When Disaster Strikes: Learning From Devastation
This year we have witnessed an unprecedented number of intense hurricanes that have struck the U.S., Central America, and the Caribbean. The impact of Category 4 Hurricane Maria was particularly devastating for Puerto Rico, causing one of the largest humanitarian crises the island has ever experienced. Over six weeks from when it made landfall, Puerto Rico is still grappling with the widespread catastrophic damage and 70 percent of the population is still without power (Gomez and Jervis, 2017).
In an effort to raise awareness of the crisis and contribute to the relief efforts in Puerto Rico, the Mailman School student group HOME (Humanitarian Organization for Migration and Emergencies) held an inter-sectorial panel discussion on disaster response that doubled as a fundraiser. Our group is made up of students with a passion for public health and humanitarian assistance and HOME is committed to increasing dialogue around campus on humanitarian emergencies and finding ways to engage students on these issues of global importance.
The talk was moderated by Rachel Moresky, MD MPH, associate professor of Population and Family Health at Mailman. She was joined by guest speakers Tim Tan, MD MPH, medical director for the non-profit NYCMedics, and Thaddeus Pawlowski, adjunct assistant professor in the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation.
Dr. Tan detailed his experiences as a humanitarian responder in the 2015 Nepal earthquake, the Haiti earthquake in 2010, as well as his role as medical director for NYCMedics, a global disaster relief organization that specializes in mobile medical teams. He also touched on their experience providing high quality trauma care in a temporary medical tent on the frontlines in Mosul, Iraq.
He spoke about the growing movement in the humanitarian field to become more organized, coordinated and professional, a theme echoed by moderator, Dr. Moresky, who discussed her experience studying the multiple breakdowns in communication during the 9/11 terrorist attack. Dr. Moresky emphasized that robust and continuous communication between partners is paramount to an organized response.
Professor Pawlowski has worked extensively with the New York City government on disaster preparedness and recently returned from Houston where he was assessing the post-Hurricane Irma infrastructure. “The biggest threat to New York City is not terrorism—it’s coastal storms,” he said. Based on his expertise and background in urban planning and disaster readiness, he emphasized the importance of preparation and cross-disciplinary dialogues.
Together, Dr. Moresky, Dr. Tan, and Professor Pawloski each provided candid and thoughtful perspectives on disaster response approaching the topic with a domestic and international lens, as well as emphasizing the importance of pre-disaster preparedness.
But it wasn’t just discussion. At the event, HOME raised approximately $800 from around 40 individual donors and the proceeds were donated to a Puerto Rican-based non-profit, conPRmetidos.
Hayes Wong, MD is a second-year MPH candidate in the Department of Population and Family Health. She received a B.A. in International Relations from Kenyon College. After graduation, she collaborated with the Chinese CDC in Beijing on a hepatitis B vaccination program to prevent mother-to-child transmission in rural China as a Fulbright Scholar.
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