The devastating effects of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria on the displaced citizens and geographic regions affected by these storms shed light on the existing knowledge gaps surrounding the prevention of and recuperation from life-threatening natural disasters, according to an editorial published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

According to James Shultz, PhD, of the Miami Miller School of Medicine, and Sandro Galea, MD, DrPH, from Boston University, the majority of medical professionals have a clear understanding of the health effects of hurricanes on survivors, particularly as these effects relate to the mental and emotional health of the individual. Mitigation strategies, including distributing medical supplies and survival necessities, can have a direct impact on long-term mental health. Disaster survivors may subsequently have post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, making all forms of medical care necessary during this time.

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Unfortunately, many medical professionals have limited understanding of the relationship between hurricane survivors’ behavior and receipt of aid. For instance, many people affected by Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida, respectively, were undocumented citizens who were afraid to seek government-funded aid.

Additionally, current “geospatial mapping of infrastructure vulnerabilities” fails to include “human geography of disaster risk.” During Hurricane Harvey, only about 17% of homeowners in the 8 counties of Houston that were affected most heavily had flood insurance, as many of these homes were built beyond “the high-flood-risk boundaries of outdated floodplain maps and didn’t qualify for coverage.”

Disasters’ episodic nature, according to the editorial, represents an additional barrier to addressing current gaps in the scientific knowledge of traumatic natural events. “Natural disasters capture our attention during the warning, impact, rescue, and response phases,” the investigators stated, “but then media and scientific attention moves on.” Therefore, the short attention span directed toward these events may play a role in the inability to prepare or quickly recover.

“The preferable alternative would be to tackle knowledge gaps now and invest in research that can prepare us to handle the next hurricanes,” the authors stated. “Perhaps this triplet of devastating storms will motivate public health professionals to creatively harness science to plug these gaps in understanding.”


Shultz JM, Galea S. Preparing for the next Harvey, Irma, or Maria — addressing research gaps [published online October 11, 2017]. N Engl J Med. doi: 10.1056/NEJMp1712854