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Column: Challenges of a natural disaster

I participated in a de-briefing this summer in Geneva, Switzerland at the World Health Organization and the International Commission of the Red Cross on disaster response.

The primary focus was on the efforts in the Tsunami recovery last year.

As I listened, I was reminded of my own research addressing community preparedness here in this country.

My recently published book on the topic warned that we are woefully unprepared for large scale disasters in major urban areas throughout the U.S.

The recent events in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast sadly revealed this reality. However, as with our own personal lives, sometimes it takes a tragedy to awaken us to a need for change and improvement.

There will be many such lessons to be learned from the largest natural disaster this country has ever experienced.

Meanwhile, challenges will at times seem daunting.

As with other relief efforts I have witnessed and participated in, the short-term needs are for food and water; medications; security; communications; and shelter.

In the intermediate term focus shifts to broader human service needs for housing, education, and health care.

Eventually, the region and the country as a whole will have to face the rebuilding of an economy, a physical infrastructure, and way of life that was so dear to many.

New Orleans right now faces many health concerns.

There is the ongoing evacuation of the infirm and elderly from hospitals, nursing homes and private residences.

The supply of medications to people with high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma and psychiatric disorders has been disrupted.

There is the potential for widespread public health fallout from contaminated water that could lead to a wide range of infectious and gastrointestinal diseases.

There is the threat of mosquito borne pathogens such as West Nile Virus and animal borne diseases such as rabies.

Lastly, the likelihood of widespread depression and post-traumatic stress is very high as those who are displaced continue to realize how severely disrupted their lives have become.

Many are grieving the loss of loved ones and many more are feeling the impact of the loss of home and employment.

Each one of you has an opportunity to help through donations of money or time. Some of you can open your homes to those less fortunate. There are many relief organizations waiting to help you find your special way of helping.

It is a time to remember the words of Dr. Albert Schweitzer, written in Africa in 1915, “One thing I know; the only ones among you who will be truly happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.”

I will be working in the Gulf region off and on throughout the coming months and hope you will join me in your hearts or with your hands and minds.

Dr. James A. Johnson is a medical social scientist who works with the World Health Organization and other agencies in international health development. He is a native of Selma and has authored ten books and numerous articles on various health issues. He can be reached at .