This article on emergency response originally published on CDC Public Health Matters.
In 2005, in the face of one of the largest natural disasters in U.S. history, Dr. Dan Sosin was called upon as a member of the United States Public Health Service to deploy to Louisiana and provide support to the state’s emergency response. Amidst the chaos and devastation from Hurricane Katrina, Dr. Sosin traveled to the state emergency operation center in Baton Rouge to serve as the emergency response liaison between the state Emergency Support Function (ESF) #8 and the federal ESF-8 response.
Today, Dr. Sosin is the Deputy Director and Chief Medical Officer for CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response. With more than 10 years of experience working on emergency preparedness and response at CDC, Dr. Sosin took some time to answer our questions about his experience during the Hurricane Katrina response and how public health preparedness and response has changed throughout the last decade.
I was called upon by the U.S. Public Health Service to serve in the Louisiana State Emergency Operation Center as a liaison between public health and medical (ESF-8) incident command staff at the state and the Federal levels. I helped match the needs of the state with the resources that federal government could supply. I arrived in Baton Rouge after Hurricane Katrina had hit and about one week before Hurricane
Rita made landfall. My expertise and connections from working at CDC in the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response helped me to better perform in my role as the state liaison officer, and also better understand and connect with the larger scale federal response that was taking place.
It was intense. People were directly in harm’s way and needed immediate help. The demand was an around-the-clock, 24/7 job – you would work till you literally could not work anymore, at which point you would get some sleep and then return to the job.
The response was also an eye-opening experience for me in terms of seeing first-hand the scope and intricacy of a federal emergency response. I was fascinated by the sheer scale of resources that had to be delivered—everything from food to laundry supplies. In my role, I was able to see the moving parts from both sides—the state in desperate need of crucial aid and supplies and the federal government in the responsive role of identifying and delivering the proper aid and resources to the right place at the right time.
So much has changed in ten years. Everything from technology to public health services has evolved, and that has impacted the way emergency preparedness and response operates. For CDC, in our Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, we see those changes in multiple areas. Some of the changes are clearly evident, like the innovations and updates that have been made to CDC’s Emergency Operation Center and new technological advancements in gathering data through geographic information systems and surveillance mechanisms.
There are also less obvious developments that have taken place in how we prepare for and respond to emergencies. Shifts in federal responsibility, better partnerships with state and local health departments, and improvements in logistics and staffing coordination have all made great strides in helping improve public health preparedness.
Ultimately through lessons learned and improvements made both during and after emergency responses, like Hurricane Katrina, CDC has significantly grown the scope, scale and readiness of the agency to respond to public health emergencies.
What stands out for me is that we learned about anticipating large scale emergencies and then identifying and understanding the needs of the most vulnerable populations during an emergency. Hurricane Katrina demonstrated the critical need for having plans in place for vulnerable populations that have medical and physical limitations.
In the realm of the public health response, we learned a lot about the health impact of evacuation shelters and medical shelters. We saw gaps where we could improve upon the pre-planning that goes into providing basic medical care after a disaster. After a disaster, it is not just the medical needs of those who become sick or injured from the event, but also the people that require everyday medical care, like those with diabetes, asthma, and other chronic conditions. For example, this insight influenced the planning in place for how we prepare our Strategic National Stockpile to provide medical resources after a disaster, and other mechanisms to ensure routine medications were available to people who needed them.
Overall, the whole experience gave me a renewed interest and commitment to emergency preparedness and response. Seeing first-hand the impact and importance of emergency preparedness reaffirmed for me the huge value that our work in emergency preparedness has at the federal, state, and local level. The hard work and dedication I saw from the people working day in and day out to ensure that progress was being made and help was being delivered to those who needed it was inspiring and something I will never forget.
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