Public Health

Natural disasters exert unnatural impact

August 29, 2017


Our hearts go out to people in Houston and other parts of Texas and Louisiana that are being pummeled by wind and rain. Hurricane Harvey is being called by some the worst storm in Texas history since 1961’s Carla. Images of people being rescued in boats on flooded streets are heartbreaking. For many, the immediate crisis will turn into a much longer period of recovery that will have economic, emotional, mental and physical health consequences. The vulnerable always suffer most after a natural disaster.

Yesterday, a friend from Houston sent a map showing the water levels across the city. It’s a frightening picture of an area that was a thriving metropolis just a few days ago. The friend had been living on the second floor of her home with no electricity for a couple days. At least now, the power is back on.

Many people in the Gillings School have family and friends in Houston, and we feel for all of them. Not knowing whether people are safe is incredibly stressful. I still remember our family’s living through one of the worst tornadoes of the 20th century. In the pre-cell phone era, my mother did not know for more than a day whether my father was safe. We ate food from a Red Cross truck for weeks and could see devastation everywhere. These images linger and undermine one’s sense of safety.

We’ve reached out to public health colleagues in San Antonio, Houston and elsewhere to offer help. I contacted the dean of the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston and offered to take into our school students and faculty members who are displaced. After Hurricane Katrina, we were one of several schools that did this for students at Tulane and elsewhere. This crisis is a stark reminder of the importance of teaching and practicing preparedness, which is fundamental to public health.

At the Gillings School, Charletta Sims Evans, associate dean for student affairs, and her team are resources for students from, or who have relatives/friends in, Houston and other parts of Texas who are upset, worried and not sure where to turn. (Contact our student affairs office at Steve Regan, assistant dean for human resources, is playing a similar role for faculty and staff members ( We’ll have updates soon about resources and ways our generous, caring community can help.

The message below is from Karla Townley-Tilson, a new student services manager in environmental sciences and engineering at the Gillings School, who recently relocated from Houston and whose husband and child are still there. She has some thoughtful suggestions about donations. We hope that her family will be reunited soon.

Dear Gillings Community,

I wanted to take a minute of your time to share some information about Hurricane Harvey relief.  As you may know, I moved to N.C. from Houston about a month ago.  My husband and 20-month-old daughter are still in Texas (Pearland, just south of Houston).  They are safe and much luckier than many in the city.  The streets are all flooded, and they have been stranded in the house since last Thursday.  They surprisingly have power (no cable or internet) and have plenty of food and water.

This web page from the New York Times is a comprehensive list of places you can donate to make a difference for so many people who are suffering.  If I have learned anything in my short time at Gillings, it is that this school is full of good people who want to make the world a better place. Please consider donating in some capacity.

I am scheduled to go [to Texas] on Friday for the long weekend, but with airports shut down, it isn’t likely I will get to see my family.  Thank you to all who have asked about my family; it is very difficult to be away from them right now.  Please keep them, and all of the families who are much worse off than mine, in your thoughts.

Thank you,

Sierra Leone and elsewhere

While we worry about people in Texas, we don’t want to overlook tragedies occurring elsewhere in the world where we also are connected. Just two weeks ago, flooding and mudslides devastated parts of Sierra Leone. There was also a typhoon hitting Hong Kong, Macau and other parts of China and the Far East just last week that killed at least six people.

As reported Aug. 15 by CNN:

Sierra Leone has been ‘gripped by grief’ after massive mudslides near the capital city of Freetown, the country’s President said in a speech to the West African nation. Hundreds of people are feared dead after landslides swept through the outskirts of the rain-soaked city early Monday, according to government officials and aid agencies.

A spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Sierra Leone said authorities have recovered the bodies of 205 people and the number is expected to rise, with more than 1,000 others affected.

As humans, we all are connected. Tragedies in Texas, Sierra Leone and in the Far East remind us again that nature can be a brutal force (often aggravated by what we have done to the environment), and the suffering of humans and animals is profound. The toll continues to be exacted long after the event ends.



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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.