August 24, 1992.

Back then, I lived in Homestead, Florida. I won’t fault you for not knowing much about Homestead.  It was a small, sleepy town in deep South Florida known best for its agriculture, military installation and as a gateway to the Florida Keys. On August 24, 1992, my hometown, its residents and my life would forever change. That day, a category-5 storm named “Andrew” struck South Florida with the center of the storm passing directly over our community. Ever since that fateful day, my life – like many other disaster survivors then and since – is clearly separated in two periods: before and after “the storm.”  For me, disasters are personal.

Even as a young person, I vividly recall the devastation the storm caused and the personal challenges my friends, neighbors and family faced as we tried to rebuild our lives and community following the devastation. Every family was confronted with the question of “do we stay” and take the risk of another hurricane or “should we leave” and abandon the life and community known so well.

These questions about “when” and “how” and “if” are never easy and confront individuals, families, communities, businesses and networks recovering from disasters across the nation every year.  HHS’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, or ASPR, has committed to our partners in the health, healthcare, and social service industries that we – as a federal family – will help them navigate these difficult questions and support them through their recovery process. 

ASPR was created nine years ago to improve the federal coordination to address public health effects of disasters following Hurricane Katrina. The Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act (PKEMRA) similarly highlighted the need for federal partners to remain engaged with communities well after the immediate life-saving period. Disaster recovery is a unique space where federal partners can be good servants and colleagues to help support and guide people through this process.

Through working with communities over the years, we have learned a great deal about how to recover successfully from disasters. Success begins with the preparedness of a community’s residents, but they can’t do it alone.

As people re-engage in their community, they provide feedback to their local government and businesses, which in turn helps focus resources on addressing the community’s greatest areas of need. Recovering from the impacts to the health and social services is also a critical part of the community’s rebuilding process. 

Sometimes, disasters present opportunities for communities to build a public health system more responsive to local needs than the one they are replacing. That was the case in 2011 when Tropical Storm Irene caused extensive flooding in Vermont. The flooding caused a local mental health hospital to be closed, but state and local leadership working collaboratively determined they could deliver better quality mental and behavioral health services for their community by replacing the hospital with a decentralized system.

The recovery efforts of both the members of a community and the overall community must be synergistic to be truly successful.

While hurricanes can be incredibly powerful, so, too, is the human spirit. Following disasters, examples of neighbors helping neighbors abound, and neighbors can form very strong networks that pay tremendous dividends for their rebuilt community for years to come. As a result, the community can emerge stronger in the wake of disasters.

Hurricane Andrew was devastating to everything I knew. I take my work very personally because I feel like every one of these local towns impacted by disasters is my town, my borough and my hamlet. It has led me to ASPR where I – in concert the entire federal family – can play a role in helping communities recover from disasters.