Individuals reliant on home care could not receive services in their flooded homes. Prescription medication was lost in the flood waters and not easily replaced.
Public and Environmental Health
This article lists a wide variety of public health impacts including
- Drinking water contamination
- Overflowing sewage from damaged waste treatment plants and failing sewer pipes
- More opportunities for mosquito-borne illness like Zika to fester and spread
- Mold and mildew leading to respiratory illness
But it is environmental contamination that may pose an even greater and more long-term threat. The Houston area is home to a huge chemical industry and regulation of that industry is lax, to say the least.
More than a dozen toxic superfund sites were flooded. The New York Times reported that one land owner found deposits of highly poisonous mercury on his property. One chemical plant had multiple explosions, and first responders protecting the perimeter of the plant were overcome by fumes. Concerns about exposure to benzene and other petrochemicals run high.
Going forward, as this Houston Chronicle article points out, there is insufficient government oversight to protect area residents and to monitor the impact of the toxic stew of chemicals that have been released into the environment. Many health and safety issues will continue to emerge as chemical plants start up again.
When it comes to mental health care, a natural disaster of this proportion has both short term and long term implications. Many of us watched, heartbroken, as faces from Texas, the Caribbean and Florida displayed stress, sadness, fear, and hopelessness. From the outside, seeing the physical damage Harvey created is overwhelming. Irma has shattered life in the Caribbean, is devastating Florida and has her sights sets on Georgia—Jose isn’t far behind her. We cannot imagine the horror of living through either of these storms—the toll the immediate stress can take is unimaginable. We were happy to read that some shelters offer mental health services on-site—this is wonderful for those who are aware of their need for these services.
However, there are many who are dealing with far more than the stress these storms can generate—many have diagnosed mental health issues. Were they able to retrieve their medications before being forced out of their homes by unrelenting storms? Are there enough mental services available in these temporary shelters to serve the people?
A Washington Post article points out the need for the availability of a continuum of mental health services for traumatized and displaced residents, some of whom were displaced by previous storms like Katrina. Any planning to address rebuilding communities must include comprehensive, long-term, quality, affordable and accessible mental health services.
Harvey and Irma’s paths of destruction didn’t discriminate, devastating areas where wealthier residents lived as well as areas where of great poverty. Low income communities and communities of color experienced some of the worst impacts and will face greater struggles to recover. Cleanup has begun—there is a long road ahead and rebuilding will take several years.
It is our hope that while federal, state and private funds pour in to areas in the paths of these storms, leadership finds ways to engage community members in the rebuilding/redesign of neighborhoods. This is an opportunity for decision-makers and leaders to ensure that resources flow equitably to those most in need and planning actively engages the communities most impacted. The storms were a disaster – now it is time to take this moment to not only rebuild, but to build better. We exhort leaders to be thoughtful and strategic in their plans – and to truly work with people and communities.
We need not repeat the same injustices from the past.