COPHers study public health in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico

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If ever there was a ground zero for studying disaster management, it is Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

In May an interdisciplinary team of students from USF’s College of Public Health and its Sunshine Education and Research Center (ERC) traveled with faculty advisors Dr. Anthony Masys, associate professor of global disaster management, humanitarian assistance and homeland security (GHH), and Elizabeth Dunn, a GHH instructor, to Puerto Rico to analyze post-hurricane conditions on the still-recovering island.

The ERC promotes interdisciplinary research and learning among five academic programs—occupational medicine, occupational health nursing, industrial hygiene, occupational safety and occupational health psychology—and partners with several universities around the country, including the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) in San Juan. UPR students of public health, led by Dr. Lida Orta-Anes, a professor of environmental health at the school, joined the USF group. This was the first formal interaction between occupational health and safety trainees and students and faculty in GHH.

UPR and USF students, faculty and staff pose with community member Angel Rubio (standing, second from right) and the artistic piece he created to symbolize his feelings of what the community was experiencing post-Hurricane Maria. (Photo courtesy of Cathy Silva)

“This collaborative, interdisciplinary nature is what public health is all about,” commented Dr. Thomas Bernard, a professor of environmental and occupational health and director of the Sunshine ERC. “This trip gave our students a wider view of life than what we train them for in the classroom.”

Masys described the trip as “boots on the ground training” with the students “getting their hands dirty with data.”

The group spent three days on the island collecting and analyzing data “through the lens of disaster management,” Masys said. The USF team attended presentations given by their UPR counterparts chronicling life in post-Maria Puerto Rico. They then traveled to urban and rural sites to see firsthand the effects of the disaster.

One such place was the cemetery near Castillo San Felipe Del Morro, a 16th century fortress and one of Puerto Rico’s most-visited historical landmarks.

“When looking from afar, the cemetery looks beautiful,” said Derek Erickson, an MPH student majoring in epidemiology and global communicable disease who was part of the USF group. “Observing it up close, however, we saw many stone crosses, angels and other memorials broken. In natural disasters, not even the dead are safe.”

Overhead view of cemetery with toppled headstones near Castillo San Felipe Del Morro. (Photo courtesy of Derek Erickson)

Later the group returned to the classroom to develop a visual ethnography (the use of pictures, drawings and other visual mediums that capture social realities and encourage visual thinking) to discuss a disaster-relief strategy both the USF and UPR teams could work on together.

“We saw evidence of a still-hurting community,” noted Masys. “There was debris all around, power lines were down and waterlines were visible on people’s houses. We got to see how infrastructure—having power and clear roadways, for instance—can impact the well-being of a community. We talked about the health and safety dimensions of a disaster and its cascading effects. For example, what happens to the chemicals in a plant? Do they get scattered? What impact will that have? Is the country prepared to clean it up post disaster?”

The students also spent time looking at community resiliency.

“We saw a powerful example of this in a small town where three women had come together and set up a command center in one of the schools,” Masys explained. “They set up a system where people could get food and health care. They completely galvanized the cooperation of the community. We’ll be doing some future research on the qualities these women have and best practices in community resiliency.”

USF students and faculty explore Old San Juan. (Photo courtesy of Cathy Silva)

Now back home, the next step, say both Bernard and Masys, is continued collaboration.

“We’ll ask for funding from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) over a multi-year period to gather more data and pilot-test interventions,” commented Bernard. “I think some more specific data collection will be helpful—so will revisiting the things others have already done and evaluating their effects. How good was Puerto Rico’s hurricane response plan? What happens when it fails to protect? Were there any unanticipated exposures to hazards? Thinking beyond the public service announcement and getting people better prepared for disasters are some of the ultimate goals.”

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health