Why does it matter? The health impacts of Hurricane Harvey threaten survival and recovery now and in the future.
Written by Minna Toloui
Here’s what we know: climate change can make hurricanes worse. In the case of Harvey, it did. The warming of our planet has amplified Hurricane Harvey in the three most important ways hurricanes can cause damage: by making storm surges stronger, increasing precipitation, and increasing the power and speed of hurricane winds. We know that sea level rise, warmer air, and warmer oceans in this region has increased the damage to coastlines, property, and above all, human health and lives.
We care about the connections to climate change because we care about health. Climate change intensifies extreme storms which threaten health directly and indirectly. By causing more severe flooding, climate change amplifies damage and worsens related health impacts overall. This increased damage also weakens people’s ability to recover from and cope with the extreme damages and losses. Looking at health through a wider, public health lens, we see that a variety of impacts influence the lives of Harvey survivors, particularly the most vulnerable communities.
The health impacts of Hurricane Harvey are immediate and many, and will last for years after the rains end. In the short term, floodwater and storm surge can cause drowning, traumatic injuries from debris, and exposure to disease-carrying and dangerous animals. Infectious diseases spread through released sewage and new sources of standing water. Crowding in evacuation shelters and unsafe food and water can lead to immune stress and compromise, exacerbated by shortages of safe food and clean water. Power outages, which cause the failure of AC, carbon monoxide alarms, and medical refrigeration, can leave already vulnerable individuals without access to basic necessities. For everyone in the flooded area, the lack of access to roads will prevent individuals from accessing necessary medicines, stores, and hospitals.
Long-term public health problems due to toxic substance releases into the air, land, and water, from refineries, superfund sites, and power plants are also a major concern. Communities who live near these sites, which refine roughly 25% of the United states petroleum, are overwhelmingly poor, of color, and otherwise marginalized, and are already disproportionally burdened by the other effects of the Hurricane and the health impacts of living alongside polluting industries. In the years following severe flooding, survivors also experience long term mental health impacts, deadly mold exposure, increased exposure to disease-carrying mosquitos, and susceptibility to tropical and infectious diseases over time.
The economic effects of the hurricane severely burden the poor—from price gouging during the disaster to longer term property value loss—making vulnerable people even less able to afford the vital medicines and treatments. Already economically and socially vulnerable populations, including the homeless, the elderly and the chronically ill, communities of color, undocumented, and low income communities are especially at risk during and in the aftermath of a disaster like Hurricane Harvey. These impacts are particularly devastating for those already unable to afford to leave Houston, which was the reality of many of those hit hardest especially at the end of the month as paychecks dwindled. Not being able to afford flood insurance in the first place, means you probably won’t be able to afford to rebuild, which means you might have an insecure housing situation, which negatively impacts your ability to maintain good health and recover from illness. Our most vulnerable communities bear the burden of disaster—and of our failures to plan for them.
Now that we cannot avoid seeing what climate change does to health as it fuels ‘natural’ disasters, it is our time as health professionals to speak up and demand responsible, safe climate policies. The reality of Hurricane Harvey pushes us to continue this work for effective climate change policy. The health and livelihood of communities including those in Harvey’s path depend on it.
We have tools to help you bring the health voice to climate policy here.
Our thoughts are with Texas in this devastating time. We hold hope that all affected by Harvey find safe harbor and will soon be able to begin a path home.