Bittersweet. That’s one way to describe getting ready for APHA’s 142nd Annual Meeting & Exposition in New Orleans. Bittersweet because we’re thrilled to bring the world’s largest public health gathering to one of the nation’s most unique, vibrant and resilient cities. At the same time, one can’t help but think about the devastating events that led to this year’s Annual Meeting location.
On Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina barreled through New Orleans, causing the levees to break and the city to flood. For days, images of residents stranded on rooftops and in evacuation centers without food and water dominated the news. It seemed unreal. New Orleans was under water and rescue efforts seemed painfully, unjustly slow. In the wake of one of the worst natural disasters in American history, serious gaps in the country’s emergency response system were utterly exposed for the whole world to see. It was truly and terribly shocking.
The devastation in New Orleans was at the forefront of conversation at APHA headquarters in Washington, D.C. As Association leaders, members and staff discussed how the public health community could help in the aftermath, a big decision also had to be made regarding that year’s Annual Meeting, which was slated to convene in New Orleans in just a couple months. Unfortunately, that just wasn’t enough time. Even though APHA leaders very much wanted to bring the support of thousands of public health workers to New Orleans, city officials said they were unable to accommodate such a large crowd so soon after the disaster. The 2005 Annual Meeting was pushed back to December and would gather in Philadelphia instead.
Now, it is with great pleasure and anticipation that APHA gets ready to bring an estimated 13,000 public health workers, advocates, leaders, researchers, teachers and supporters to New Orleans. APHA conventions staff tells me that the 2014 APHA Annual Meeting and Exposition, which will run Nov. 15-19, is shaping up to be one of the best ever (and, hopefully, one of the few Annual Meetings that doesn’t require attendees to lug around their cumbersome winter coats).
Even though it’s been nearly nine years since Katrina, the storm will surely be the proverbial elephant in the room. And why shouldn’t it be? It takes longer than nine years to rebuild a city, not to mention a community. In August, the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center released a report on the city’s progress since Katrina, finding both positive and worrisome results. While the regional economy continues to improve and the city has greatly expanded bike lanes and crime rates are below pre-Katrina levels, serious questions remain about whether all New Orleans residents are benefiting during the recovery.
For instance, the report found that while service-sector employment for women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds has increased, the rate has fallen among men, especially among black men. The number of black men who obtain bachelor’s degrees has not budged since 2000, even though education is consistently linked to lifelong economic security and good health. Also, the New Orleans metro area has experienced double the number of “unhealthy” air quality days when compared to what the report describes as an “aspirational” metro area such as Houston, Texas.
Many of these issues have a direct connection to this year’s Annual Meeting theme of “Healthography: How where you live affects your health and well-being.” In fact, in a city whose landscape and social fabric was forever changed, the notion that “place matters” seems nearly tangible.
At the end of the day, New Orleans isn’t that different from the practice of public health. Both move forward in the face of great challenge and tragedy, both keep going despite people saying it can’t be done, and both are filled with the resilient belief that success is possible.
“This year’s Annual Meeting will be a special one,” said APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin. “Nine years ago, we watched in disbelief as the waters kept rising. The storm quite literally swept away our collective belief that something like this couldn’t possibly happen here — in our country. Now the question is: What lessons have we learned and are we putting them to use in improving people’s lives and building healthier communities?”
Visit APHA to learn more about APHA’s 142nd Annual Meeting & Exposition. We can’t wait to see you in the Big Easy!
Above photo courtesy iStockphoto.com/lightphoto