We are in the middle of National Preparedness Month, which provides an opportunity for the country to look at our preparedness plans at every level – personal, community and national – and find areas for improvement. As we assess our potential weaknesses and bolster our readiness for future crises, we must consider the lessons learned from previous disasters. While it is true that disasters (natural, man-made, chemical/biological, etc.) are inevitable, the past decade has provided a range of experiences that should better inform our response.
In my experience, the “lessons learned” process of any disaster is the most important, but often the most rushed. While rapid response and crisis resolution are vital, capturing lessons and quickly transforming those lessons into meaningful change is equally as critical. Two weeks ago, I traveled to New Orleans, Louisiana for the RISE 10 conference, hosted by the Urban League of Greater New Orleans. While in town, I was privileged to meet with leadership from the New Orleans Health Department (NOHD) and learn about their disaster preparedness plans. A few years ago, local papers discussed the impact of Katrina and the opportunity to build a more resilient plan based on the lessons of that (and other) hurricane. I was impressed by the thoughtfulness with which the team discussed their preparedness plan. It was clear that the some of the major gaps in evacuation and continuity of care as identified from Hurricane Katrina had been filled. It was also evident that the team was working to fill remaining gaps.
One particular best practice, which I loved, was their system to identify dialysis patients. The safe evacuation and continued treatment of patients with kidney failure is a particular concern to our organization. It was clear that the NOHD also identified this gap, and implemented a system to ensure treatment of that vulnerable population. At the beginning of hurricane season, each dialysis patient in the city is given a purple armband and instructed to wear it for the entire season. The armband signifies that the individual is a dialysis patient, and emergency responders are all trained to recognize the armband right away. This simple solution – one simple armband – is a wonderful example of rapid implementation of lessons learned.
As our Executive Director Emily Lord points out, many of the lessons of Hurricane Katrina have been lost. However, as we focus on the 10th anniversary of Katrina and National Preparedness month, I hope we can pivot back to implementing these lessons. It is not enough that we capture the lessons. If we do not focus on acting on the lessons and implementing best practices, we are bound to face the same challenges in the next crisis.