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Recovery in Action

Author: Diana S. Hadzibegovic, MD, MPH, Division of Recovery, ASPR Office of Emergency Management
Published Date: 9/16/2015 3:58:00 PM
Category: Response & Recovery;

After a disaster, the oddest questions pop up. They have to be answered to move on with restoring, rebuilding, and recovering. Take what happened in Oklahoma this summer for example.

Piling on top of more than a week of heavy rain, a slow-moving storm triggered record-breaking floods and tornados across much of Oklahoma in late May. The month proved to be the all-time wettest since 1890. That wasn’t all. From May 1 to May 25, the National Weather Service also issued 122 tornado warnings in Oklahoma – more than were issued in the first 25 days of May from 2011 through 2014 combined.

State agencies and the healthcare coalition responded well without federal public health and medical assistance, but the state decided to leverage federal support for long-term recovery. Federal support for recovery is a fairly new concept, so when ASPR’s recovery team reached out to the state health department, the health commissioner was intrigued to see what the ASPR-led Health and Social Services Recovery Support Function could do for the people of Oklahoma.

ASPR’s recovery team brings professional expertise plus experience to share after being involved in more than two dozen disaster recovery efforts around the country over the past few years, from floods to tornadoes to hurricanes.

In Oklahoma, recovery experts from ASPR’s Office of Emergency Management met with state officials and assessed impacts on health and social services in Oklahoma. They conducted site assessments of impacted health care facilities and schools and talked with stakeholders about impacts on behavioral health, medically underserved populations, and on shortages of health professionals.

They analyzed how the damage affected Oklahomans’ access to essential services. They also looked at Oklahoma’s internal capacity, and they helped state counterparts determine what kind of federal support could help the state’s health and social services recover.

ASPR’s recovery experts came together with staff from FEMA’s Joint Field Office and disability integration, EPA, Indian Health Service, and other counterparts from state agencies and the Cherokee Nation; together they tackled specific concerns (and puzzling questions) that grew from all that turbulent spring weather. Things like:

  • How much of an ongoing public health or environmental health threat did overtopped sewage lagoons pose to Oklahomans?
  • Washed out roads negatively impacted access to schools where many Oklahoma children receive nutritional services. The storms left many children homeless and without records to prove residence. Could authorities legally provide nutrition services to them outside of those school programs?
  • How could Oklahoma rebuild in a way that promoted healthier lifestyles?

Turns out overtopped sewage lagoons did not present an ongoing public health or environmental health threat to Oklahomans. To find this answer, the recovery team had to research EPA guidance on water health standards and the state’s sewage lagoon regulations.

The answer to the nutrition services question was somewhat simpler to find. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act actually requires assistance for homeless children even without proof of residence. So there was no problem providing nutrition services outside of school.

The Oklahoma Department of Health and others in the health community got involved in rebuilding plans. The state is proposing to rebuild in a way that encourages walking and biking (build more bike paths for example) to boost physical and mental health and to build a stronger sense of community cohesion and making connecting with neighbors easier.

The state’s plan expands bus routes to a larger area, too. In the long run, greater access to public transportation, along with more biking and walking, could result in cleaner air. The plan also supports local wind and natural gas producers which could mean greater state revenues.

The bottom line: paying attention to the recovery of health and social services reduced concerns, increased services to displaced people, and could have a lasting positive impact on the quality of life in Oklahoma.

The environments in which people live, work, learn, and play have a tremendous impact on their health. As recovery continues in Oklahoma, the recovery team will continue working with state agencies and their partners on making their state action plan a reality. The team can bring this experience to other states, too.

For communities to be healthier before and after disasters, we have to look at everything that impacts health: transportation, education, access to healthcare and healthy food, economic opportunity, behavioral health, healthy living and more. Disaster recovery can really drive positive change across all of these.

If you aren’t familiar with the federal health and social service recovery support function and what it can do for your state, check it out. State, local, territorial, or tribal officials with questions can reach out to the ASPR Recovery Team.

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