The United States isn’t ready for the public health problems climate change will bring, experts warned Congress last week.

From the spread of insect-borne disease to the risks to public health centers and outpatient facilities from environmental disasters, public health professionals on Capitol Hill told congressional staffers there is much work to be done to prepare for potential health risks to the American public at the federal, state and local levels.

“Climate change isn’t the singular cause of catastrophe, but it has widened the expanse of social vulnerability to disasters,” said Marccus Hendricks, an assistant professor in the urban studies and planning program at the University of Maryland.

Hendricks outlined how the series of Western wildfires, intense rainfall in Houston, and wind and storm surge events in South Florida and Puerto Rico in 2017 were all devastating illustrations of the “collision of climate-related risk and the human built environment.”

He and the other speakers stressed the need for advance investment in public health preparedness so that communities can prepare for risks ahead of time, whether that means developing evacuation plans or creating a way to monitor where diseases spread.

The panel discussion was the latest in a series of talks on public health and homeland security sponsored by Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee. The aim of the panel was to outline ways the federal government could incorporate climate change in its disaster planning. The discussion followed calls from Thompson for the chairman of the committee, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), to have members conduct a site visit or field hearing in Puerto Rico to learn about the hurricane response and recovery efforts in the U.S. territory.

“Unfortunately, federal forecasters say there’s a 75 percent chance the upcoming hurricane season will produce between five and nine hurricanes, making the prospect of another catastrophe on the island very real,” Thompson said in a letter to McCaul on June 1.

The committee has not visited the island since Maria struck but did hold a field hearing in Texas in March.

The impacts of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico are a telling example of what can happen to communities where there isn’t adequate advance investment in public health preparedness, said Carmen Orozco-Acosta, a senior policy adviser at Oxfam America.

“The 2017 hurricane season stressed the need to have disaster plans ready. We saw Irma, Harvey and Maria, we have to know that multiple disasters can hit at the same time,” she said.

She noted that the severity of the disaster, coupled with the slow federal response, spurred Oxfam to get involved in recovery efforts, even though the organization is primarily focused on international relief. The last time the group had intervened in a domestic disaster was during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Puerto Ricans faced a range of health risks in the aftermath of the storm.

The monthslong power outage in Puerto Rico had serious health implications for patients who relied on oxygen tanks, insulin or dialysis. The island also lacked enough water filters, and many residents were drinking water from streams that carried the risk of contamination.

Women also faced higher risks of domestic abuse. Orozco-Acosta noted that with phone lines down, there were no emergency hotlines to call, women’s shelters were closed, and women reported being turned away by police when they sought help.

A Harvard University study in the spring estimated that the number of people who died as a result of the storm was over 4,600. Government figures had suggested there were well under 100 fatalities connected to the hurricane.

Panelists agreed that federal collaboration with local communities is key for successful planning to prevent similar public health disasters.

“A lot of these issues, like zoning, is a local issue; how to bring communities on board, it has to be rooted in local conditions. It has be bottom-up driven and top-down supported,” said Hendricks.

Chelsea Gridley-Smith, senior program analyst on environmental health for the National Association of County & City Health Officials, noted a disconnect between knowledge of the risks of climate change to health and the ability to actively prepare for those risks due to limited funding and collaboration with officials involved in disaster planning.

“In health departments across the country, more than half of the health directors acknowledge the health impacts of climate change. Less than 20 percent of them have the resources and expertise needed to assess the potential impacts, create effective plans and protect communities from these impacts,” she said.

One challenge for government intervention is that most of the health care delivery system in the United States is owned by the private sector, so in order to be ready for a disaster, governments have to begin building relationships well in advance of the next major event, according to Dara Alpert Lieberman, senior government relations manager at the Trust for America’s Health.

“Health equity and community engagement really need to underlie all the work we are doing. You can’t just go in and tell a community what they need. Engagement needs to happen well before disaster hits,” Lieberman said.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at