Over the past several days, it’s been hard to miss the stories and images of people and animals affected by widespread flooding in southeast Texas. Tropical storm Harvey has battered the region before moving east toward Louisiana, another state that has been hit hard by extreme weather patterns – including Hurricane Katrina, which FEMA called “the single most catastrophic natural disaster in US history.”
As a public health physician, I’ve been closely following the emergency relief response in Texas. I’ve been encouraged by the outpouring of concern, compassion, and support for humans and animals alike – although there is still much to be done.
In a previous blog, I wrote about how large-scale disasters and emergencies underscore our shared vulnerabilities – despite our differences as humans or our differences with animals. And, as we saw after Hurricane Katrina, foreseen and unforeseen disasters also offer an opportunity to address these shared vulnerabilities and prevent future suffering by remedying systemic problems. For example, after Hurricane Katrina, when some people refused to leave their homes because of concern for their animals, Congress rightly passed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act, providing temporary shelter for companion animals and their families during a disaster. Gradually, through a combination of their own volition and legal mandates, more shelters are taking in people with animals. It is becoming clearer and clearer that the problems we face aren’t a question of “us or them.” True, sustainable solutions include attention to the needs of all people and animals.
Nonetheless, Harvey has already resulted in tremendous suffering and death. What can we learn from this disaster – both to prevent future catastrophes of this scale and to create healthier, more resilient communities?
Here are a few ideas:
- We’re all in this together, and we are stronger together. It’s wonderful to see the surge of empathy, courage, and fortitude in response to the widespread flooding in Texas. Why don’t we practice these qualities every day? Instead of focusing on what divides us – and allowing politicians to deepen existing biases and prejudices – why not find and focus on that which unites us, including our potential for vulnerability and resilience?
- The risk for disease and disorder isn’t static. Vulnerability to illness and suffering is determined by how we care for the natural world and design the built environment around us. The flooding in Texas has placed many people at risk for physical and mental illnesses, including injuries, infectious diseases, exacerbations of chronic diseases like asthma and diabetes, anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress. Investing in sound infrastructure matters. This issue, like other city, state, and federal planning efforts, influences the risk for large-scale disasters and corresponding health risks.
- Some individuals are more vulnerable than others. For example, some people are more likely to be victims of disasters since they live in environments with inferior infrastructure, with compromised access to lifesaving resources. In a similar vein, I find myself thinking not only of the companion animals caught in the Texas floods, but also of the animals on farms, in zoos, and in laboratories who are trapped by the floods. Not only do these animals suffer but their predicament also creates more misery for humans because of the potential for increased disease exposure and transmission. These are all human-created problems that are worsened for animals and people during large-scale disasters. We need to acknowledge the inextricable link between human and animal wellbeing and inspire action accordingly. Rather than merely finding proximate and piecemeal solutions, we need to address the root causes of problems. Those of us with any privilege are particularly well positioned to address the core causes of suffering – before and after emergencies.
- We have to be real about the world we’re living in. We aren’t connected only to each other but also to the earth that is our only home, no matter where we live in the world. Coming to terms with the effects of climate change and environmental degradation and taking responsibility for it is key. Younger generations appear to understand this dilemma but it will be too late if we wait for them to fix our mistakes. Our everyday choices are wreaking havoc on the climate and the environment we depend on for our health and wellbeing. Changes in rainfall associated with global warming influence weather patterns including hurricanes and flooding. Medical and public health organizations cite risks associated with extreme temperatures and weather patterns, including poor air, water, and food quality, and a corresponding rise in instability, violence, and chronic and infectious diseases, among other dangers. As I’ve written before, each of us can make changes in our everyday lives to stem the risks associated with climate change and environmental degradation.
- I don’t know if we are running out of time but I do know that every wasted moment matters. If we can prevent one more tragedy, we should. We need to do everything we can to create healthier, more resilient communities and protect them from further disaster – whether those disasters are slow or sudden.
Let’s make our moments matter in the best ways possible.