Protecting Public Health: A Whole Community Approach To Disaster Recovery

disaster-relief-feature

By Rae Lynn Mitchell, Texas A&M University Health Science Center

Texas is highly susceptible to both natural and technological disasters due to the substantial concentration of industrial facilities and extensive coastlines. The combined threats of natural hazards, climate change and coastal population growth has led Jennifer Horney, PhD, interim department head and associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, to research issues related to community resilience.

Horney, a disaster preparedness expert, has previously conducted research on multiple public health disasters including Hurricanes Charley, Isabel, Katrina, Wilma and Irene. Following Hurricane Harvey, Horney will be working with community partners across the region to access the public health impacts of exposure to contaminated floodwaters.

“Resilient communities anticipate and plan for the impacts of future disasters, and as a result, are less impacted,” Horney said.

Her research focuses on combining interdisciplinary collaborations, community-engaged research projects and high-impact service learning to help communities achieve resilience. Innovative research that engages communities at all stages – from developing a hypothesis to reporting results – is a key element of Horney’s work. For example, community partners in Houston, Texas, identified inadequate storm water infrastructure during flooding and hurricanes as a concern. As part of a multidisciplinary award from the National Science Foundation’s Early Concept Grant for Exploratory Research Program, Horney and others engage with residents to collect citizen science monitoring data at the neighborhood scale. The results of this research will benefit residents and local governments by providing a validated framework for both productive community engagement and data collection.

Recently, Horney worked with the Department of State Health Services to use data from the State Fire Marshal’s Office to publish an article on flash flood swift water rescues in Texas. A webinar with the Texas Flash Flood Coalition and the National Weather Service is planned to ensure that research findings are translated to practitioners.

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“This study is a first step on the road to better understanding the factors involved in flash flood rescues and paves the way toward interdisciplinary studies aimed at finding better ways to educate the public on flood risks and prepare first responders for the future.”

Horney leads the Health and Environment Program of the Institute for Sustainable Communities (IfSC) a Texas A&M University-wide initiative supported by the Office of the Provost and Executive Vice President and the Dean of the School of Public Health. The IfSC was developed to promote interdisciplinary collaborations for transformative research to advance community resilience. The Health and Environment Program focuses on the public health impacts of disasters that results from environmental contamination and is supported by funding from the Texas One Gulf Center of Excellence, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes for Environmental Health Sciences.

Examples of interdisciplinary collaborations include partnering with the Colleges of Geosciences and Engineering to create a mobile application that allows community members to map locations of potential mosquito breeding grounds.

“We work with a number of people involved in community engagement who we’re training on how to use the app,” Horney said. “The health departments get some free data, without having to use their own very limited staff resources.” The data collected by citizen scientists can be leveraged by public health agencies to inform mosquito control strategies and activities preventing such outbreaks as Zika and West Nile from occurring.

With support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Texas Sea Grant Program, Horney is working with partners in the Departments of Communication and Political Science to better understand the relationship between community engagement and resilience.

“Findings from public opinion surveys of residents in United States Gulf Coast shoreline counties have highlighted potential gaps in preparedness for heatwaves and droughts, which residents rank as the hazard they are most concerned about,” Horney said.

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Continue reading this story by Rae Lynn Mitchell on Vital Record


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