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Preparing the Americas for the Next Big Disaster

New America Media, News Report, Cristina Fernandez-Pereda Posted: Jun 20, 2009

WASHINGTON -- Last year in the Americas, more people were affected by disaster than in any year in the past decade, according to the 2009 World Disasters Report released this week at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Four to seven hurricanes are expected to hit the United States and the Caribbean this year, all in the midst of the H1N1 flu outbreak, which could increase its impact.
Dr. Richard BesserDr. Richard Besser, director of the CDC's Coordinating Office
for Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response

Disaster response always has an element of uncertainty, said Joe Becker, senior vice president of disaster services for the American Red Cross. "The difference between the case of a pandemic and that of a natural disaster is that during a pandemic we are unable to move people around an area to respond, but we can do this by working community by community. The American Red Cross is ready for this, but the United States is not. And we have a severe season coming that could make Katrina look small."

In response, organizations are undertaking extensive preparedness efforts to ensure that supplies, trained personnel and detailed plans are in place to minimize the impact of a disaster. For instance, the American Red Cross is prepared to shelter and feed 500,000 people, four times more than the organization had to shelter during its busiest night after Hurricane Katrina.

According to Guillermo Garcia, American Red Cross director of regional programs in Latin America and the Caribbean, cultural prevention is a key factor during the response to epidemics and natural disasters. "It's not just about early warnings, Garcia said. It's also about making sure that people in the communities know how to react."

The Red Cross has worked in the Caribbean to develop different community-focused models to disseminate information. One of the dangers of pandemics like the H1N1 flu outbreak is the lack of information and awareness by its potential victims.

Becker said the response to disasters is larger than any one organization can handle on its own. A flu outbreak -- alone or coupled with another disaster -- would be one scenario where we would look to our partners in government, the private sector and the non-profit sector to join forces to help America, he said.

Both Becker and Dr. Richard Besser, director of the CDC's coordinating office for terrorism preparedness and emergency response, agreed that the one thing keeping them up at night is "a sense of complacency."

"We have to fight the feeling of not having to worry about it anymore," Besser said. "We don't want to have people on the edge of their seats, but there were what we called 'teachable moments' at the beginning of the epidemic, when people were worried and concerned." Besser explained that this concern translated into more people washing their hands than before the H1N1 flu outbreak.

The director of the CDC for the H1N1 response noted that the epidemic is not over. There are now 17,000 known cases in the United States, with more than 1,000 people still hospitalized and 45 fatalities related to the new flu outbreak. According to Besser, these are only the cases that have been confirmed.

"The overall picture is that the number of cases is going down, but we still have some clusters," Besser said.

This is a critical time, according to the CDC and the American Red Cross, when the publics awareness of the dangers and readiness to act are key for the upcoming months. Simple gestures like washing your hands or not sending sick children to summer camp, combined with preparedness for the hurricane season, could greatly reduce the impact of H1N1 flu and natural disasters.

Becker described three simple questions families should ask: Do I know my family's emergency plan? Do I have an emergency kit in case I need to leave the house or stay here for a few days? And, in case I have to stay home for some time, how am I going to stay informed?

"We know that one-third of Americans have taken at least one of these steps," Becker said. "But we also know that only one in 10 Americans have taken all three of them."

The CDC is now preparing to post emergency information online in different languages, which ethnic media will be able to use to inform their audiences on what to do in the case of a disaster or health emergency.

"We have found that we need to go to the most trusted sources of information in these communities, Besser said. We are working to understand how they get their information in these kinds of situations and working with churches as they are sometimes the most trusted figure in their community.

Related Articles:

Ethnic Media: The Missing Piece in Emergency Messaging

Information and Hysteria

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