Hurricane Irma and Emergency Preparedness

Date posted: 
Wednesday, February 7, 2018 - 16:30
Blog poster: 
Nancy Finney and Jonna Ashley
Email of Blog Poster: 

An interview with Cynthia Goldstein, MPH REHS/RS – part of a NEHA effort to highlight stories of dedicated professionals working to keep our communities healthy and safe.

Goldstein is the Environmental Health and Engineering Administrator for the Florida Department of Health in Polk County. She has previous held the positions of inspector, supervisor, and county epidemiologist. Goldstein’s leadership led to the merging of the Environmental Health Division and the Environmental Engineering Division.

NEHA reached out to Goldstein and asked a few questions related to her experience with Hurricane Irma. Goldstein shares about the difficult decisions made during disasters, the importance of environmental health professionals in addressing major disasters, and the unpredictable nature of the profession.

NEHA: What brought you to the profession of environmental health?

Goldstein: A pen. Really. 

I had graduated from undergraduate school with a degree in biology: pre-med. I decided patient care wasn’t for me when I passed out at the sight of blood at an internship. I picked up a copy of the career book, What Color is Your Parachute? to figure out what my next career steps might be. I worked the Venn diagram and came up with interest and skills in environment, health, and education. The entire time I mulled these subjects over, I was tapping my head with this free pen I had picked up from my university for some new college that had opened up. Turned out it was from the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health. I found a program called “Environmental Health” in the college catalogue where I saw a picture of students collecting water samples and I was hooked. I enrolled in their Master of Public Health program a month later and started began my career in environmental health.

Your abstract discussed decision-making processes in the event of a disaster. What are some examples where decisions were made to support the residents of the county and/or colleagues?

Hurricane Irma was a giant hurricane, covering the whole state. When a hurricane that size passes over, you have no idea the extent of the damage to your area. Polk County is roughly the size of Rhode Island, and I don’t even have enough staff to cover the daily tasks – let alone a disaster of this scale. So, working with our Emergency Operations Center we identified the areas where the eye wall and dreaded eastern side of the storm passed, and focused on those cities and towns directly in that path. Those decisions are not made lightly, because focusing resources on an area incorrectly can waste precious time and resources. We were fortunately able to get to hard-hit areas and found several people without electricity that needed it medically to survive.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Could you describe a day dealing with the Hurricane Irma emergency preparedness and how that differs from a typical day in your role as an environmental health professional?

Environmental health is by nature unpredictable. You can come in with a to-do list one morning, and *bam* a sewage truck spills or a foodborne outbreak happens and that to-do list goes in the tomorrow pile. I believe that EH professionals are suited to disaster work because it is one of the most unpredictable events that can happen to a community.

However, emergency preparedness takes our response to another level. It’s not isolated, everyone is affected. Our staff lost homes and some were injured trying to put tarps on leaking roofs. Citizens were in need of the basics: food, shelter, water. You don’t really ever sleep, and you make decisions so quickly and with such dire consequences if you are wrong, that you tumble them over for hours in your head.

Surveillance for disease is heightened, and public messages have to be crafted and recrafted as situations change. The urgencies are constant, and you become the experts for the people in crisis.

Photo courtesy of FEMA

What makes you passionate about disaster relief work, and why do you think it’s important to share with fellow EH professionals?

A disaster reminds you how important EH is to the community. We are the profession no one really understands until they don’t have clean water, get sick from biting insects, or have sewage flowing down their street.

When our staff go into affected areas, they are often met with people who haven’t had contact with the outside world since the storm hit. We give them water and bug spray and call EMS if anyone is in need. When a shelteree who rode out the storm with you or a resident whose home was destroyed holds your hand and thanks you, that’s what makes me passionate about disaster work. 

I think EH professionals need to know how valuable their skills and talents are during disasters. I also think that EH professionals need to share their experiences so we all can learn from them and create contacts and partnerships as professionals.

Photo courtesy of Defense Logistics Agency

To hear more about emergency preparedness, and meet other environmental health professionals on the front lines of disaster recovery, attend the NEHA 2018 Annual Educational Conference (AEC) & Exhibition and HUD Healthy Homes Conference, June 25-28, in Anaheim, CA.

Additional Resources: Mold Remediation Post Hurricane or Flooding Disaster and Food Safety and Emergency Preparedness 

The September 2017 Journal of Environmental Health featured an article on enhancing resilience to environmental disasters, and NEHA's Executive Director's column focused on emergency preparedness.

Support the work of the National Environmental Health Association and those keeping our communities safe through Membership.

This project was facilitiated by NEHA staff members Jonna Ashley (Membership Manager) and Nancy Finney, MPA (Technical Editor).


Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect the policy, endorsement, or action of NEHA or the organization where the author is employed. NEHA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.  

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