The public health implications of Hurricane Sandy are wide-ranging. In the short-term, there are environmental hazards from flooded homes, unsafe standing water and debris. Vulnerable populations, including the elderly and infirm, face their own set of risks, such as supply chain issues for those with chronic conditions in need of medications and continuity of care challenges for hospitalized patients who were evacuated and other medical-needs patients whose records are unavailable or destroyed.
Longer-term issues include the enduring mental health consequences of such a devastating storm, particularly for families displaced from their homes and communities that have been radically altered, disrupted, or destroyed. The storm also underscores the health risks of climate change, which may increase the frequency and force of storms.
Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health has a number of faculty members engaged in, or with expertise relevant to, the public health implications of the storm. (See recent media coverage with Mailman School faculty.)
Disaster Preparedness and Response – Coordination of response in the immediate aftermath of a disaster is an obvious challenge. Mailman faculty are actively working to ensure clinical and scientific expertise is available to support key "on the ground" priorities.
Mental Health Needs – In the short term, the provision of practical and social supports will be crucial in mitigating the psychological consequences of the disasters. In the longer-term, significant efforts to identify those in the population with enduring mental health needs will be needed.
Expert: Sandro Galea, MD, DrPH
Climate and Health – The frequency of powerful storms like Hurricane Sandy may be increasing due to global climate change. Other health risks of climate change include the spread of infectious disease and higher prevalence of chronic conditions like asthma.
Ethics of Mandatory Evacuation – Wary of looking overly coercive, officials are often very reluctant to issue such orders and don't necessarily give them the weight they need. For Hurricane Sandy, many arguments for evacuation hinged on the threat to first responders who would either have to help or be put in the position of turning their backs.
Vulnerable Groups: Elderly and Frail – The old and infirm are at high risk from natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy. How can society better protect and respond to the needs of our aging population, particularly in the urban environment?
Expert: Linda P. Fried, MD, MPH
Environmental Dangers – In the most affected areas, environmental hazards require attention and mitigation. These include mold from flooded homes, which could exacerbate asthma; unsafe standing water, which could contain waste products and toxins; and occupational hazards.
Reproductive Health - Access to reproductive health services may be limited by disasters like Hurricane Sandy. Considerations include safe infant care, nutrition, family planning, family stressors, and gender-based violence.
Expert: Therese McGinn, DrPH
To schedule an interview with one of the Mailman School experts, please contact Stephanie Berger at 212-305-4372, sb2247 [at] columbia.edu, or Timothy S. Paul at 212-305-2676, tp2111 [at] columbia.edu.
"Mold is a very big concern post-Sandy. Spores can become airborne if disturbed, and when they get into your lungs they can lead to respiratory problems, pneumonia and serious infections. People end up quite ill." - Michael Reilly in The Atlantic, Nov. 16, 2012
"Direct victims of a disaster are at greatest risk of developing post-traumatic emotional problems, followed by rescue workers, followed by some of the general public." - Lloyd Sederer in Huffington Post, Nov. 7, 2012
"From a longer-term perspective, you start looking at things like the effects of the power outage: What does that mean for the spoilage of food? For the contamination of the water supply? You also worry about access to routine medical care." - Patrick Kinney in Scientific American, Nov. 6, 2012
"There's no question that the best thing the federal, state and municipal governments can do to protect against psychopathology in these kinds of situations is to restore the day-to-day functioning that keeps everyone healthy." - Sandro Galea in The New York Times, Nov. 2, 2012
"This reveals to me that we have to be much more imaginative and detail-oriented in our planning to make sure hospitals are as resilient as they need to be." - Irwin Redlener in the Wall Street Journal, Nov. 1, 2012
"The literal movement of food into the city is the problem; that's the thing that's going to be the trick." - Irwin Redlener in the New York Post, Oct. 31, 2012