By Karthik R. Sivaraman, MPH Candidate, Intern at the Institute for Disaster and Emergency Preparedness, College of Osteopathic Medicine, Nova Southeastern University
Ten years ago anthrax filled letters were mailed around the US, resulting in death, sickness and mass hysteria. One letter was sent to Boca Raton, Florida, not too far from where I attend graduate school. My own university has had two separate white powder incidents. Public health laboratories and biohazard response teams determined that neither incident was positive for anthrax. The events at my university were resolved via conscious vigilance by the staff, students and local response efforts. The attacks in 2001 lead to the notion that it is not a matter of whether a disaster will happen, but more a question of when a disaster will happen. In turn, we as a society must pursue a culture of preparedness.
In the decade since September 2001, millions of hours and dollars have been spent to better secure our safety and stop threats before they have a chance to act. The dilemma now is finding ways to decrease loss caused by man-made and natural disasters. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Japanese earthquake and ensuing tsunami, the Joplin, Missouri tornado and pandemic disease (such as avian and swine influenza) have influenced the national psyche and have instilled fear. These events devastated the local populations, the resources they depend on and/or diminished their livelihood.
As our society becomes more complex, how can we address the issue of disaster and emergency preparedness and reduce fear? As I see it, the answer comes in two parts: promote preparedness and encourage resilience. Promoting preparedness goes beyond stocking up on water, food and amenities for the occasional hurricane. A culture of preparedness indicates that all people should prepare for the eventuality of a disaster. Preparedness includes creating a plan, practicing that plan and having a “go kit” for when you may need to evacuate your home or office. Preparedness can be applied to public health laboratories as well. The ability to continue functioning during a pandemic or violent weather can be the difference between lives saved and lives lost. Building resilience is equally important; recovering from a disaster requires the ability to reclaim your life, reestablish lab functionality and, more importantly, reclaiming your identity and accepting a new normal.
During National Preparedness Month (September 2011), surveys of people on campus and in the local community revealed that they had the bulk of required items to mitigate a disaster (food, water, medical materials, clothing, etc.), but the majority of it was dispersed around the house. Even more disturbing were those that had no preparedness plan or kits at all, because of the expectation that “the government will help me.” Although the government can and does help during major disasters, the current economic turmoil we are experiencing makes it even more imperative to prepare, plan and remain resilient. Moreover, engaging people to take the initiative to foster preparedness and resilience within their own communities is both sustainable and empowering.
A culture of preparedness is not about being an alarmist or causing panic. It is an idea that revolves around fostering community awareness, empowerment and prevention. It is about people helping people. In addition, disaster and emergency preparedness requires the tools and talents of all public health entities: first responders, public health laboratories and healthcare providers. If we can foster resilience, promote a culture of preparedness and remove complacency from our national lexicon, we can truly, as Sir Winston Churchill said, “Let our advance worrying become advance thinking and planning.”