Eric K. Noji, Anas A. Khan, and Zohair Al-Aseri
The fields of disaster medicine and public health preparedness have developed considerably with the natural hazards and humanitarian disasters over the past half-century. Developing countries, particularly Small Island Developing States and Least Developed Countries, are disproportionately affected. In April and May 2015, two massive earthquakes in Nepal killed more than 8,400 people, injured 20,000, and reduced 300,000 houses to rubble. In March 2016, Cyclone Pam destroyed homes, schools, infrastructure, and livelihoods on the Pacific island of Vanuatu, affecting half the population, including 82,000 children. Most recently, Hurricane Matthew, a Category 4 tropical storm struck parts of Haiti violently on 4 October 2016 causing the largest humanitarian emergency since the 2010 earthquake. The Directorate of Civil Protection of Haiti has so far confirmed over 500 deaths, 339 injuries, and 75 people missing. The number of evacuees is 175,509 people scattered in 224 temporary shelters. Among the approximate 2.1 million people affected, UNICEF estimates that 894,057 are children. Nearly 1,410,774 people need humanitarian assistance, including 592,581 children. All three nations will take years to recover. However, the catastrophic Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, and Hurricane Sandy, whose storm surge hit New York City on October 29, 2012, flooding streets, tunnels, and subway lines, and cutting power in every borough of the city sent clear messages that developed countries are also vulnerable to such severe disasters. To cite “Superstorm Sandy” again, the New York Stock Exchange was closed on October 29 and 30, 2012 as a result of power outages and flooding in the Wall Street area. Such a closure for weather-related reasons had not happened since 1888!
Unsustainable development practices, ecosystem degradation, and poverty, as well as climate variability and extremes have led to an increase in both natural and man-made disaster risk at a rate that poses a threat to lives and development efforts. Fortunately, over the past decade, the public health approach to disasters has changed significantly. Terms such as prevention, mitigation, preparedness, recovery, and resilience are now part of the vocabulary of public health officials in national and international organizations, and more importantly, they are used to advance the cause of reducing mortality and morbidity from disasters. We now know much about the cause and nature of disasters and about populations at risk, and that knowledge allows us to anticipate some of the effects a disaster may have on the health of an affected community. This expanding body of epidemiological research has provided a basis for increasingly effective prevention and intervention strategies.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Natural Hazard Science. Please check back later for the full article.
Natural disasters have increased dramatically in the twenty-first century. An estimated 217 million people are affected by natural disasters each year. Recent disasters, both nationally and globally, provide insight into how the degree of destruction and number of fatalities can negatively affect survivors. Cultural, political, and geographic factors may increase risk of trauma and negative mental health outcomes. Understanding these risks is critical to helping survivors recover in the aftermath of disasters. Different disasters pose different risks, and some communities are chronically affected. How to support these communities psychologically in the face of ongoing threats of destruction is an important question.
Recent years have also seen major advances in technology that provide new and innovative ways to manage disasters. Technological strategies can be harnessed to better serve the interests of disaster-affected communities. For example, warning times for disasters have increased because of better instrumentation and the ability to send messages sooner to communities that may be in the path of a disaster. These increased warning times may allow for psychological preparation before a disaster that can support positive mental health outcomes in recovery. Demands for evidence-based mental health interventions require an understanding of best practices in disaster response, challenges to past relief efforts, and the strategies and factors that can enhance effective future efforts.