From The Built Environment and Public Health: Natural Disasters

The destruction in New York City reminded me of the role of public health in preparing for and responding to natural disasters.  Here is the introduction to the Natural Disasters and Infrastructure Chapter in my book, The Built Environment and Public Health

Though many people would like to think that those of us living in this most modern and wealthy society are immune to the effects of natural disasters, events in the past several decades have continued to highlight the vulnerability of people to natural disasters even in those countries that consider themselves to be the most advanced. In the United States, there have been the repeated disasters caused by hurricanes, most notably Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In addition, portions of the United States are highly vulnerable to earthquakes with the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake responsible for 63 deaths and billions of dollars in damages including the failure of a freeway in Oakland, California. More subtle, but perhaps just as deadly are extreme weather events which have killed thousands in the United States and Europe in the past 15 years. While these deaths are perhaps not as dramatic as those caused by earthquakes and hurricanes, collectively they are responsible for many more deaths.

But infrastructure is not just a factor in preventing mortality, well-built and well-maintained infrastructure can be central in the promotion of health. Much of this health affirming infrastructure is discussed elsewhere in this book, for example, the role of sidewalks in promoting health is presented in Chapter 4 and the ability of well-designed communities to promote physical activity is addressed in the Chapter 3. But there are other very valuable types of infrastructure and this chapter will include such features as parks and playgrounds and their impact on public health.

A major theme in a discussion of natural disasters, and health is that even though the exact timing of many of these events cannot be predicted, their effects can be anticipated, protective measures adopted, responses planned, and deaths and injuries prevented. There is no inevitability about the deadliness of natural disasters.


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