Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The calm after the storm: Public health leaders reflect on preparedness after Hurricane Sandy

David Abramson remembers a 2008 preparedness forum in Queens, N.Y., where a woman from the Rockaways asked New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene officials how her neighbors — especially the elderly — would get out of their high-rise apartment in case of a disaster.

“They said, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll call you. We’ll tell you what to do,’” said Abramson, deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. “And that was it. It was actually kind of stunning.”

Abramson said he wonders what happened to her after Hurricane Sandy stormed its way through the Rockaways — one of the areas hardest hit a little more than a year ago on Oct. 29, 2012. Abramson spoke Tuesday at an APHA special session on lessons learned in the aftermath of the hurricane, which battered the Northeastern U.S.

Public housing in areas such as the Rockaways took major hits during the storm. Nearly 80,000 residents at 400 New York City Housing Authority buildings were affected, said Peggy Shepard, executive director and co-founder of West Harlem Environmental Action Inc. — also known as WE ACT for Environmental Justice. Residents on higher floors sheltered in place during the storm without electricity, extra food or medication for weeks, she said.

Multiple groups, such as the city’s housing authority and the city’s health department, are now partnering to create a training tool that prepares apartment residents on what to do in the event of future disasters. They're looking for public housing residents to join focus groups and help create a culture in which residents gain the skills to protect themselves and their neighbors in an emergency.

“We’re really looking forward to getting to work on this because we have not found the city or the state is thinking about human resilience,” Shepard said.

Shepard said mold and unrepaired leaks remain a problem in empty ground-floor apartments, which can worsen and aggravate conditions such as asthma, said Kim Knowlton, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Health and Environment Program.

Mold removal is not a “quick and easy” fix, and in New York state, 370,000 children and 1.1 million adults are living with asthma, Knowlton added.

Knowlton suggested updating housing policies to target children with asthma problems in public housing. She also suggested asthma be listed as a condition under the Americans with Disabilities Act so it’s accounted for in indoor air quality standards.

“It’s not just about exposure, it’s about underlying health vulnerabilities,” Knowlton said.

Knowlton said there needs to be a “significant bridge” between the public health and emergency risk management communities in the wake of future storms as powerful as Sandy. The time to build is now, she said.

“It’s like looking at our grandkids and saying ‘I don’t care about you. You don’t matter to me,’” Knowlton said. “We have to prepare. We have to do it now. It’s totally urgent.”

— N.M.

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