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Preparing for extreme weather to come

By Leyla McCurdy
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This is the Year of Climate Change and Health, a 12-month American Public Health Association-led initiative with monthly themes meant to raise awareness of and mobilize action on the health impacts of climate change. In September, APHA focuses on Extreme Weather. Climate for Health Program Director Leyla McCurdy was recently asked to contribute a blog post on the topic to APHA's Public Health Newswire.  Below is her contribution.

With recent hurricanes and flooding events in Texas and Florida, the timing of this month’s Year of Climate Change and Health theme has never been more relevant for public health professionals, who must engage in educating the public about the health impacts of extreme weather.

Hurricane Harvey made landfall in south Texas near Houston on August 25 as a Category 4 storm. It represented the most significant rainfall event in the area’s history since records have been kept, as reported by the World Meteorological Association.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so far more than 80 lives are known to have been lost in the intense flooding that followed, and thousands more people have been displaced or otherwise harmed by the after effects of the storm.

Before making landfall in Florida, Hurricane Irma experienced sustained winds of 185 mph for 37 hours, causing massive devastation in the US Virgin Islands. According to Colorado State University, this is the longest any storm has maintained that intensity globally since records have been kept. After striking the Caribbean, Irma made landfall in Florida on September 10 as a Category 4 storm, inundating cities from Key West to Jacksonville and causing damaging storm surges.

Planning for the future
Appropriate public health preparedness, response and recovery measures are the keys to resilience in the face of these impacts. It is extremely important that we heed the lessons learned from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in order to prevent and lessen the impacts of such events in the future. Because more extreme weather events will come.

According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program National Climate Assessment, increased rainfall, wind speed and storm surge related to sea-level rise during extreme storms are all direct impacts of a warming planet. According to the World Meteorological Association, the impacts from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma were almost certainly intensified by climate change and are projected to increase throughout the century.

In a study published in the journal Climatic Change, storm surge in particular is predicted to increase by 25 to 47 percent by the end of the 21st century compared to the end of the 20th century. As population centers grow and expand in coastal areas, the intensity of these increases in extreme weather only adds to the urgency.

Recognizing these impacts, Katharine Hayhoe, PhD, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech, explained in a recent interview on CNN, “As the oceans rise, there’s more force behind our storm surges and greater coastal areas are flooded on average than would have been 50 or 100 years ago.”

Public health on the front lines
As we’ve seen in Texas and Florida, these increases in extreme weather have profound implications for public health, including physical, mental and community health. Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance, released by ecoAmerica’s Climate for Health program, describes the intersection of these impacts in detail.

Injuries suffered during or following extreme weather events can lead to reduced physical functioning and ultimately depression and other mental health impacts. Mental health impacts can, in turn, lead to disruptions in sleep, eating and exercise patterns and weakened immune functioning.

Abrupt changes in social fabric and community functioning and loss of property following extreme weather events are also significant mental stressors and can lead to a lost sense of security and social support.

Health professionals are uniquely qualified to address these impacts, and it is important that they are equipped with the tools to communicate effectively with peers, patients and the public on the links between climate change, extreme weather and health.

Climate for Health offers a variety of tools and resources for health professionals, including Let’s Talk Health and Climate: Communications Guidance for Health Professionals, as well as archived webinars, such as Mental Health and Our Changing Climate, presented in collaboration with the American Psychological Association during extreme weather month. Please visit Climate for Health for more information and to download these tools and resources.